Story by Uyen Luu
“I used to watch Jamie's 30 Minute Meals when I was inside,” says Kevin McBarron, 22, “I was put on the hot plate duty where I would make lunches for the other prisoners. Watching Jamie prepare the meals, inspired me to change my life.” Kevin first got arrested at the age of 14. “When I first went in, for about four months, I was just 18 years old and I was involved in fights and had trouble and didn't learn anything, so I kept getting put back into prison and after the forth time, the last time, I knew I had to change my life.”
It has been 10 years since Jamie Oliver started with 15 Apprentices for his famous documentary, taking on 15 disadvantaged young people and trained them to work in his restaurant, Fifteen. Ever since, it has graduated 114 Apprentices who have gone on to have great careers in the food industry.
“The interview process was hard and it was in different stages,” says Kevin, ” out of about 250+ applications, they only chose 18 and they wanted to know if you wanted to and were willing to change your life around. I told the truth about my life of crime and how I wanted to change it. There aren't many opportunities like this for people like me.”
Fifteen invited me to spend a day with Kevin, his colleagues, mentors and teachers at the restaurant in the kitchen – shadowing his life for the day. I started the shift an hour after he did at 9am, in chef whites, I was peeling garlic bulbs, chopping onions and vegetables, helping at different stations and gathering what goes on throughout the day with chefs and apprentices. It was a fantastic day of hard work and stamina. They were all surprised that I could use the knife and prepping and I said, bring it on!
Working in the professional kitchen is extremely demanding. It was the first time I had ever worked in one. It is a life full of discipline, orderliness and regulation. The Apprentices have 5 or 6 shifts in a week plus a college day to learn about theory. “A lot of people have similar stories to mine,” tells Kevin, “they've not had a good start in life and have a certain background, something like this is a big change for them.” But for some, its hard to cope with the hours, and they expect a few “casualties” a year.
“I love eating everything,” says Kevin, dressed smartly in his chef whites as he prepares cold antipasti plates to order, “I love food, even school dinners, everything but raisins!” The Apprentices wear white caps and the chefs wears black caps. “Jamie comes in sometimes, as much as he is a busy man, he is still involved and always talks to us if he sees us and plans trips for us to travel and eat, so that we can learn.”
Each Apprentice works in a section for a month, for instance, the pastry section, the fish, vegetables, colds, etc under a different chef. “Every chef has a different way of working and you have to adapt for you to take in everything and for you learn something different from every chef. They teach you everything they know, they are working to help us. Most chefs want us to learn what they know and want us to do well.”
Indeed this was true, I spent most of my day with Giancarlo, Kevin's chef, upstairs in the restaurant on colds such as salads, antipasti, pasta and lunch specials such as beef short ribs, ham hocks and pan fried fish. He was also a graduate of Fifteen in 2009.
He was extremely kind, patient and helpful, showing me how he would do certain things and how he makes dishes from the menu. They have a person who washes all the dishes and utensils and cleans. Every person has a responsibility and the whole thing is a well oiled machine.
As I picked tarragon and parsley leaves, prepping for dinner service as well as tomorrow's lunch service with the team, I listened to the kitchen banter, the noise of the dishwasher, plates being dropped, waiters saying orders, laughter of lunch time meetings, chop chop chop chop pause chop chop chop and the sizzle of the frying fan, frying pans tossing pasta into sauces and placed back on the firing gas stove, the sweep of the broom scrapping across the concrete flooring”¦and someone laughs and heckles more banter across the kitchen. The 18 Apprentices work closely together with the team and you can see and feel that they all become good friends.
“I recommend the course,” chirps Kevin, “if you want to change your life or are in need of change because life isn't good, so many people here are so supportive, some really good people.” I asked Kevin if he can do a meal of Jamie's in 30 minutes. He says, “kinda”¦!” and laughs with me.
“I've been in the newspaper, you know,” says Kevin, looking down. What do you mean? “For the crimes I've done. I bought real shame on the family. I just want to do this for my mum and my two sisters, make it up to them for all the shit I've done in the past.”
And what are your ambitions, I ask him. “To become head chef for Man United footballers.” There, he said it, he asked the universe and I hope that in years to come, with Kevin's hard work and enthusiasm, I get to report back on his dreams met.
A wonderful day spent with everyone at Fifteen – thank you for having me. I well and truly earned my rest that night, was completely but happily exhausted afterwards.
About the author: Uyen Luu is a London based food blogger and writer. Find out more about Uyen here.