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Fifteen - a successful failure

"It’s sad what’s happened with the restaurants – but no one died. This business is fickle but he’s still had the biggest impact as a public voice on food. He’s shaped a generation."

Tim Siadatan - Fifteen graduate, now chef and restaurateur

I have no idea why I am writing about this - where the idea came from. After all I am hopelessly out of date. The Fifteen idea began way back in 2002 and finally died in 2019, along with all of Jamie's restaurant empire. Massive losses, of money and jobs, and reputation too I guess. But somehow or other I thought of writing about it.

Just to remind those of you who don't remember Fifteen, the idea was to recruit and train fifteen young people - between the ages of 16 and 24 to be chefs. The apprentices were deliberately chosen from the down and out to use one expression. Young people with problems anyway and no job and not much future.

"Maybe 100 will be invited for interview. Selection is "an inexact science. Almost the reverse of a normal recruitment process: usually you look for the most employable candidate; here we're looking for the least employable. We try to identify who needs this the most, to uncover the reasons why things haven't worked out for them so far." Karl Jones - Training and Development Chef

Although as time went on it became clear that complete drug addicts were not a good idea. And there were various disasters along the way - I remember the Melbourne Fifteen which was run by Tobie Puttock (whatever happened to him?) eventually was burnt out from a fire deliberately lit by one of the apprentices. Some dropped out along the way - an average of three or four out of every group apparently, but I guess that 's inevitable. I suspect a higher percentage drops out of university. But according to Jamie some 80% of the graduates are still employed in the industry. Probably some of them are well-known in England, and Anna Jones is probably the most famous here - she has written a couple of best-selling cookbooks.

It was such a worthy venture you might wonder why there aren't similar things happening - and not necessarily just in the food area. After all it seems to be pretty cost effective when dealing with the problem young:

"All is not entirely rosy. After a few fat years, public money is running dry, and fundraising is going to be a big part of his job. But look, what are we worth? It costs £25,000 to train a Fifteen apprentice. A year on benefits might cost £52,000; a year in prison, £70,000. This isn't just poverty alleviation. There's a real transformative agenda happening here." Matthew Thomson - Fifteen CEO 2012

So why couldn't the government run similar programs - perhaps as a subset of TAFE courses?

I read somewhere that the Cornwall Fifteen is still operating but being run as a separate charity. But then again I also read that it had been one of the first to close. I do know that Jamie himself actually had very little to do with the Fifteen restaurants after a few years as he turned it over into a separate company/charity, but nevertheless they did die along with his other restaurants in 2019. In Cornwall - apparently a depressed area, it was a boon, so maybe it is still operating, although I really don't think so. You can read a 2012 Guardian article about the Cornwall Fifteen, by Jon Henley who said of it:

"What makes the project work, they say here, is that original social enterprise model: without the apprenticeship programme, Fifteen would be just another high-end restaurant; without the high-end restaurant, the foundation would be just another youth training centre, divorced from commercial reality." Jon Henley

All of which is probably of no interest to any of you, and really I don't know why I thought to write about it. Perhaps it was because I remember that initial program. There was one particularly difficult apprentice who caused himself no end of trouble. Because it was trouble for himself really. I admire people who take on such challenges, who try to make a difference, who battle with the difficult people of this world and try to give them a better life. And cooking is such a satisfying thing:

"Partly because they're taking something raw and turning it into something special; they can see what they achieve, every day. But partly, too, because a kitchen has its own discipline and hierarchy, and for many of them, it's those boundaries they were looking for." Karl Jones

Yes, Jamie Oliver has made millions in spite of those big restaurant losses. Yes, he can be very irritating with his enthusiastic schtick and his 'amazing' this and 'fantastic' that, but quite apart from the good and imaginative food that he offers to us all, he has been such an energetic crusader for the poor and the uneducated of Britain with his various projects - school dinners, his Ministry of Food, the campaign against sugar which resulted in a sugar tax, a campaign against ads for junk food and all manner of other stuff. No wonder when the restaurants went bust lots of his former apprentices came out in vociferous support.

Sorry - a better post tomorrow I hope.


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