Tony Tysome's taste buds got a real treat when he joined would-be chefs to watch a master at work.
Like many people, I fancy myself a TV chef, unveiling home-spun tips and secret ingredients to a captive audience eager to introduce their family to the delights of banana crumble, courgette risotto and chicken porridge.
So it is good to know that spiky-haired chef Gary Rhodes has described Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, where I join a cookery masterclass, as "the best college in the country". It is promising, too, that former student Kirsty Green was picked by the fearsome restaurateur and fly-on-the-wall TV kitchen tyrant Gordon Ramsay as a winner in the BBC Foot in the Door series on wannabe professionals.
Forty students seated at lecture desks face a £750,000 showcase kitchen for the presentation of a signature dish by Michelin-starred restaurant chef Bernard Schumacher. By way of an entree, NVQ 2 food services students give a brief talk about their visit to a local hotel and restaurant. The kitchen steams and hums in anticipation as the fresh-faced youngsters grapple with their nerves and a flipchart to deliver their take on the hotel's facilities. The aroma of culinary delights past, with perhaps a pinch of the occasional disaster, hangs in the air. The students need this experience: without it, the likes of Ramsay might devour a dozen of them for breakfast.
Having whetted our appetite, the students depart, and a professional-looking Schumacher stands to face us. He is quiet, understated and meticulous: a world apart from the flamboyance of such chefs as Ainsley Harriott. The dish he will prepare sounds delicious: winter leaves with roast quail, endive marmalade and walnut dressing (see right). We expect surgeon-like precision to produce such a delicate starter.
As Schumacher trusses the quail with cocktail sticks, it is hard not to imagine Ainsley shouting "en garde" and lancing it with a skewer, the camera crew lurching "Naked Chef" style to follow him as he shoves the unfortunate bird over a barbecue.
Schumacher tells his students: "Because the quail is so delicate, I like to protect it," and, having stuffed it with garlic and herbs, he ties it with string and gently embalms it with bacon fat. Now to the chicory, sorry, endive marmalade. It starts with some swift but not too showy knife-work - "ze core is quite bitter, yes? So we have to remove it." The remaining pieces are cut into fine strips. To this he adds 12-year-old balsamic vinegar, oil, fresh thyme, and two star anise. "I add honey to bring out a sweet bitter flavour," he says.
Television screens on either side of us display his movements - both providing a better view and allowing us to see what it would look like on telly.
For the salad, he uses radicchio andcurly endive as well as herbs, explaining: "I use the dark colours to try to keep it toa winter theme."
The leaves must be torn into pieces witha loose grip because they are so delicate,he says. Now the presentation takes priority, as the dish is brought together. The salad leaves are built into a mound: a trick of the trade is to use mustard cress to hold it up. The quail is strategically placed next to this, and balsamic vinegar that has been cooked down into a syrup is dribbled around the plate. "What we are looking for are clean lines - you want to really be able to see what you are getting."
Once the masterclass is over, I am invited to act out the TV chef's guest, destroying our tutor's artistry with my knife and fork. I have always wondered whether the "mmmms" and "aaaarghs" of the tasters were genuine, but in this case the taste buds confirm what the eye tells: it is delicious. Herr Schumacher's endive marmalade is a good incentive for students to make a 9am lecture. Learning how to avoid ending up spread on Gordon Ramsay's toast was another.
Winter leaves with roast quail, endive marmalade
and walnut dressing (serves four)
For the quails:
* Stuff four quails each with one garlic clove, a bay leaf and fresh thyme
* Bard with bacon fat and roast, brushed with butter, at 200C for 10 to 12 minutes
* Carve off breasts and legs and keep warm.
For the endive marmalade:
* Fry four endives until golden brown
* Add one tablespoon of clear honey, one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, freshthyme and two star anise
* Reduce on low heat for ten minutes.
For walnut dressing:
* Mix one part balsamic vinegar to two parts walnut oil and chopped walnuts
* Season with salt, pepper and a pinchof sugar.
Arrange and serve with salad leavesand herbs. Garnish with reduced balsamic vinegar and fresh chervil.