Heading in a Westerly Direction

13th November 2015

Martin West has already cooked up a storm in the culinary world. Here he chats with Caroline Jacobi to tell us more about a new change of course ....

Martin West is a typical head chef. He works at the Stables restaurant in St Albans and plans menus that will delight his customers. He and his brigade prepare and serve French-British fusion cuisine to expectant diners during busy dinner services. But there are two big differences between Martin and any other head chef – his brigade are teenagers and The Stables is run entirely by students.

Martin is a rising star in the restaurant industry. He trained at the prestigious West Kingsway College in London under the wing of renowned chef Stefan Grubel. He made sous chef at just 19 and at the age of 22, became head chef of the Bricklayers’ Arms, a gastro pub in rural Hertfordshire. Under his leadership, the restaurant picked up an AA Rosette, among other awards, and turned a profit when other restaurants were going under.

But nearly two months ago, with the Bricklayers’ celebrating a year of record profit, Martin, 25, packed his bags and headed to Oaklands College in St Albans, to head up The Stables, a professional kitchen and restaurant where budding chefs can learn the tricks of the trade. One question begs to be asked: why? Why walk away from a fantastic job to teach teenagers how to cook?

“As much as I loved working at the Bricklayers’, I needed something different. I could have gone to any other restaurant and done exactly the same thing, but that wasn’t enough,” said Martin, who lives in Apsley. “Part of being a head chef is bringing new people into the kitchen, training them up and watching them grow. I really enjoyed that. When I saw the opportunity at Oaklands come up, I thought it would be something that I would really enjoy doing.”

Martin recalls that when he was at college there was a lot of emphasis on preparing food and learning how to cook but students weren’t really taught how to run a busy service and or how to get food onto the pass and out to the customers. “Those skills are so important and I want to be able to share that knowledge with my students so they are better prepared when they leave college and start looking for work.”

Martin arrived at Oaklands this September, the start of the academic year, just in time to welcome his new students. “It was interesting. I was with a group of first years, watching some of them chopping an onion for the first time and seeing the inexperience,” said Martin. “I am used to working in professional kitchens where everyone knows how to chop an onion. It was completely different to anything I’ve done before, but it was really enjoyable. Now thankfully all the students can peel and chop an onion properly!”

Despite the change in career direction, Martin is looking forward to passing on his skills to the next generation of chefs. “It’s about taking things back to basics and watching someone develop. It’s not about pushing out numbers and making as much money as you possibly can.”

He smiles. “I do find I have to watch my temper and sometimes my language. But you see these young people whose confidence is low when they first come in, and at the end of a service you can visibly see them getting more confident. It’s completely different to the working environment where people just want to do their job and go home. These guys really want to be here and learn how to cook.”

As well as providing lunch to staff and students at the college, The Stables opens its doors to the public every Wednesday lunchtime and Thursday lunchtime and evening during term time, when diners are treated to a huge variety of dishes. Examples of what hungry customers can expect include venison served two ways with a pomegranate salad, juniper berry jus and dauphinoise potatoes, steamed loin of Atlantic cod in a spiced mussel broth, and dandelion and burdock sticky toffee pudding. Martin also makes use of the pork and lamb that has been reared on the college’s working farm by its Agriculture students.

The Stables is still very new in restaurant terms and only recently celebrated its second birthday. But Martin has big plans for the future. He has already looking at opening up the restaurant for special occasions like Valentines’ Day and Burns Night, as well as linking up with a local wine merchant to host a wine and cheese tasting evening. He will also be running two Christmas masterclasses in December where guests can learn the secrets behind the ultimate Christmas dinner, including preparing a stunning three-bird roast.

“In a year’s time, I’d like the restaurant to be full every day, which is a good place to start, but I also hope that it will continually grow. I will have worked with my students for a full year so I’ll be more confident and competent with what we are doing. It will all run more smoothly and it will be something I can be proud of, and something the College can be proud of as well. When people think of Oaklands College, I think most people see the agricultural side of the college, but in a year’s time, when people think of Oaklands College, I want them to think of The Stables too.”

Martin is very happy with his career change. “Before I started working here, everyone told me that it would be so rewarding and I remember thinking, ‘what does that even mean?’ And I know it sounds like a cliché but it genuinely is rewarding. Watching students learn new skills, get better and work through a whole service with a smile on their face makes you feel like you’re doing a good job.”

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