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Teen canteen: pupils launch catering company in school kitchens for new tv show

GIVE teenagers free rein in a kitchen and you would be forgiven for it conjuring up images of greasy burgers, microwave meals and ketchup-laden chips.

Picture: BBC
Picture: BBC

But a group of Scottish pupils are determined to turn that notion firmly on its head.

A new three-part BBC Scotland documentary series Teen Canteen, which begins tomorrow, charts the journey of Linlithgow Academy students as they set up their own catering business.

Mentored by Hamish Taylor, a former CEO of Sainsbury's Bank and Eurostar, and chef Fi Buchanan, who founded Glasgow delicatessen Heart Buchanan, the sixth year pupils began selling takeaway food made in their school kitchens to the surrounding town.

Filmed over eight weeks earlier this year, every moment of the enterprise was caught on camera as they worked towards creating a pop-up cafe which would run for a week at the end of term.

The project - think Jamie Oliver meets The Apprentice - involved 33 pupils, aiming to build key entrepreneurial skills to catch the eye of future employers.

Few had any prior cooking or business experience. They also had to work around their busy school timetable with Ms Buchanan likening the task to "climbing a mountain".

She said: "The learning curve was steep for everyone, not least myself, but they all set their hands to it with incredible enthusiasm."

The youngsters started out with just £6 emptied from their collective pockets with Mr Taylor chipping in £10 as an investment.

To raise the £1000 required to fund the project, they organised a series of events including an afternoon tea at the Burgh Halls in Linlithgow for which they learned to bake French patisserie, including choux buns and macarons.

Having initially identified a niche in the market for Mexican food locally, there then came a stumbling block: sourcing low cost, high quality ingredients.

"The way you make margin is by taking something really cheap, like a potato, and sexing it up and selling it for profit," said Ms Buchanan. "In Scotland in very early spring there are no avocados, limes, fresh coriander or vine-ripened tomatoes.

"We had to look around at what was available at a feasible price and which we could guarantee the quality of all the time. That was classic Scottish ingredients like potatoes, carrots, turnips, barley, beef cheeks, sausages and chicken thighs."

The teenagers prepared and cooked a menu - dubbed "Scottish Soul Food" - from scratch, putting a modern twist on traditional recipes that included wild garlic soup, slow-cooked chicken and smoky bacon casserole, sausage hotpot, fresh raspberry lemonade and spicy lentil soup with poppadoms.

Top Scottish chefs and restauranteurs including Mark Greenaway, Neil Forbes, Tom Lewis, Chris Charalambous and Jonathan MacDonald lent their expertise through masterclasses.

Ms Buchanan, 43, said she would love to see the venture used as blueprint for other schools.

"I genuinely feel that Scotland could really differentiate itself from any other country by doing entrepreneurial classes between fourth and sixth year," she said. "A lot of the academic high flyers aren't necessarily the ones who would excel in entrepreneurship.

"Equally the kids who do excel in entrepreneurship aren't necessarily the smart or sporty ones, they are often those with creative ideas, who think left field and aren't part of the mainstream. I believe a focus on projects like this would let different kids shine in different ways."

Among the students involved was Stuart Mitchell, 18, whose business acumen so impressed Ms Buchanan and Mr Taylor that they voted him "most likely to be our next prime minister".

Now in his first year studying chemistry at Glasgow University, Mr Mitchell hope to pursue an entrepreneurial career after he completes his degree.

"The business side of what I took from the project is something I don't think will ever leave me," he said. "I definitely learned a lot about management and my own potential. It's something I would like to develop in the future and hopefully use the skills I learned on Teen Canteen."

But for now he's content with being able to rustle up tasty budget meals that would put most student fare to shame.

"The Scottish Soul Food concept was about taking basic ingredients then using different flavourings and garnishes to turn it into a wholesome dish," he said. "It's come in handy at university - I'm not living off beans on toast and pasta."

Ms Buchanan, who currently works at Whole Foods Market in Giffnock, has been equally inspired.

"My life has completely changed," she said. "I sat down last week to write my application to go back to university to study teaching. I hope to do secondary school home economics."

Teen Canteen begins on BBC Two Scotland, tomorrow, 9pm

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