The Rata Room has to be Nelson’s best kept dining secret, located in Nile Street opposite Central School it is the training restaurant for the chef and hospitality course at NMIT.
Last week the head of the Hospitality School, Phillip Reay, invited me to lunch at the Rata Room and having spent some time with previous students talking about and tasting wine I knew I was in for a treat.
Since I last dined there the focus has changed slightly, the students used to learn more about formal dining but now they prepare and serve food more suited to a café setting. That doesn’t mean the training has been dumbed down, students in both the chef course and the hospitality course learn skills that will enable them to work in any restaurant or café in New Zealand and in fact many overseas countries too.
The course being delivered by NMIT is done so in association with CPIT (Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology) and has a focus on learning key skills the students will be able to use in the real world environment and also to move on to degree courses in the field if they want to, whatever they do at the end of their time at NMIT you can be assured they will leave with very good skills and the personal confidence to use those skills.
And that is where the Rata Room becomes a valuable training venue for students, the chef students get to prepare the food that is going to be served to real diners so as well as cutting the carrots into perfect matchstick-like juliennes they need to ensure the food is safe to eat and that means they need to know about food safety too.
The hospitality students need to be able to present the food for display and serve it with confidence and consistency.
Another key focus for the course is the barista component, as we are all demanding great coffee when we need a caffeine fix that means well trained baristas are in high demand.
Head of the School of Hospitality, Phillip Reay says “moving from training for very formal service to quality café service and food preparation has been an important move for us, we still touch on the more formal side but we are bringing training back to getting people proficient in really good service for the local businesses that tend to be more café in style rather than formal dining.”
“A lot of restaurants rely on international staff because there is a real shortage of good staff locally, we are meeting local needs but we also see the cafe & barista course as a stepping stone for students.”
There has long been a perception that working in a restaurant kitchen means long hours for low pay but that has been changing and now it doesn’t take long for a well-trained student with the confidence to use their skills to earn very good money after a few years out there in the workforce, the hours however can be long.
Reay says the shortage of good staff means students are often offered jobs before they finish their training and this can be an issue, especially in the chef’s course. “Ideally a chef student will complete two years formal training, the first learning all of the kitchen and cooking basics and the second going on to earn formal chef qualifications but unfortunately the shortage of staff in the region encourages some businesses who need staff to employ students at the end of year one when they would be better off waiting until end of year two. We are seeing a massive shortage of chefs in New Zealand and this is a real problem for restaurants and cafes across the country”.
“In days gone by chefs felt it was almost as an obligation to take on apprentices but the vast majority don’t have an apprentice system within the business so we are seeing students leave training with a partial qualification, apprenticeships work” says Reay, “but now chefs will be employed before they finish the course and because of the shortage some find themselves in roles they haven’t been fully trained for, they end up in positions they don’t feel comfortable in and end up leaving the industry, the old apprenticeship system meant young people had a defined pathway and were mentored for a number of years”.
The chef tutors bring a huge amount of experience to NMIT, Bill James is a seasoned professional who was the head chef at The Rutherford Hotel, Daniel Krebs is from Switzerland and brings fine-dining experience to the course and local chefs at the top of their game come in to help students with degustation dinners held at the Rata Room. People like Kevin Hopgood and Aaron Ballantyne from Hopgood’s Restaurant and Matt Bouterey from Urban are very supportive.
The man in charge of front-of-house training, Greg Dyer also has a wealth of knowledge to pass on to students. He used to work at The Cellar Door Café at Waimea Estates and before that at top Wellington restaurant Logan Brown.
His gentle but firm guidance instils students with an ‘I can do that’ confidence, there were plenty of warm smiles and quite confidence in the room when I had lunch with Reay.
He says it is lovely to see the progression amongst the chefs and front of house through the year and he observes that we often underestimate the limited food and dining experience young people are exposed to, most of their students have never been to a restaurant, they mainly eat food at home in front of TV rather than at a table so they don’t know how to set a table for a basic dinner and the staff are constantly reassessing the food and service background students come from; they introduce them to new foods, “last year I gave them sardines and most of them had never tried them and many didn’t even know what they were”.
We were eating seared venison with salads for lunch and Reay says probably three quarters of the class have never eaten it and the staff find it really rewarding to be able to excite young people about food and great service.
However, the biggest thing staff love to see is the ability for students to engage with the customer, to a 17 year old it is daunting to approach someone and talk to them let alone serve them with confidence and assurity, it is the biggest challenge they have and from an employers point of view is the key skill they want.
My experience over lunch on the second day of service for this intake of students showed me that the students are really motivated and are learning outstanding skills that will set them up for a great future and the food was so good I will be back again soon, as a paying customer next time.