FEATURE: Students cook up a storm ... with help from the Godfather
Cooking and serving gourmet food is second nature to catering students at West Suffolk College, so a black-tie dinner for 85 guests is not normally a daunting prospect.
But tonight there is an extra frisson in the air. Because looking on with a benevolent, but none the less very sharp, eye is the man known in the world of haute cuisine as The Godfather.
Three Michelin stars is as good as it gets. Albert Roux has been there, done that.
The 81-year-old, who with his brother Michel earned the UK’s first Michelin star for La Gavroche over 40 years ago, is an undisputed culinary legend.
“Food is life,” he declares, as he sits at the back of the kitchen where his right hand man – and ex-WSC student – Toby Stuart is orchestrating the preparation of the meal billed as ‘an evening with Albert Roux’.
“I just cracked the whip a little,” Toby tells dignitaries and supporters of the college after they have savoured the summer-inspired menu cooked by students from the Culinary Arts Academy.
Canapes, a smoked salmon starter with Cromer crab, avocado and pink grapefruit, main course of lamb with seasonal vegetables, and dessert of white chocolate mousse with Suffolk strawberries, are served with seamless precision in the college’s Edmunds restaurant.
Toby, who grew up in Mildenhall, studied at West Suffolk College from 1996 to 1998.
He is now a consultant for the Roux family – working with Albert and his son Michel Roux Jnr – after an early career spent in some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants.
His job involves overseeing the Chez Roux arm of the business which operates in top venues including Andy Murray’s hotel in Scotland, and at events like Wimbledon and Epsom races.
He also teaches at Michel Roux Jnr’s Cactus Kitchens cookery school.
“I always wanted to be a chef,” says the ex-pupil of Mildenhall Upper School. “West Suffolk College gave us a very good grounding.”
While at college he did work experience with Gordon Ramsay – himself an Albert Roux protegee – at Gordon’s restaurant Aubergine.
His advice for today’s students is: “In this industry it’s not good enough to just turn up. You must apply yourself.
“These days there is nowhere to hide – people eating out are more discerning now.”
Some students admit to feeling slightly nervous working under the watchful eye of one of their industry’s absolute heroes.
But as far as the professionalism of the college’s kitchen goes it is business as usual. Everyone just gets on with it.
While canapes are served, guests are entertained by the college’s unaccompanied choir, Amado.
Meanwhile, M. Roux is enjoying his own, very light, supper of salad leaves and feta cheese dressed with olive oil.
“I’m trying to eat healthily,” he says, then chuckles: “It’s a bit late in the day I know, but better late than never.
“I have already tasted tonight’s menu and it is perfect.”
He looks on approvingly as preparation moves up a gear. “There is no panic. It is as it should be – no shouting, no swearing.
“I still get a real buzz from being in the kitchen, the anticipation, picking out what could go wrong.
“I love working with students. These young people are the future of our industry.”
He is also very keen that serving staff should get the recognition they deserve for their part in the dining experience, as they do in Europe.
And sometimes where food is concerned the simpler the better. “Potatoes just out of the field, with chives – wonderful. To be enjoyable it doesn’t have to be caviar.”
Students study both cooking and front of house at the start their courses, then can choose to focus on one or the other.
Ben Goff, waiting tables for the dinner, says he is really passionate about the catering industry,
“It’s a privilege to work with someone like Albert Roux,” says Ben who lives in Newmarket.
“I chose catering as one of my GCSE options, and it just clicked that this is what I want to do.”
He enjoys greeting and talking to diners and thinks that is the direction his career will go.
“I found I was more confident out front, and would like to concentrate on the managerial side of things.”
Molly Hubbard is among ten students working in the kitchen. As a third year, she is one of the ‘bosses’ for the evening.
“Albert Roux is the last filter for the food we’re sending out. He has to make sure everything is just right,” says Molly, who would like to specialise in baking.
She admits her feet are aching, but like everyone on the course realises this is a profession that demands long hours and can be physically and mentally tough.
The department runs as a business and makes no attempt to gloss over the realities of what it takes to succeed.
At the helm is Mike Mulvihill, director of service industries. The one-time Royal Navy cook now oversees 120 catering students, plus hair and beauty courses.
It was Mike who asked Albert Roux to make a return visit to the college, following a similar event in 2015. “It’s a great honour to have him here,” he says.
“This is the fifth function we have done this week, and tonight we are also producing a fine-dining menu for 40 people in another part of the college.
“We do external events like the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Newmarket races for the Roux family, and recently did a canape reception for auctioneers Lacy Scott.”
Edmunds Restaurant is also open to the public four days a week.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that we send out young people who are ready for the world of work. We are a real business,” he says.