Michael Kitts has a dream. It's not one of personal glory - he's already lived that, as a cupboardful of medals won in culinary competitions demonstrates. Rather, it's a mission to cure the catering industry of one of its most enduring problems: the skills shortage.
Tackling the issue from his new position as executive chef and culinary director at Butlers Wharf Chef and Restaurant School in London's Docklands, Kitts has a clear message to chefs bemoaning the lack of decent kitchen staff: "Stop moaning. Be specific about the problems and we'll try and sort them."
Now, he says, he is keen to establish a dialogue between training and industry so that he can send chefs into jobs armed with the right basic skills, attitude and practical experience. "I want to be able to send someone a commis and not have them on the phone two days later saying 'This guy's rubbish'."
Kitts, who took over at Butlers Wharf from Gary Witchalls, is already aware of what's missing: "Daft as it may sound, it's the real basics - how to hold a knife, which one to use, simple skills like turning potatoes.
"The industry went through a bit of a rut when cooking was all about building food up, scorching this, grilling loads of peppers - but where were the skills in that? What were chefs learning? Just how to flick a bit of tuna or balance peppers as high as they could."
Opened in 1995, Butlers Wharf trains chefs and front of house staff through a mix of theory taught by professional chefs, masterclasses on specific skills, and demonstrations by guest chefs. Students also gain practical experience by cooking and waiting in the school's 44-seat Apprentice restaurant, which is open to the public for lunch and dinner.
With an AA rosette to its name, it has a responsibility to offer food of a certain standard, and a key challenge for Kitts is to reconcile its reputation with the fact that it is a training unit. "Some dishes may be less than perfect, or guests may have to wait a little longer than they'd like for their order, but this is a school."
It is probably the daily practical experience that marks out Butlers Wharf from many other chef schools. Jobs are rotated in a partie system and the menu is devised to include dishes that teach the skills stipulated by the NVQ curriculum. By the end of level 1, students will have covered all the basics, going on to use the skills with greater competency at level 2.
An à la carte menu with six starters, main courses and puddings runs for six weeks. "If you change the menu too quickly, the students don't get to grips with it," says Kitts. A set menu changes every three weeks, and includes a Student Dish of the Week. "They really get a buzz out of seeing their own dishes on the menu."
Kitts tries to create a menu that is as interesting for the diner as it is for the chefs, one that uses different cooking styles and includes "in vogue" ingredients - Kitts cites the polenta and Gorgonzola fritter and the rabbit with penny-bun noodles (see page 56).
But the main criterion is to cover all skills. "With the salmon trio, there's some grilling; the ham palmiers [served alongside a chilled pea and mint soup] teach puff pastry; and with the poached chicken dumpling [with a coriander cream sauce], they're making a mousseline. On the pudding menu, there's always a chocolate dish, pastry work, a jelly and ice-creams," says Kitts.
Students bone a shoulder of lamb for one of the current set menu dishes, an aubergine gateau with lamb patties and a tomato and coriander dressing, which Kitts originally created at the Club Les Ambassadeurs.
Practical experience is coupled with masterclasses covering specific skills. Experts lined up for next year include Colin Martin on sugar work and Claire Clark on chocolate; this year's subjects have covered canapés, Asian food, bread-making and buffet presentations.
A separate series welcomes guest chefs who demonstrate a dish from their menu, which students will then recreate with the chef's help. John Williams from Claridge's will kick off the 2000 programme, followed by the likes of Kevin Viner, Paul Merrett and Paul Gayler.
It's a broad programme, as Kitts knows to his cost. "One of my biggest nightmares has been getting my head round all the courses," he says. "I want to get the students' enthusiasm up, and if one student is fired up by a demonstration or masterclass, it's been a success."
Training is in Kitts' blood. A product of Thanet College himself, and the first chef to receive a Prince Philip Medal - an award given to one person each year who has started with a City & Guilds qualification and is considered to have risen to the top of their profession - he returned to Thanet as a lecturer in 1981. Back in the industry five years later, he has spent periods at the Inter-Continental, Hyde Park, the Swallow hotel, Bristol, and Club Les Ambassadeurs, before Gary Witchalls alerted him to opportunities at Butlers Wharf.
So is training future chefs his true calling? "I get a great deal of satisfaction from it, seeing people get good jobs after you've taught them." But the current system of NVQs is far from perfect, he admits. "It's OK if little Johnny is placed in a really good establishment where people have time to show him things, but if he's placed in a greasy spoon where the boss doesn't explain things, then they're not learning anything."
Most of his students are beginners and Kitts prides himself at being able to spot potential. "I look for enthusiasm. You can see it on their observation day. If they're asking questions and are really eager, you can't go wrong. We've got a group now - you could put them anywhere and be proud of them." He is very much involved in their practical training, spending mornings in the kitchen whenever possible, and devoting the afternoons to paperwork.
Will Kitts crack the problem and realise his dream? "I've got to say yes. Rome wasn't built in a day, but I'd like to think I can make a bit of a difference."
Polenta and Gorgonzola fritter, pan-fried mushrooms, rocket salad (serves 18-20)
1 litre vegetable stock
2 cloves garlic (finely crushed)
2 egg yolks
125ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
Bring vegetable stock to the boil, sprinkle in polenta, cook for five to 10 minutes. Mix in the Gorgonzola, garlic, butter and shredded sage. Finally, add egg yolks, a little olive oil and season.
Lightly butter two terrines, pour in polenta mix and chill. Turn out and slice polenta into 5cm pieces. Coat in flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs mixed with Parmesan.
Deep-fry polenta fritter at 180¼C for three to four minutes. Pan-fry sliced mushrooms in olive oil, season, add parsley. Wash and dry the rocket, toss in olive oil, season.
Place the rocket in serving bowls, sprinkle with mushrooms and put fritters on top. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.