As if my taking six years to visit The Duke of Cambridge wasn’t pathetic enough, the ethical wizardry of another well-established London restaurant has only recently been drawn to my attention.
The Hoxton Apprentice, I learnt, was set up in 2004 by a charity called Training For Life, along with social entrepreneur Gordon D’Silva and one of my favourite chefs, Prue Leith. It gives professional training through a paid apprenticeship programme for the long-term unemployed, to help young people get into the hospitality industry.
Trainees do a structured work placement for a minimum of eight weeks in which they learn catering and hospitality skills, from stock control and food hygiene to dealing with difficult customers and wine-tasting. If successful in the initial training, they are taken on as paid apprentices to complete a four-six month term where the areas are looked at in more depth.
The restaurant has trained more than 750 people since 2004, with around 70% of those going into a permanent job within the sector – varying from top London restaurants to international hotel chains and even Buckingham Palace.
“It’s important that the training is relevant and thorough,” explained Nick Boland. “After leaving here, I’d expect our trainees to not only get a job in a bar or restaurant, but to be able to perhaps manage a small bar or similar by themselves in the future.”
Since coming here six months ago, Nick has overhauled the wine list to focus on organic and fair trade producers, and has beefed up the schedule of special events, including a Valentine’s cooking demonstration and – for the Julie Andrews fans among us – singalong Sound of Music nights.
I met Nick at a ‘January Blues’ night with live music from John O’Reilly and The Blues Engineers, who entertained us while we were dining – with the saxophone player even wandering around the tables and behind the bar as he played, much to our amusement.
The Hoxton Apprentice’s kitchen and front-of-house teams are headed by an experienced professional, which means there’s no compromise on the quality of food. The blues night menu highlighted the restaurant’s new dishes for 2012, and I was able to try the chicken breast in lemon, thyme and garlic with parmentier potatoes, and a naughty butterscotch panna cotta with chilli pineapple. The cuisine is modern, simple European, with a selection of five starters (£5-£7); seven main courses (£10-£15); and four desserts £6); and I liked the sound of every single dish on the menu.
Having enjoyed my evening of live jazz in such intimate surroundings so much, I was saddened to hear from Nick that the restaurant faces a funding crisis that could put a potential question mark over its future survival. Training for Life is a registered charity and relies upon external funding to support this restaurant and its other social enterprises. Government cut-backs are, according to Nick, rather short-sighted: “If you just keep one person on welfare, they say it costs the government about £1.2million for their lifetime – how much better to help those people gain the skills and confidence they need to get back into full-time employment?”
I couldn’t agree more – and hope the restaurant is able to weather the storm of the government’s funding cuts. If you’re in Hoxton looking for an affordable meal at a restaurant with a very interesting story, then pop in. I’m holding out for another Sound of Music singalong.