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If you could create your own pop-up restaurant concept, what would you choose? Steak House? Italian? Vegetarian? And how would you theme it?
Now imagine you have just two days to get from a blank sheet of paper to opening your doors to the first wave of hungry diners. In that short time your menus must be set, your recipes created, your ingredients bought, your kitchen prepared for action and your service team ready to make your concept come alive at the table.
Sounds impossible? At Les Roches it happens every two weeks during term time. Welcome to the Restaurant Lab!
“The idea for Restaurant Lab is to immerse our first semester students in the world of entrepreneurship,” explains Service Instructor Ebru Macarrao. “Around a third of our alumni become entrepreneurs in hospitality; many of them operating their own restaurants. This course is ideal for them, but it’s equally great for all our students. Everyone can benefit from knowing what it takes to set up a professional F&B offering from scratch.”
Each two weeks a new cohort of 10 students enters the Lab. They are divided in half, with one group placed in the kitchen and the other on service. At the end of the first week the roles are swapped, giving everybody a chance to try the two sides of restaurant life.
Though it’s not open to the public, the Lab is designed to be as close to a commercial restaurant environment as possible. The students have to manage everything, from menu design to choosing the wine list, choice of décor, tableware and even napkins, of which there are 20 colors to pick from. Their customers, fellow students, have high expectations and the Lab is usually fully booked weeks in advance.
“It is such a joy for me to be part of this course, because the students constantly surprise me with the creativity that goes into their concepts,” says Ebru.
I think it’s made me a better teacher as well, since the ethos of Restaurant Lab is to support the students but also to give them room to make mistakes. Because this is how they learn.
The Lab has been running for around a year, and so popular has it become that it has attracted envious glances from older students, who wish they could turn back the clock and have a go. As our images show, the level of creativity that goes into the concepts is truly astounding.
Chef Frederic Angevin runs the Restaurant Lab kitchen. He gives the students license to improvise, while offering advice to ensure they don’t make too many “expensive mistakes”.
He says, “It’s worth remembering that the students come to us with minimal to no knowledge of cooking. To help get them started we pre-order a basic basket of core ingredients, including three proteins and two starches. Often the students will start quite simply with their recipes, then add embellishments during the week. By the Friday, it’s amazing how smoothly things are going in the kitchen. At that point we are aiming to put out food which, if it isn’t perfect, is certainly something they can be proud of.
“The students really develop their soft skills during this course,” Frederic continues. “They learn the value of teamwork, as well as how to operate under pressure in as authentic an environment as possible. We don’t spare them the pressure they’ll experience in an actual restaurant – that can make for some exciting moments, especially in the run-up to their 6:30pm opening on the Tuesday.”
Ebru adds, “The only ‘complaint’ we get from the students is that they wish they could experience the concept for longer – the two weeks always fly by. Every time Friday comes around I look at the restaurant and say ‘wow!’. The students have done so many brilliant things – I teach them, but at the same time I’m constantly learning from them.”
Thank you to Service Instructor, Ebru Macarrao.
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