Richard McComb talks to Birmingham’s first visiting professor of culinary arts over dinner prepared by some talented protégés.
He is Birmingham’s first professor of food but don’t expect any airs and graces from David Colcombe.
This chef was schooled at the coal-face of gastronomy, working his way up from a penniless, junior cook to become chef/director of one of the city’s best run restaurants.
So when a young, would-be sommelier approaches us with the bottle of Albariño, fumbles the corkscrew, sending it spiralling into the air before hitting the deck, Colcombe’s style is to deploy gentle encouragement rather than the old-school chef’s favourite: a bollocking. (Chefs like nothing better than baiting front of house staff.)
“Don’t worry about it,” he tells the freshly-scrubbed lad. “Just enjoy it. That’s what it’s all about.”
And that, in essence, is why I am chatting, and drinking, with Colcombe now. He wants young, enthusiastic people to join Birmingham’s catering industry and he wants them to enjoy the job.
His commitment to nurturing the next generation of hotel and restaurant chefs is second to none and explains why the academic board of University College Birmingham (UCB), the former College of Food, decided to make Colcombe an honorary fellow last year.
The title was conferred to recognise the chef’s “outstanding and meritorious service” to the university.
However, Colcombe’s dedication to the culinary cause was deemed to be so significant the board went a step further and at a degree congregation at Symphony Hall it made a special announcement: that the 43-year-old was also being made UCB’s first ever Visiting Professor of Culinary Arts.
“I was bowled over,” says Colcombe, one of the joint directors of Opus. He insists he was “bought up to be a chef,” not an academic, and didn’t go to university, so he was overawed by the honour. But now the former Chelmsley Wood schoolboy can officially call himself Prof Colcombe, although he concedes, rather sheepishly, that he hasn’t used the title yet.
Colcombe is now seven months into his honorary position and we are dining at the Atrium restaurant, UCB’s own Fame Academy for young hospitality industry talent.
It is here that trainee chefs, waiters and waitresses get to hone their skills, cooking and serving cash-paying members of the public in a fine dining environment.
Although the prices for the level of produce on offer, plus the wine and such an aspirational level of cooking, are a relative bargain – three courses is £24 – customers, being customers, will soon flag up any shortcomings.
The class of 2010 put on a good show, serving us starters of scallops, black pudding, pea and mint purée and a salad of blue lobster, dressed crab, avocado, mango and citrus caviar dressing.
Colcombe goes for a main course of fillet of beef on the bone with caramelised white onion puree and fondant potato while I have loin of roe deer, spiced red cabbage, liquorice, quinoa, glazed asparagus, bitter chocolate sauce.
If I’m critical of the latter, it’s that there’s too much going on, the chocolate is too much and the loin is slightly over.
And yet the work of the inexperienced kitchen team leaves one with a tremendous sense of hope. The refinement will come and the tutors are ceaselessly encouraging.
The meal is far from the sort of food you expect at a catering college and underlines UCB’s ambition.
It must be said that the wine, a 2003 Gevrey Chambertin, Perrot-Minot, is sensational. You won’t find a better wine anywhere for £30. Colcombe and I have the cheese rather than desserts to see off the pinot noir and the board is akin to a selection at a top hotel or restaurant.
Colcombe marvels at the tools on offer to the young professionals. “We didn’t have any cheese or wine around when I was a kid,” he says. “The only bottles we had came with screw tops.”
Even at this early stage of their careers, it is easy to detect the front-of-house staff with a natural affinity for the job. One young lad, with the looks of a 17-year-old X Factor winner, impresses hugely. He works part-time at Liaison restaurant in Hall Green and the frontline experience shows.
He is just the sort of new talent Colcombe wants to see graduate into a career in catering and, as the prof points out, front of house is the hardest thing to get right in a restaurant. It helps if you smile, which X Factor Boy does while some of his peers give the impression of being crushed by the perceived solemnity of the dining occasion.
Serving food is a celebration, not a death march. Smile and the whole restaurant smiles with you.
I can’t blame the students too much though. It must be slightly intimidating, serving the prof.
Colcombe, by his own admission, didn’t always smile. He went to a local comprehensive in Chelmsley Wood, where he was born. Referring to his education, he says: “It was pretty rum. I got enough O-levels to go to university but it wasn’t the kind of thing you did in my street.”
His dad, John, left home when he was 12 and young Colcombe used to cook for his brother and mum, Susan, who went out to work. Colcombe did a catering course at Solihull College and quit the area as soon as he could. “All I wanted to do was leave the city because I had bad memories of it,” he says.
“I went down in a coach to London and lived in a hostel. I had no money. I was an angry young man for many years. You can’t get the Chelmsley Wooder out of you,” adds Colcombe, a smile breaking out on his face.
After four months, he got a job as fourth commis chef at The Dorchester, then under the legendary Anton Mosimann. He hasn’t looked back but it’s all down to tremendously hard work. A dry – make that very dry – sense of humour helps.
Now Colcombe is keen to impart some of the lessons he has learned along the way – well, the printable ones – and believes it is a role that senior chefs should embrace.
“We are ambassadors. People need mentors,” says Colcombe. “They need people they can learn from and respect. And the only way to get respect is to believe in what you do.
“Some people come into the kitchen and don’t apply themselves. They don’t dress properly. They treat it as a two-bit industry. I always say to chefs that when you put your whites on you are putting on a suit. But it’s not just me that young people learn off. It is the whole brigade.”
With his background in mind, I wonder whether Brum’s Food Prof would rather tutor a Grade A student or one of the (how can I be diplomatic?) more esoteric characters who are drawn to stoves, like moths to a flame. Does Colcombe actually prefer a rough diamond?
“Much more,” he says. “They’re more of a challenge.”