Sam Sohn-Rethel, most recently head chef at Bell’s Diner, is first to arrive and put on a stripy apron. Gradually, the big kitchen fills with more high-caliber chefs: Josh Eggleton of Chew Magna’s The Pony & Trap, Imogen Waite of Bravas, Cargo Cantina and Bakers & Co; food development manager at St Monica Trust Aiden Kirikmaa; and BBC Cook of the Year 2015 and chef-in-residence at Redcliffe Children’s Centre, Jo Ingleby.
Next to arrive are the young people, some nervously tying up their white aprons and others chatting excitedly, eyeing up the ingredients they’ll be cooking with later.
Between the eight of them is a real spread of experience. Sixteen-year-old Daniel simply loves food and has ambitions of cooking professionally one day, while 24-year-old Finn is a chef in his native Trowbridge and is looking for his next step up the career ladder.
They are all here because they want to meet professional chefs and get into an industry that can be tough to break. It’s often more about who you know than what dishes you can cook.
Today is far more about enthusiasm than skill. Skill can be taught.
With everyone assembled, Square Food Foundation founder Barny Haughton, who has worked as a chef in Bristol for more than 30 years, welcomes everyone and explains that they will be part of something brilliant, cooking for over 100 guests at the Bristol24/7 Autumn Feast.
The young chefs will receive high-quality training before the event, and then will show off their skills at the feast to friends, family and invited guests.
As the young people pair up and are allocated a professional chef to mentor them through an hour of cooking in a Ready, Steady, Cook challenge, Barny takes a moment to explain why he wanted Square Food Foundation to partner with the Bristol24/7 social impact agenda.
“I’ve been wanting to do something like this for five years, so it was really exciting when Bristol24/7 approached us with the idea,” he says. “It’s something different in the training of the next generation of chefs. It’s not just about cooking and learning, but engaging with the whole story of food, and really looking at where a chef fits into the modern world of cooking.
“Bristol is exceptional in that there is great ideology here for a better food future, but the rest of the industry on the whole sets a shameful example. Not enough big restaurants care about ethical sourcing. Plus, all restaurants need good chefs, and there’s a real shortage of kids like this – who are excited by food and want to learn and be part of a team.”
And excited they are. No sooner have they been given the task than they are off, chatting with mentors and throwing ideas around about what dishes they can construct from the pile of fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and lentils in various bowls and trays on the huge central table.
All the ingredients are surplus that has been donated from supermarkets around the area, and many packets still have the familiar bright yellow reduced labels on them. It’s all perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown in the bin because it has passed its sell-by date.
Now, it’s being whipped into shape by these keen young chefs and their mentors. A huge squash is peeled and chopped into chunks to make soup, eggs are scrambled and served with leeks, and several aubergines put in the oven to be roasted.
Everything smells delicious, and everyone is getting fully stuck in.
Finn has been a chef since he was 15. “I’ve worked in my area of Trowbridge, and now I want to get a broader idea of what it’s like to work in Bristol. I want to get my foot in the door and meet some chefs around Bristol,” he says as he slices an onion with precision.
Mentor Sam stands next to him and turns the heat on under the pan. “It’s really good so far. Sam’s got some good ideas and I think I will learn a lot from him,” Finn continues.
On another bench, 16-year-old Larissa Silva, who lives in Knowle, is grating potato to make crispy potato cakes. “I’ve always known I wanted to work in food, but I couldn’t study it at GCSE because of a clash with the timetabling,” she explains.
“I came here today because I wanted exposure to the cooking industry, to hear what chefs have to say and to get to know people. It’s an insight into what I want to do in the future.”
“The women in my family are all cooks and bakers, and I grew up watching Bake Off and Nigella Lawson on TV; for me, it’s all about baking and patisserie,” Larissa continues.
“I’m really interested in it, and I find it cool to see what other bakers do and how they experiment – how complex it can be. Baking can do so much and exceed expectations with the flavours you can use.”
She pauses to concentrate on the task at hand, as mentor Imogen hands her a muslin cloth to squeeze out the moisture from the bowl of potato. “I want to be head patisserie chef somewhere prestigious. I can dream!”
With ten minutes to go, the cold dishes are coming together nicely. Josh Eggleton shakes a pan of apples that will go into a crumble, and adjusts the temperature of a custard in a bain-marie.
“I think cooking is all about teaching,” says Josh, the holder of a coveted Michelin star at the Pony & Trap since 2011, and also co-owner of Salt & Malt at Root.
“It’s nice to see people learning and to meet other people who love food. There’s a knock-on effect of people eating well and seeing where food comes from. It should be one of the most important things on the agenda in education, but, sadly, it isn’t.”
Barny calls time and the dishes flood in from all sides of the kitchen: a huge autumnal feast of soups and lentil stews, fresh bread rolls still warm from the oven and a piping hot apple crumble.
The young people talk about the dishes they’ve made with pride, and then everyone tucks in with relish. The results are delicious, and soon there are spoons rattling around in empty dishes.
“Cooking is challenging on one level to get things right, and for chefs the goal is perfection,” Barny says. “But, in a certain way, you learn a lot about yourself through cooking, and everyone is equal in a kitchen. A successful kitchen doesn’t run on egos but on communication and a level of love and respect.”
“It’s been wonderful having these professional chefs here, from all different backgrounds, who are all bloody good teachers. This is just the first day, but by the end of the programme, I hope the young people will grow in confidence, and will develop an understanding with their own relationship with food. Pleasure, health and all the rest. It’s a good introduction to any job in the industry.”
The Bristol24/7 young chefs programme, in partnership with Square Food Foundation, will continue until November 16, culminating in the Bristol24/7 Autumn Feast. To get involved with the programme or any other project in the Bristol24/7 social impact agenda, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To buy a ticket to the feast, visit www.bristol247.com/food-and-drink/news-food-and-drink/tickets-released-bristol247-autumn-feast