It may be run by students but the restaurant at the University of West London caters for happy diners, as former alumni Emily Manson discovers
Going back to your old college is always interesting, but eating at your old training restaurant is something else. I wish I had wacky recollections of college kitchen days, but alas, my sole attempt was thwarted by a fire alarm. Hours of de-bearding mussels completely wasted, not to mention 20 students also wasted after drowning their disappointment in the local pub.
But they've really ramped things up since my day. The restaurant at the University of West London has changed beyond belief and they're now cooking for a room full of happy diners. Open for lunch from Tuesday to Friday and for dinner on Thursday during term time, Pillars' brigade is made up of 16 young chefs, while front of house, led by restaurant manager Antoinette Urwick, is run by 16 students.
Course director and head chef of the training kitchen David Fellowes explains that students come up with the menu, while he and senior chef lecturer Michael Coaker are on hand for advice on what will work and sell.
"The menu is based on a contemporary offer comparable with other top restaurants in London but it's also about showcasing the basics and the classics that students need to know before they can push ahead," Fellowes says.
Student Krishnan Pankhania says: "It's the only time you can get to practise in a real restaurant setting but also have the chef there who you can learn from."
The staff and students are particularly proud of the pan-fried gilt head bream served with point cabbage, saffron potatoes and sauce vierge. The dish was first cooked for a function last year and was hailed as one of the best ever served.
The bream was picked as an alternative to sea bass. The sauce vierge - strictly classical in its execution - is included to keep the dish light while the saffron potatoes are presented having been turned to perfection. Fellowes says: "The tiny bit of olive oil and acid from the wine vinegar and tomato makes it so light, it's perfect with the fish."
Another student Nick Cohen adds: "Turning potatoes helps us learn the classical ways and roots of cooking before taking our knowledge in a modern way. Some places still ask if you can turn veg as part of the interview. It's another skill and differentiates you from others going for the jobs, so it's good preparation for the real world."
The seared pigeon breast is paired with seasonal beetroot chutney and a dash of sauce smitane - a velouté with sautéed chopped onion and dry white wine and sour cream.
The pear clafoutis is a modern take on a classic pud, served in a single sheet of filo pastry as a tart casing, accompanied by mulled wine ice-cream.
"The clafoutis was a superb dish to go with the end-of-season pears. We do seasonal and British as much as possible and have a Red Tractor award for our meat," says Fellowes.
He explains the reasoning behind the foundation of classical dishes: "When the students leave London's contemporary food market they might work anywhere in the world and they have to know the classic dishes.
"We do ask them to redesign traditional dishes for modern tastes, making them lighter and lower in fat yet still tasty and stylish. But it's not enough to just put together contemporary stuff - they need to be able to make bread, turn veg and make all the classics."
So what do the students think of working at Pillars? Cohen sums it up: "It teaches you to think logically and work five minutes ahead of yourself. It gives you experience and reminds you that you need to have everything ready."
Sample dishes from the menu
Tea smoked potted salmon, horseradish cream
Mediterranean vegetables, mozzarella & balsamic dressing
Seared pigeon breast, beetroot chutney, sauce smitane
Pan-fried gilt head bream, point cabbage, saffron potatoes, sauce vierge
Slow roast pork loin, five-spiced belly pork, buttered mash, red chilli and soy sherry jus
Mixed grain risotto, wild mushrooms, diced butternut squash & hazelnut foam
Chocolate brownie, vanilla panacotta, pear confit
Apple tarte tatin, caramel sauce, vanilla ice-cream
Pear clafoutis, mulled red wine ice cream
Two courses - £12.95
Three courses - £15.95
University of West London
St Mary's Road, Ealing, London W5 5RF
020 8231 2200