Way back before Percy Pigs, Five Guys & The Great British Bake off – I decided to go in to catering.
Yes, admittedly I wasn’t doing that great at school, dyslexia inhibited me to get straight A’s but I had an amazingly practical brain and an entrepreneurial spirit. I thought if I studied catering I could work all over the world, run my own business and eventfully be minister of the food police.
So off I went to Norwich City College to study all things catering. It’s a magnificent thing ‘college after school’, ‘tutors after teachers’ and ‘students after school kids’. I swaggered around in clothes from Snob & Topman, carried around my knife pouch and smoked cigarillo’s from a vintage cigarette holder while munching on concreate brownies from the refectory.
Us caterers didn’t like the hairdressers, beauticians & gothic arty lot (they were far to feminine) – we were the odds and sods from the teen world. We didn’t fit in to the nicy nice georgeous girlies studying to be masseuses or the rough and ready lads from the mechanic course with their leather jackets and grease monkey hands.
We really were an odd bunch, not conforming to any tribe other than the non-academic sort. But a fun bunch to hang around with, who had to learn pretty darn fast to work bloody hard
– Because the life of catering is hard graft, shit pay with no appreciation. Needless to say quite a few students dropped out in the early stages and drifted away throughout the two years I was there.
Then we all buggered off in different directions all over the country and World, some to London to work in the big hotels, some to be chefs on cruise ships, some to local restaurants, some in to bar work, some to join family catering businesses, management or waitressing. While others abandoned catering all together, to do something other than catering (anything ‘HELP’ me get out!!!).
It was the mid 80’s when I was catapulted in to the world of catering. The girls wore aprons & cook’s hats and the boys wore proper chefs wear. But then again ‘Benny Hill’ was on TV and it was perfectly ok to be sexist even in a state-run establishment. To the point where the Dickensian Butcher tutor told us ladies that we can’t become butchers as it’s a man’s job (more than once). Of course, how could a woman possibly wield a knife and make sausages, it’s practically impossible. I hated him and I don’t think he liked my sarcasm or when I locked him in the walk in fridge – I’m surprised I could even turn the handle!!!
But there were good tutors, inspirational X chefs, men and ladies who dedicated their lives to tutoring us students with enthusiasm, encouraging us to go into whatever directions we choose – even if that was cutting up cows!
The first week was knife skills – within 5 minutes someone had cut their finger, gushed blood and dropped to the floor with a thud. I cut mine of in the second month – I was whipped to the nurse with the end bit of my finger in a tissue. She threw it in the bin ‘can’t do a lot with that’ she said.
There were all sorts of catering courses, but I did the basic Hotel school one with a bit of everything to get a feel in the first year. We did accounts (boring), housekeeping (boring), cooking (brilliant), butchery, patisserie, baking, waitressing, bar work and class room stuff like food science. We had the restaurant with a classic menu twice a week then on Fridays we got to work in the canteen. I liked that the best because you could stuff your face as long as you didn’t get caught or you were in for it. Pancake day was the best time of year for stuffing, make 3 eat one, make 4 eat one, make 5 eat one!
The second year was harder – exams got real, they piled the pressure on but we were getting good at what we were doing. Maths and accountancy was still rubbish – – – the teacher made us copy from the black board (yes, black board) monotonously and to fill time we would count the times he would say ‘at the end of the day’ – twenty something, was the record.
But although we learnt so much, college doesn’t get your totally prepared for the real world of catering, it just softens the blow. I went down the cheffing route – falling in love with cooking fresh food, finding my first cooking job in a Beccles hotel. A few years later I moved to London as a chef then later in to management at ‘Leiths’.
But I look back at Norwich City College, Hotel school with fond memories (apart from the bullying in the second year, yer, you know who you are). I learnt so much, had a great social time, got a real feel for the profession. And amazingly enough, unlike 75% off my class mates ‘I’m still in it’ and still use the lessons I learnt.
I’m not head of the food police but I have 3 catering and hospitality businesses, housekeeping has helped me in my Holiday homes (despite hating it, like did you know washing up liquid is good for removing protein steins in linen), inspirational lecturers have helped me build up my cookery school (I love teaching best) and Love Norwich Food brings it all together – celebrating all things food in Norwich.
I’m not good at much else, but I’m bloody good at catering (and locking people in walk in fridges).
– thanks Norwich City College x
By Zena Leech- Calton ©