WELCOME to the Big Top Restaurant at The Tower. Not so much a three-ring circus as a gas ring circus. Not that it exists, most of the time. It’s been set up for a series of testing taster nights at what is usually known as Courtfield training restaurant, on the sixth floor of Blackpool and The Fylde College’s catering complex, at the Bispham campus.
Next month it will be seen for real at the BBC Summer Good Food Show at Birmingham’s NEC, when five colleges slug it out for the coveted Toque d’Or award – out to impress 100 guests each with a painstakingly prepared and impeccably presented three course lunch.
This is the dry run, and the team’s already struck out by serving my dessert ahead of the main course.
One diner’s already doing a passable impression of Michael Winner at his most demanding.
The main course arrived late, the lamb was cold, and he doesn’t like the plastic spoon in his chocolate delice. Eat your heart out, Mr Winner.
There are 60 would-be food critics making no bones about any failings to the food or service at Courtfield’s Big Top. For the Toque d’Or grand finals.
The head waiter will dress as a circus ringmaster, leaving chefs to balance the plates when not trading tips with TV’s top chefs James Martin and Rachel Allen.
Local diners, mostly regulars at Courtfield and allied Ashfield Brasserie training restaurants, are taking their duties seriously as food inspectors for the night.
Comment forms are completed. Do the dishes have the “wow” factor? Is service efficient, professional?
For my money, and it’s only a tenner, the three-course menu, shellfish verrine, Lancashire hotpot, chocolate delice, would grace a single, if not double, AA rosette award winner.
No wonder Courtfield’s one of Blackpool’s best kept gastronomic secret gems. Those who know it and love it don’t want the word getting out. But it’s been reaching a wider audience since a new look website design in spring.
Usually the occasional failing, a drop of red wine spilt on the white linen cloth, dessert arriving ahead of the main course, overlong delay, hint of butterfingers in the service, is shrugged off in a tolerant kind of way. But on this, and other tester nights, kindness, let alone tolerance, is off the menu for diners, under orders to tell it is like it is. The nervous students waiting on or cooking up a storm behind the scenes are part, or in support, of the team which has beaten others to reach the finals of the 24th Nestlé Toque d’Or competition, with Nestlé Professional managing director Neil Stephens describing “the raw talent and level of skill” as “incredibly impressive.”
Student chefs Mike Worsnip and Adam Kirby know the reputation of the college rides on it. They already win a vote of confidence from local market chef Jean Ettridge and her friend Isobel Hickson. “I think they’ve done incredibly well under pressure,” says Jean.
The team competes against students from four other colleges, each preparing lunch daily for 100 visitors to the BBC Summer Good Food Show at the NEC – Blackpool’s turn is on June 16.
Overall winners will be announced in July, with finalists attending the Gala Awards in London. Overall winners will receive a European study tour and £4,000 of catering equipment for their college.
That is why they are trying so hard to replicate the real thing at the local college – ahead of the big event.
Mike, who devised the seafood starter, and works at a local hotel when not at the college, admits: “It’s crucial we get put to the test properly.”
Toque d’Or blazes the trail for inspiring and challenging catering students and colleges. This year’s task is to theme a restaurant, and devise a healthy, sustainable and locally sourced three-course lunch.
The jury’s out on which of the three dishes, starter, main course or dessert, has the wow factor – but most get top marks. The students also pick up tips on how to please diners – start by addressing remarks to both, says one elderly woman, miffed at missing out on eye contact with the young waiter.
Mike and Adam, with two other chefs, and two front of house staff, will fight Blackpool’s corner at the national finals next month.
“The pressure’s on, which is why we need the feedback now,” says Adam.
Seventeen-year-old sommelier Daniel Menzies has a particularly tough table to please – his mum and dad, Clare and Stuart, 15-year-old brother Ryan, and Ryan’s girlfriend, Danielle Liptrot, also 15, are sitting in judgement on his skills. The family banter keeps nerves at bay, with Ryan conceding Daniel’s a better cook than his mum, although mum’s gammon takes some beating. Would-be PE teacher Ryan also rates his girlfriend’s spag bol.
“I’m no cook,” Danielle admits, “But then, I really want to be a vet...”