Gourmet Night at a restaurant run by unqualified novices...
It sounds like things could easily go very Basil Fawlty.
The uninitiated might imagine wannabe-chefs crying over split sauce, managers sprinting off to the local takeaway because the star dish has suddenly been declared “off” and Manuel-style waiters spilling the soup left, right and centre.
But the ever-growing band of regulars at Sparks, the top-notch restaurant at Sheffield City College, know different.
The brand new £65 million college, one of the best purpose-built further education colleges and vocational training facilities in the north, is known throughout the industry for producing outstanding catering and hospitality staff, thanks to its state-of-the-art kitchen facilities and to the fact that three of its lecturers now hold the accolade Master Chef Of Great Britain.
Its restaurant, based in the £1.2 million catering wing, is staffed by chef lecturers and catering students sharpening their industry skills.
In the kitchen, budding chefs prepare your meal and, out in the dining room, potential maitre d’s practise their silver service skills.
If you love good food at a canny price, and you like the fact that you are helping Sheffield create its culinary future, book yourself a table.
The plush, pink 60-seater restaurant only opens during term time and its prices cover the cost of ingredients. It dishes up weekday lunches (on Thursdays and Fridays there’s a £9.95 three-course table d’hote) and does dinners three nights a week (Tuesday and Wednesday, plus Thursday gourmet evenings).
Pre-booking is essential and there is often a waiting list, especially for the gourmet events which, at £28 a head for three courses plus coffee and hand-made petit fours, are exceptional value.
Once a month, members of the free-to-join Diners’ Club get even more for their £28 – they get a glass of wine and a cookery demo by a Master Chef in the college’s lecture theatre, followed by a six-course dinner.
I was invited to October’s extravaganza by Inspiring Women, a forum of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and Industry and run by some of the city’s most inspirational businesswomen. They were holding a networking dinner for 60 and, as if that wasn’t pressure enough on the students, the college’s principal, Julie Byrne, was also dining. She has just been invited on to the board of Inspiring Women.
Julie explained to me how for the last 40 years, Sparks has been helping students develop and sharpen their skills in a work environment under the guidance of expert staff.
A mouth-watering chocolate demonstration by senior chef lecturer and patisserie expert Mick Burke had whetted our appetite – although impossibly-hard-to-resist samples of the hand-rolled truffles, fine chocolate lollypops and honey-flavoured confectioners’ chocolate drops he handed out had threatened to kill it.
Once seated in that stylish dining room, though, we rose to the occasion.
How could you not, when the food is of such fabulous quality?
Six divine, dainty courses, each expertly thought-out combos of contrasting flavour and texture, were set before us by a team of students whose hospitality skills seemed spot-on already.
They were as discreet as any high class restaurant would want them to be, yet chatty and enthusiastic whenever we engaged them in conversation. And no-one dropped anything.
Our appetiser was a clever little thing: a tall, slender cup of perfect game consommé – clear and virtually colourless, yet packed with meaty flavour – hidden under a little lid of fine, flaky pastry.
A beautifully assembled second course of pressed chicken and leek pavé was followed by a light and graceful celeriac remoulade with red Swiss chard.
As we ate, a video-link screen showed exactly what was happening in the kitchen as trainee chefs busily prepped the next course, a brave and unusual combo of fish with meat – roasted monkfish and braised belly pork.
It worked a treat; two ingredients you would never dreamed of pairing had surprisingly similar textures. With bok choy for flourish, a sweet yet savoury, rich brown sauce glossed with maple syrup pulled the flavours together beautifully.
Soft, lean and pink slices of cannon of roast lamb came next, presented on a lovely minted pea puree with boulangère potato and an intense hit of red wine jus was the savoury finale worthy of a round of applause.
We got not one, but two desserts: Eggs a la neige, softly-poached egg white meringues with Cointreau cream in a rich pool of caramelised orange sauce, followed by an intense dark chocolate palette with a fresh and cooling mango sorbet.
This exceptionally fine dinner ended with a masterly and theatrical flourish – each table was presented with a platter foaming with dry ice.
When the cloud cleared, we found an ice sculpture bearing a selection of the chocolates we had witnessed Mick making earlier.
Faultless, start to finish.
Even Sybil would agree,
By the way, if you’re lucky enough to bag a seat at Sparks, do leave a tip. They are not shared out at the end of the evening, but ploughed into a kitty to pay for the students’ trips to catering events and competitions.
My star ratings (out of five):
* Open: During term time only, Monday-Friday lunch times, dinner Tues, Wed, Thurs 5.30-9.30pm (Thursdays is Gourmet Night). Pre-booking essential.
* Cards accepted
* Email: firstname.lastname@example.org