There can be few people who've not heard of Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, the project he established back in 2002 to help disadvantaged young men and women to train as professional chefs.
I'd heard of it too, but didn't know a great deal about it until I was invited to visit Fifteen Cornwall earlier this year. Then I started to do some research.
Launched in London, the progress of the 15 inaugural apprentices was televised in the series, Jamie's Kitchen, and followed by many viewers. Jamie lead, cajoled and occasionally shouted at his apprentices, promising those who succeeded a job in his new Fifteen restaurant. Five of the original fifteen have since launched successful cooking careers.
The original Fifteen restaurant (in the City, near the Barbican) is run by the Jamie Oliver Foundation, a charity established to "raise awareness of the importance of nutritious food and cooking and their impact on the lives of everyone, especially children and other vulnerable groups."
The apprentice programme combines college learning with placements that provide real-life experience, including 12 months in the Fifteen kitchen. The trainees learn from experts who teach them to respect the produce and equipment they use. As they learn to make the dishes on the menu, they hone their skills, grow their confidence and take on more responsibility.
Given the success of the original Fifteen, the Jamie and the Foundation are keen to expand the brand into a global social enterprise to inspire and help young people all over the world.
With that in mind, Fifteen Amsterdam opened in December 2004 and Fifteen Cornwall launched in May 2006.
Fifteen Cornwall is owned by the Cornwall Foundation of Promise (CFoP), a charity set up specifically to run the Fifteen training programme, in much the same way as the Jamie Oliver Foundation runs Fifteen London.
Just to make it clear, if it's not already, all of the profits made from the Fifteen restaurants are ploughed straight back into the respective charities. They are run wholly for the benefit of helping people who wouldn't otherwise have the chance to forge careers in the restaurant industry.
It's easy to dismiss them as vanity projects for Jamie Oliver, but I think this is a glib suggestion borne out of not a little jealousy not to mention a lack of understanding of what Fifteen has achieved and continues to achieve.
“Having not been the brightest banana in the bunch myself, I realised that my biggest weapon in life was the determination, enthusiasm, hands-on and "actions speak louder than words" approach my father taught me, and I wanted to get this across to others, especially those interested in food.” ~ Jamie Oliver
So, on to our meal at Fifteen Cornwall…
I'll be honest. Once I'd read more about Fifteen and understood what it was about, I wasn't expecting a mind-blowing dining experience. I figured it would be decent, of course, but I jumped to the conclusion that the place was busy because it was a good cause and had Jamie Oliver's name attached to to it.
I was happy to be wrong. We had very good meal indeed!
At lunch, Fifteen offers both an a la carte menu as well as a three course set price menu for £27. At the moment, a "Sicilian Season" special offer means that the lunch menu drops to £19.95 Mondays to Fridays until April 8th.
In the evenings, only a 5 course tasting menu is available, priced at £58. Pete added the optional wine pairings at £44.
I went for a homemade "cola", an interesting drink with lots of herbal flavours, though not like any cola I've tried.
The sommelier, Elly, was brilliant. Not only did she quickly pitch the information about her matches to the level of knowledge we had, she was hugely enthusiastic and clearly very keen to ensure that guests enjoyed the matches she proposed. Pete was really impressed with her choices and, in one case, she gave a small taster of an alternate match, and he could really taste how the two choices enhanced the flavours of the dish quite differently.
The waiting staff were very good too. Dressed in funky pink Asian-style dresses provided by a trendy fashion company, they were helpful in understanding the menu and attentive throughout our meal.
To start: Mammole artichoke, pecorino and mint arancini
The little rice ball, served on an artichoke spoon, was piping hot, crunchy on then outside and with light, fluffy rice inside. Pete really enjoyed it but I just didn't like the combination of pecorino cheese and mint at all.
Insalata: 30 day aged Angus beef carpaccio, puntarelle alla Romana and new season Fontodi olive oil
Puntarelle, our waitress explained, is a chicory and anchovy salad. She also added that the salad was dressed with chilli, garlic, lemon and olive oil. The serving of carpaccio was very generous and Pete really enjoyed the different flavours of the beef, salad vegetables, anchovies and dressing.
Insalata: Mozzarella di bufala, roasted Italian pear, Buttervilla's funky leaves, toasted walnuts and aged balsamic
Mine wa a classic salad elevated into something special by the quality of the ingredients; that mozzarella was meltingly milky, the pear and walnuts beautiful and the salad and very simple drizzling of oil and balsamic just right.
Primi: Aged carnaroli risotto of Zucca Farm butternut squash, amaretti, Rosary goat's cheese and sage
It shouldn't be hard for an Italian restaurant to make a good risotto yet evidence has taught me that many fail. This risotto was excellent – richly flavoured and unctuous with perfectly cooked rice. The salty-sweet-savoury of butternut, amaretti, goat's cheese and sage was superb.
The menu listed a Burgundy Chardonnay to match with the risotto but Elly suggested switching Pete to the New Zealand Pinot Noir she'd matched to my pasta in the menu. Having earlier ascertained that Pete favours reds, she explained that she'd initially chosen the same wine for both dishes but that would be boring on the menu so she'd gone with the Chardonnay for the rice, which also worked well with it during her tastings.
Pete was amazed that, with my duck pasta, the pinot noir was fruity and mellow and yet, with the sweet risotto, the acidity came through much more. It was a completely different wine with the two dishes!
Primi: Cappelletti of slow cooked Grampound duck in a balsamic butter sauce with pecorino and good olive oil
I had watched some of the chefs making the cappelletti in the kitchen shortly after we arrived, so naturally, I wanted to try it.
This was a stand-out dish for me! The flavour and texture of the duck filling, the mouthfeel of the pasta, the mild bitterness of the leaves and the sheer genius of that simple balsamic butter sauce… I would never have thought such a simple dish could be so wonderful.
I seriously considered asking for another plate. I resisted only because we still had two courses to come.
Secondi: Roast saddle of Bre Pen Farm lamb, pale aubergine caponata with chilli and mint dressing
Pete ordered this, but kindly shared a fair bit as it was a generous portion. This dish, more than any other, showcased the quality of the ingredients that Fifteen source (locally, as much as possible). I have seldom tasted lamb that tasted so much of itself; was so tender and delicious. The caponata beneath it was also excellent.
Secondi: Crispy fillet of line caught sea bass, patate al forno, purple sprouting broccoli with mussels and clams in a herby tomato sauce
My fish dish was also very good. As I'd come to expect by this point, the fish was nicely cooked as was the PSB. The tomato, herbs, mussels and clams provided a simple, traditional accompaniment. This was a pleasure to eat.
Formaggi: Exmoor blue, Danegeld and Cerney served with carta di musica and Fifteen's fruity chutney
Good cheese. Tasty chutney. Thin, crunchy crispbread. What's not to like?
The paired dessert wine, a Valpolicella from the Veneto, was an excellent match – sweet, musty, fruity.
Dolci: Jack's lovely Amedei chocolate, date and hazelnut pudding with mint ice cream and biscotti
The pudding was essentially a posh tiffin – rock solid, very cold and not especially lovely. The biscotti too was very hard and would have been better matched to coffee than the dessert. The best bit was the mint ice-cream (which tasted of the fresh herb rather than overpowering mint oil) and the sweet mint jelly drops decorating the plate. The chocolate pudding was the only off note of the meal for me but as I ordered a glass of Sauternes to have alongside it, I didn't mind too much.
The tasting menu includes tea or coffee. Ours was served with some moist, cakey bites which were so addictive we ate them before I even thought to take a picture!
Our meal was over, and it had been a good one. We look forward to returning again, and also to visiting Fifteen London, which is so much closer but we've not yet been.
Kavey Eats was invited to dine by Fifteen Cornwall. All drinks were paid on our own account.
Fifteen London invites you to donate money towards cooking books and stationery, chefs knives and whites, travel costs, living allowances and placements.