For me, a truly great, truly memorable dining experience is just that, an experience.
Part food, part company, part atmosphere, a sum greater than its parts and something that will stay in my memory for a long time to come.
Last December with a log fire crackling beside a well-dressed tree, in the Drawing Room of a Grade 2 listed hotel, I sat down to a delicious breakfast with one of the most challenging audiences I have ever engaged with.
A group of people so curious, so inquisitive, so intense, bubbling with energy and asking some great questions. I was almost sitting opposite Sir Alan Sugar hoping not to hear him utter the words “you’re fired”.
My guests, 24 school children aged 12 and 13, were from the school I spent my own formative years at, Astor College in Dover, Kent.
Now, let’s be clear. Children are more honest than we are. They are more socially innocent than we are. They are smarter than we are.
Put yourself in a room with them, and they will make you work, they will make you earn your keep, for the privilege of their company.
Now, before we talk about the experience, we should talk about the invitation. Why had I invited these young people to breakfast?
Dining with the future – introducing young people to the wonderful world of hospitality
We are aware that we operate within one of the largest industries in terms of economic contribution to UK PLC, the £130 billion a year hospitality industry. We are also aware that we are the third largest employer in the UK, and we are aware of how vital we are to the UK economy.
“It’s a palace” I heard one young lady across the table remark, “do you need to be famous to work here?” said a young man, vigorously tugging on my sleeve to get my attention. “I want to work somewhere like this” I heard another say.
Just 15% of school children say that working in a restaurant or being a chef is an interesting job (that would be just 4 of the 24 young people sitting across from me).
Only 12% of school children think the same of working in a hotel (3 of the 24), and a meagre 11% of school children think their school adequately provides them with the knowledge to make an informed hospitality careers choice (that’s 2 of 24).
“Wow!” exclaimed one pupil as plates of homemade sausage, locally sourced mushrooms, tomatoes, eggs, freshly smoked bacon and unending platters of toast and jams arrived before their eyes.
As we all enjoyed breakfast, the children (complete with school ties that were so familiar to me) were an engaging group, the questions came almost as fast as the top ups of toast. They covered everything from what the room is used for, what do we do all day, how much do we earn and, of course, are we allowed to pick our own clothes.
Amazing, with such a switched on and engaged audience to think that just 3% of school children want to join our industry (1 of the 24, and only then if you round the numbers up), whilst 35% (8 of the 24) believe the industry offers no genuine career path, and 48% (12 of 24) believe ours to be temporary jobs, to idle in before something better comes along.
Now, I have a healthy appetite, I might even say that eating is one of my life pleasures, but never had I seen so much food disappear so fast. I was amazed, and then even more so listening to some of the conversations. Which knife is for what, milk before tea or vica versa, a healthy debate in social etiquette was in full unprompted flow.
It is an indictment of the perception of our industry to be faced with statistics like only 1 in 4 parents would encourage their child to enter a career in hospitality, and those numbers go down even further if you factor in pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Dining with the future – introducing the experience first hand
So, with breakfast cleared I took my guests to the kitchens to see just what effort went in to preparing their meal.
Following that we visited workshops and saw repairs being made, gate-crashed a social media strategy meeting and ended up in our wine bar where we treated our enthused audience to a mocktail masterclass and a photography session. “I didn’t know hospitality could be so much fun” a young lady told me, as she invited me to try her own creation from our bar.
In writing this article I asked Claire Blackman, the Assistant Principal of Astor College if she would mind summing up the dining experience, she told me: “Taking a group of 12 and 13 year olds to The Grand was an amazing experience. The students were given a breakfast, tour and mocktail masterclass. The impact that initiatives like this have on young people’s lives is immeasurable. Being exposed to all that the hospitality industry has to offer means that they can make informed decisions for their future”.
When my guests left, I was exhausted. Pleasantly so, the food, ambiance and company had been exceptional. We had helped these pupils to discover that our industry was more than just the perceptions of poor hours and poor pay. It was something that these pupils could imagine being a part of, and these pupils had been the best audience that I’d ever worked for, chatty, interested and enquiring.
They taught me that a minute’s imagination is worth a lifetime’s experience. One pupil even went on to be offered a job as an apprentice in my kitchen, a story for another day.
Robert Richardson FIH, General Manager, The Grand, Folkestone
My memorable dining experience – is a series of reflections from people who shed light on why one dining experience for them lasts the test of time.
Each is quite different and as the series builds it expands across the world geographically. The author’s perspectives are sometimes taken from planes, trains and boats, some in truly remarkable locations.
Dining with the future
Dining with the future