A ripple of excitement goes through the dining room at The Fat Duck. There’s gasps in the corner as a waitress expertly scoops an orb of Pina Colada-flavoured mousse out of a bubbling flask of liquid nitrogen, the first course in a four-hour tasting menu.
It’s a normal start to a meal at one of the world’s most famous restaurants, but this is no typical service. On any other day, a table in Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred Bray restaurant is occupied by those who can afford the £325 price tag, before drinks or service. But last month The Fat Duck, which has topped The World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, opened its doors to a group of less financially mobile gourmands – students from catering colleges across the country – for its Inspirational Lunch.
Conceived by Ashley Palmer-Watts, executive chef of its sister restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and now in its second year, the free lunch is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for hospitality students typically priced out of the restaurant to come and experience all that The Fat Duck has to offer. For the majority of young people in the room, this is their first taste of a three-starred menu (although one admits they previously watched a video of The Fat Duck’s service on YouTube) and a rare chance to try the food of one of their culinary heroes.
This is as it should be, says Palmer-Watts, who has brought his young son along while he oversees service in the kitchen, in which he was once head chef . “When I was 16 or 17 I used to go and spend two weeks’ wages up in London eating at Marco [Pierre-White’s] restaurant, but I don’t think people can do that as much anymore. Yeah it costs us a lot of money, none of this is sponsored, but if you’re running a restaurant that may be a little bit out of reach for people, this a great way that you can give something back.”
The meal has no strings attached. It’s free – all the students have to do is get themselves to the restaurant – and it’s not being used as some sort of covert recruitment drive, insists Palmer-Watts. Rather, it is an act of altruism he believes that top-end restaurants like The Fat Duck should be doing for its industry.
“We want to give [catering students] an amazing experience and teach them that hospitality is not just about recipes and technique and dry ice,” he says. “It’s about how you perceive food.”
There is some disbelief among the team that only 16 of the 35 colleges contacted by The Fat Duck responded to its offer of a free meal, with a total of 37 students from across the country attending. Two lecturers, who got up early to drive students down themselves from Manchester and Sheffield, are observing the chefs at work in the kitchen.
Johanna Oehman, 23, and Hannah Nguyen, 21, from Brighton University, had a four-hour journey to come to lunch from their home in Eastbourne. Both finish studying this year and dream of working in a top London hotel, but say they are worried about finding jobs. Neither has eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant before, let alone one that holds all three, and they both laugh in amazement as they film Blumenthal’s world-famous Sounds of the Sea dish on their iPhones for Instagram.
“I feel like my mind is blown, like it’s experiencing so many different things at once,” says Oehman. “Welcome to The Fat Duck,” jokes one of the waiters in reply.
There is excitement, too, among the restaurant team, who have come in on a Sunday – normally their day off – specially for the event. “We all really look forward to this,” says Kirri Palmer, assistant restaurant manager and another Brighton graduate. “I didn’t do anything like this when I was at college.”
Dimitri Bellos, The Fat Duck’s restaurant manager, is keen to continue reaching out to colleges beyond the meal. This summer he intends to invite 10-12 professors from catering colleges down to a lunch meeting at Blumenthal’s Bray pub The Hinds Head to discuss ways more young people can be encouraged to enter the industry. “I have friends in London who love to complain about not having enough staff, but I ask them – what are you doing about it?”
Today, however, is all about the lunch, and of giving the next generation of chefs and front of house staff a glimpse at what their futures could hold from the other side of the pass. The Fat Duck plans to continue running free Inspiration days for students in the coming years, and is hopeful other restaurants will follow.
“It would be great to see this become something a bit bigger and maybe other restaurants will get involved,” says Palmer-Watts. “Maybe you could put on a small lunch, for 20 people or 60 people, or just do it locally? I think it would be brilliant to start something.”
■ If you work in or are studying at a catering college and would like to get involved in a future Inspirational Lunch, or for more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the March issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.