Behind the scenes at the Young Chefs Academy at Forster Community College in Bradford

PUBLISHED: 14:49 15 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:05 20 February 2013

Head chef Ben Davy with events head chef Rebecca Topps

Head chef Ben Davy with events head chef Rebecca Topps

A new academy for would-be chefs has opened in Bradford. Our food and drink consultant Annie Stirk finds out what's on the curriculum Photographs by Dan Marsh

Words by Annie Stirk

Photographs by Dan Marsh

Teenager Joe Pratt had no job or any prospect of one. He had been turned down by the Army on medical grounds and fell into to a life of crime. This now-familiar story could have easily ended in tragedy if not for the Young Chefs Academy at Forster Community College in Bradford.

It was here Joe, along with many other disadvantaged youths and adults, was offered the chance to train to be a chef and learn on the job at its Jamies Fifteen-style Forsters Bistro. I got into a lot of trouble with the police when I left school but the academy helped me grow up and face my responsibilities, says Joe. Its great to be able to work in a real-life kitchen environment and I enjoy it, particular the security of having a job when a lot of my friends dont.

The Young Chefs Academy and Forsters Bistro was set up at the Captain Street college in November right on the heels of budget cuts. With budget cuts we were looking for ways to continue to deliver training and education to disadvantaged people with less money we were under a lot of pressure, says college chief executive Sheila Philpott. But a bistro seemed the perfect solution, giving hands-on training to young catering and hospitality students while at the same time providing an income for the college.

And its proved to be a real success; the bistro has broken even in just eight months and, crucially, has provided a bridge between education and training in the real world. We take learners of all ages, many of whom come from difficult backgrounds with little or no education and we train them up to be highly-skilled work-ready chefs, says Forsters Bistros head chef Ben Davy.

Its incredible some of the talent weve discovered since opening.
The genius of the idea lies in the way it manages to incorporate multiple facets of the college, with horticultural students growing vegetables for the kitchen and the budding chefs preparing and making food to sell to real-life customers. These customers are college workers but also members of the public; passers-by, office workers and even corporate clients. Theres also a thriving outside catering business with students making and selling sandwiches and cakes to businesses around the college.

We grow our own herbs, onions, peas, beans and potatoes you name it to supply the kitchen and next year well have a polytunnel so we can grow even more, says Sheila. We also work with partners such as the probation service in order to get vegetables and fruit, and some of the students have been taking bee-keeping courses so that we can eventually make our own honey.

The daily-changing specials on the bistros tapas-style tasting boards have proved to be the most popular. They offer a little bit of everything we cook, from salads and tarts to individual pies, and soup and bread, says Ben. And because we have good relationships with our suppliers theyre incredibly good value at 3.50. We also have a cake board, which is equally popular.

For Ben, who runs the bistro along with colleague and events head chef Rebecca Topps, the most delicious thing about the Bistro is the way it gives students a genuine feel for what the industry is like.

The bistro is open Monday to Friday 9am-4pm, and each month we have an evening event, he says. Its real hands on work experience, giving the students skills to work as a team and work in a kitchen environment. Because they are serving real customers it gives them the opportunity to take pride in positive feedback too.

Potential students are assessed when they come to college to see if the academy will suit them and many are given extra training in English and mathematics before starting on the course. And, while its called the Young Chefs Academy, the students can range in age from 16 to 60.

The emphasis is on the fact they are young to the industry, says Sheila. All leavers, whatever their age, go away with a nationally recognised NVQ Level 1 or Level 2 qualification, the national standard to get a job in the industry. Many of the students are hard to reach people that have not had the opportunities, or are older people who have been made redundant and are looking for a career change. The academy can really spark a passion and provide them with a career, adds Ben.

The future is bright for Forsters young chefs with plans in the pipeline to open a deli alongside the bistro, to sell jams, chutneys and bread that the students have made as well as a new, fully independent restaurant in another location in Bradford.

Lots of doors will open to them and its not just about being a chef they could be front of house or a food retail manager, says Sheila. This academy helps them see the credibility of hospitality and catering; the jobs, the fun of it, the I didnt know I could do that of it.

Its not about commercial profits either. We re-invest the money into training and education to give other people, like our 14 to 15-year-old disadvantaged teenagers on our foundation courses, the opportunity to join the academy. Theres a lot of negativity in Bradford about jobs and this gives people whove had fewer chances, more opportunities.

Ben, who, like many of his students, left school early to pursue his passion for cooking and worked his way up the industry ladder, agrees. Rebecca and I arent just teachers, were hands on chefs and weve had a lot of experience in the business, he says. Its great to be able to ignite a passion, and nothing beats seeing the students who arrive deflated and lacking confidence begin to smile when somebody buys their food or they get great feedback; it brings a real smile to their face. And, when they take some home to show their mums what they can do thats really special.

For Joe Pratt its been a life-changing opportunity hes just been appointed full-time commis chef at the college. If it wasnt for the academy, Id probably be in prison right now, says Joe. The college has inspired me, and one day I want to be the head chef of my own place.

Latest from the Yorkshire Life