My year group has just finished their four-work placement and it will be great to catch up with each other and find out about our different experiences back in uni. Many courses at University College Birmingham include a work placement – from a day to a year – and it is integral to the learning process and preparing for the world of work.
But finding the right work placement can be tricky, especially as we slowly come out of Covid. While previous cohorts have found themselves all over the world, my year has, through necessity, stayed closer to home. But that doesn’t have to mean the experience is any less useful. In some ways, making industry contacts on your doorstep is more helpful for a career going forward.
And experience is the important word here. We can learn all sorts of things on placement, and not necessarily what you thought you would learn. Therefore, it is important to go in with an open mind and a can-do attitude and seize every opportunity to learn something new.
I actually started my work placement back in the summer. Fed up that traditional opportunities offered by University College Birmingham were on hold because of Covid, I decided to make some opportunities of my own. I fired off emails to some of the speakers we had during our virtual sessions and was lucky enough to arrange a variety of placements, all offering a different view of the hospitality industry.
My first placement was with the legendary Claire Clark MBE who runs her catering operation Pretty Sweet from a unit in London. What Claire doesn’t know about cakes and desserts isn’t worth knowing, and moreover, she is generous with sharing that knowledge. She made her name at the awesome French Laundry in the States and her books are endorsed by Thomas Keller, no less.
A lot of what we did during placement was large-scale orders for sporting events, which was a learning curve in itself in terms of process, packaging and storage. And during our work, we discovered a shared passion for gardening, which led to Claire and her business partner Sarah joining me and a friend at the NEC to put together a border design for the Gardener’s World Live Show – quite an unexpected result of a work placement.
I loved the Ritz from the moment I walked in the staff entrance – I still haven’t walked through the visitors’ entrance yet, one day perhaps! This is where the brigade system instigated by Escoffier comes into its own and the work is full on, 24/7, as one would expect from this world-famous hotel. The plating is impeccably precise, like a piece of art, and that of course requires impeccable prep, so I became adept at skinning baby tomatoes and grapes and picking a range of herbs and garnishes, careful to choose only sprigs of the same size and leaf formation.
Executive chef John Williams is omnipresent, either in his glass-walled office nestled in a corner of the kitchen or pacing the pass to check that everything is how it should be. I was lucky to spend time in a number of the sections and pick the brains of a fabulous and amazingly young team, including head chef Spencer who has just blown away the chefs on the Great British Menu. It was also a chance to catch up with former University College Birmingham student Adam Beaumont, who was spending a few days at the Ritz before joining full-time, and also sous chef Ian Musgrave who you might have seen in the Bocuse kitchen at the University.
Next stop was Oxfordshire and Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons where the love of fresh produce, either delivered or from the kitchen garden, is obvious to all. Raymond Blanc exudes an infectious enthusiasm that is hard to resist and is never far from the kitchen, while Gary Jones is the cool, calm head at the pass who gives confidence to all. I never thought I would be taking starters to the pass at a two Michelin Star restaurant! And then onto another University College Birmingham alumnus – Rebecca Boast helps to run the cookery school, which includes giving tours of the kitchen garden. Now that’s a job made in heaven…
Currently I am working with Kaye Winwood at Gulp in the Jewellery Quarter and experiencing a different take on food, with a focus on its sensory aspects and art installations. I have seen what it takes to set up a small business from scratch and I have worked on bespoke events from the planning stage to implementation. It is another example of a working relationship that has blossomed into friendship, further endorsing the lasting impact of a work placement.
But work experience won’t stop with the statutory element of my course either. I am still seeking out new opportunities and am already booked to help backstage with Bake Off and MasterChef winners at the Foodies Festival. I also hope to spend time in the recruitment side of the hospitality industry and then there is a Michelin Star restaurant that I have my sights set on. My first approach drew a blank, but I am nothing if not determined…..