A tiny, fragile figure in chefs' whites, head bowed in concentration, Carol Bagnol struggles for an answer. She's trying to remember what culinary task she has just learned. Head chef John Clawson gently coaxes her. "You've learnt to cut ..." After what seems an age, Bagnol looks up. "Cucumbers," she says shyly. Her face, which has an innocence that belies her 41 years, is transformed by a radiant smile.
Bagnol has slight cerebral palsy. She is a trainee at the Chalk Farm Hotel, Willingdon, near Eastbourne, where an imaginative and innovative project to teach hotel and catering skills to people with degrees of mental handicap has just begun.
It is hoped that through the venture, trainees will achieve NVQs and go on to gain jobs in local hotels and restaurants. Another part of the project involves teaching gardening skills, also to NVQ standard, with similar objectives.
Imparting practical skills to people with learning difficulties is far from new, with schemes ranging from farming and gardening to retailing. What sets the Chalk Farm Hotel project apart from the rest is that it is a fully-operational, commercially-run business with nine bedrooms, 50-cover restaurant and bar - and ambitious plans to boost trade.
The project owes its inception to Jill Parker, chairman of the Eastbourne Area Parents Action Group (EAPAG), a local support group for parents of children with learning difficulties. In 1992, Parker became concerned about the lack of prospects in the Eastbourne area for her Down's Syndrome teenage daughter once she left school.
She initially envisaged a farm project - EAPAG had already funded sheltered housing in the area - until the local council suggested Chalk Farm Hotel, which had recently been put up for sale.
In a quiet, residential area on the edge of the South Downs, set in 2.75 acres with an adjacent barn, Chalk Farm Hotel also offered the opportunity to create a garden and crafts centre.
Over the next two years EAPAG raised £300,000 to buy the hotel's 30-year lease and fund initial development.
The project is run on behalf of EAPAG by the Shaftesbury Society, one of the largest Christian organisations in the care field, with 50 residential centres for people with disabilities. Project manager is Paul Zallman. He comes from a contract catering background, recently leaving Gardner Merchant after 22 years in its training department, and is a lay preacher.
The garden centre, now under development, is run by horticultural manager Richard Whittome.
There are 11 full- and 13 part-time staff, plus five volunteers. In the kitchen, Clawson has three chefs to provide him with culinary back-up when he's working with the trainees. "We need this level of staff to provide a fast, professional service to guests and at the same time support each other and provide care for the trainees," says Zallman.
Working in conjunction with East Sussex Social Services, 28 people aged from 19 to 56 have been selected for training since the venture began last summer.
The number will rise to 30 later this year, the aim being to have a third working in the hotel and two-thirds in the garden centre each day. Selection is done on the basis of "trainability", potential to achieve an NVQ, and temperament. "We wouldn't take anyone with a history of violence," says Zallman.
In the hotel, trainees are taught the full gamut of skills, taking in the kitchen, reception, porterage, housekeeping, plus the bar and restaurant, including silver service and eventually flambé work.
The process will be slow, but thorough. "We're not into tokenism. We won't be getting someone to lay a table three times, say they can do it and sign them off," says Zallman. He expects most trainees will take five to 10 years to gain NVQs to levels 1 and 2. Some won't make it at all.
Working under pressure will be one of the most valuable aspects of their training. "In other schemes, it isn't there, so trainees find they can't keep a job when they leave because they can't work at the pace required. Here, they're in a commercial environment, exposed to its buzz and demands, and getting feedback from guests."
He adds: "We'll also be pushing them, but very gently, as they react to pressure in different ways. At the moment we don't know the limit to these people's skills," says Zallman.
The trainees each receive £1 a day as an incentive, funded by East Sussex Social Services. It contributes 30% to the project's costs, donations make up 10%, while the remaining 60% is budgeted to come from the hotel and plant sales from the garden centre.
Under the previous owners, hotel business had declined, the weakest element being the bedrooms. But Zallman intends to change this. The bedrooms, six of which are en-suite, are to be refurbished. Until then, prices are reduced to £37.50 single, £49.50 double, both inclusive of bathroom and breakfast.
The restaurant is open from 7am to 9pm and offers all-day breakfast and salads, plus a £10.50 three-course lunch and £12.50 three-course dinner. Turnover has increased almost five-fold, rising from £900 last July to £5,000 in January. Zallman is hoping to achieve £2,000 a week. His plans include developing conference and banqueting business, extending the restaurant and creating a bistro.
Customers are mostly local people, organisations and businesses, plus hikers trekking the South Downs Way and bird watchers. "They've been very positive, supportive and interested in what we're doing so far," Zallman claims.
Inevitably the project raises questions. What kind of reception will trainees receive when they try to enter the job market? Will they be open to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and victimisation by unsympathetic colleagues?
Zallman admits there will be difficulties. "These are questions we've agonised over. These people are very vulnerable, but we can't get too sentimental about it. Through training, we'll be encouraging them to stand up for their rights and teach them to know where to go for help if they need it."