It’s amazing how many people think that they are a ‘natural’ at something. For every warbling show-off who imagines that their dreary back-story and falsetto interpretation of ‘Oops I Did It Again’ on Britain’s Got Asthma is the route to instant glory, there are thousands of people who know that hard work and a decent education are truly the key to long-term rewards.
Matt and Cat have from time to time visited restaurants and been served by uninterested children without the wherewithal to even make eye contact. And do you know why? It’s because people imagine that hospitality work is that which any fule can do. Well it isn’t. Like being a successful pop star, it takes training and guidance and mentoring and on-the-job experience.
Having had a fabulous Sunday lunch at the award-winning Isle of Wight College-based UKSA Essential Marine Hospitality kitchen, Matt and Cat were keen to see to see where other fledgling chefs, servers and restaurateurs learn their craft. As it happens, the hospitality trainees at the Isle of Wight College need to have people to practice their craft on, and some friends had invited Matt and Cat to join them for dinner there. So it was back to the college, this time to the student-run restaurant.
The college restaurant is, of course, a classroom. It’s been given the trappings of a restaurant, but there’s no getting away from the fact that you have to walk through a busy college and end up in what was probably once a metalwork shop or something. So it’s never going to ooze character or atmosphere, but despite that the place genuinely felt welcoming and comfortable. The restaurant manager greeted Matt and Cat’s party and seated them at a spacious table. Slightly alarmingly, they were positioned beneath a vast security-style screen showing CCTV from the kitchens. This was distracting, but interesting, as they could watch the meals being prepared. This feature, it transpired, was a tool used to help the trainees get the idea of what was going on in the kitchen when they were serving out the front.
Following some tasty warmed bread (black pepper and cheese) Matt enjoyed his oriental-inspired starter of soy-glazed pork belly, sweet chilli prawns and pak choi salad. The other chap on the table who’d chosen this morsel was absolutely intrigued by the thin, crispy crackling on the substantial pork portion, and enquired of the restaurant manager who, as a supervisor of students, was unsurprisingly more than willing to give a well-informed mini-lecture on the preparation of the dish – although he gnomicly declined to say how the crackling has been drawn so thin; it was, he intimated, the chef’s secret. This tasty pork was splendidly moist and soft, with a tangy soy glaze that worked well in drawing out the flavours of the meat against the understated chilli prawn salad below. Cat’s starter was caramelised raddicchio, torn mozzarella, and deep-fried rosemary; a gentle, Italian-inspired dish.
A bonus course arrived in the form of a tiny cup of courgette soup, served with a thin film of olive oil and some perky parsnip crisps. As Cat poked her teeny spoon into the dense puree, the crisps slowly assimilated themselves into the soup, giving it an added texture and a pleasing combination of flavours.
Cat, having last month had a nibble at Chicken Cottage’s offering was keen to find out how her favourite meat was prepared at ‘Chicken College’. For a four course dinner, this main was surprisingly generous; there was probably half a chicken on her plate, draped with a sprig or two of watercress and roosting on a nest of watercress puree. This bright green slick was unexpectedly unpeppery – was it actually spinach? – but the Chateaux potatoes gave a welcome dose of saltiness to the dish.
Matt’s baked plaice was advertised with purple sprouting broccoli, although it came with the regular, slightly yellowish variety. The fish, like the plate it came on, was not was warm as it could have been. But it was perfectly cooked, absolutely soft, and neither dry nor rubbery. The delicate taste of the flesh was enhanced by a subtle home-made tartare sauce that was liberally spread over the fish.
For dessert M&C divided forces; Cat had the chocolate torte with orange jam and mascarpone. The rich sweet was quite dense and dry, not as velvety smooth as anticipated. Doing a bit of post-dinner research, Matt and Cat discovered that there are multitudinous torte varieties and the one that Cat was served resembled the famous Austrian Sachertorte. It was particularly successful when eaten in conjunction with the sweet orange jam; the fruit was an inspired accompaniment. Some chocolate nerds might be able to analyse why this worked so well; Cat was just happy to shove it in her torte-hole. Matt’s treacle tart looked good, and had decent texture, but if the tart included treacle, it wasn’t making much of itself.
The dinner was followed by complimentary coffee, served with both cream and milk. This was the chance for Matt and Cat and guests to ruminate on the meal. The ratio of students to customers was almost 1:1 and this meant that the glasses had been regularly topped up (Cat’s with a very palatable Prosecco) and empty plates cleared promptly. The discussion turned to more general matters of eating out on the Isle of Wight and it was encouraging that M&C’s chums had similar opinions to their own about the various venues they gossiped about.
2 x Three-course dinner, plus coffee £29.90
One bottle Prosecco £17.95
The most amazing thing about the college restaurant is the bill. Don’t be fooled, skinflints, you may be paying half price but what you are getting at the Isle of Wight College is a quality of food and especially service that is significantly better than one might get in many dining venues across the Island. Now that’s not to say it was flawless. It wasn’t, and there were a scattering of moments when the enthusiastic young team were in the wrong place, got their timing a little out, or were distracted. These were exceptions that would have passed unnoticed if they hadn’t otherwise been so efficient, keen, engaged and entirely professional.
The Isle of Wight’s hospitality industry has a bright future if these young people are indicative of the care and attention that is being taught. There’s more to restaurant service than delivering a plate of food – if that was all any of us wanted then we’d go to a hatch and press a button for a cling-wrapped plate of mush. The Isle of Wight College Restaurant is worth a visit, not just because you will get an enjoyable meal at amazing value, but because it’s a good thing to help our future chefs and servers practice their trade. Matt and Cat recommend it.