An expression of love

A college aiming to be a leading light in vocational education gets a visit from French chef Albert Roux. Joe Clancy reports
Joe Clancy
Tue 16 Oct 2007 18.34 EDT

When Sharon Sullivan told her students that Albert Roux was coming to college to lead them in preparing a five-course dinner, their response was: "Albert who?"

Her colleague Justin McNamara says: "They had all heard of Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White, but few had heard of Albert Roux. They only became impressed when they found out that both Ramsey and White had been students of his."

Sullivan remembers queueing in London's Oxford Street to get a copy of Roux's book signed more than 20 years ago, when she herself was a catering student. To her, the celebrity chefs who have become household names by their regular television appearances are mere imposters to the "godfather" of British cuisine.

In 1982, Roux's Le Gavroche became the first restaurant in Britain to win three Michelin stars. Why has such an illustrious chef agreed to share his expertise with students at Redbridge College in east London free of charge?

"I owe it to them," he says. "I think this college is an example to all of us in the catering industry of how to participate and give something to the local community. I am so impressed, I cannot tell you.

"In the kitchen next door, eight women were taking an evening class, learning how to ice cakes. It was wonderful. It is an expression of love to make a cake or a good soup for your family."

Does he therefore disagree with the assertion made by Marco Pierre White earlier this year that catering colleges are "the biggest waste of time" and do not prepare people for jobs in the industry? White said in an interview with Caterer magazine that the best way to develop skills is to "knock on back doors" and learn on the job, as he did.

"Marco was lucky - he knocked on the right doors," Roux replies. "He is right if you have the choice of doing an apprenticeship in a good restaurant, but not everybody can be so lucky. Here, tonight, one of the students is a lady of 27 who has a baby. She wants to learn to cook and make a profession of it. What chance would she have if this college were not here?"

Roux allowed two of his senior chefs to spend two days with the students helping them to prepare a menu he designed, using his recipes. He arrived four hours before the dinner to help with the finishing touches.

Roux says he likes to visit three or four colleges a year, preferably ones he hasn't heard of: "I had not heard of Redbridge College before I was invited here, but now I have seen it, I definitely want to come back."

Nearly £500,000 has been spent in the last 18 months on revamping the college's catering facilities. In addition to the 60-seat restaurant and bar, named Rouge, there is a new refectory and two kitchens, one to provide training and one to service the restaurant, both fitted with hand-built Charvet ovens. Now more than 40 people regularly lunch there - many, local business people. This year there are 75 full-time students enrolled on catering and hospitality courses, almost double the previous year's figure.

It is part of the drive by the principal, Theresa Drowley, to turn Redbridge from what had been a primarily academic college into a purely vocational one.

"When I came here three years ago, more than 70% of the provision was academic, but now we do not offer a single GCSE or A-level," she says.

"There are 17 schools in Redbridge with sixth forms, and what this college was aiming to do was give a second chance to people who failed to get places in those, but it was not particularly successful at doing so.

"Now, all our students who apply to university get in, but by a vocational route. We want to show that the vocational route is equally valid."

Not everyone agreed with her mission for the college. She says: "We had a few governors who quit. They decided it wasn't a place they wanted to be governors."

The new restaurant is one part of that mission. Similar upgrades to provide industry-standard environments have taken place in hair and beauty therapy and music and media.

"My aim," she says, "is to make this college a leading-light college in all our vocational areas."