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Learning new skills

THERE are some things you�re a natural at and others that you have to be taught. For instance, over the years I�ve discovered by chance that I�m actually quite handy around the house.

I can chop wood, dig the garden, replace a fuse, apply paint and even assemble flat-pack furniture. What I�m not so good at is making things out of wood. Sure, I�ve got all the tools and gadgets, but somehow the finished item looks as if it had been completed by someone with poor eyesight and a lack of prehensile thumbs.

The things I make are unlikely to fall apart, but that�s only because I�m generous with glue, nails and screws. But the finished product never sits easily on the eye. I�m not blaming anybody, it�s nobody else�s fault but mine, but the reason is that I�ve never learnt the necessary skills.

At a professional level, I�ve a close friend, Chris, who runs a handmade furniture business in Barnard Castle. Their furniture is fantastic and they�ve a waiting list as long as they wish. But their big problem is finding the right people with the skills to make the stuff. Of course, they take on trainees and spend a few years getting them up to speed, but inevitably some of them then leave just as they�re beginning to make a contribution to the business. Some go seemingly to take up a less physical job elsewhere.

But whatever the reason, Chris ends up employing readymade skills from eastern Europe who, as an added bonus, appear to wish to work longer hours than their British counterparts.

This problem of lack of skills is one that occupies the minds of our legislators quite a bit. It�s unlikely you can pick up a paper and not find the words �skills shortage� somewhere relating to business or education, and it�s something that seems to be highlighted even more these days as people come from other parts of the world with a different background, education and attitude to fill the gaps we�ve left open.

So back to my limited abilities. As a youngster I found that cooking came naturally to me. Of course, some of its based on experience, but I believe that in this one area of my life I do have an iota of natural talent. However, I wouldn�t consider myself a naturally creative person, so my ideas always stem from others; from reading and listening and watching.

While I can cook, being a chef � running a kitchen, never knowing what you�re going to be cooking next, cooking a dozen different dishes at once with some rare, some medium and some cremated, trying to communicate with your customer without actually talking to them because they�re out there and you�re in the kitchen � that�s another thing and needs training.

And that�s not to mention the ordering, negotiations, menu construction, hygiene regulations, recruitment, staff management and so on and so on.

Being a proper chef is a skill and needs teaching. But the colleges can�t do it all and can only go so far. So any self-respecting kitchen operator will always be looking at ways of deepening the skill-base, and to that end we�ve recently been learning more about butchery skills, which are rare in our industry.

We�ve butchered quite a bit of our own meat for some time now. But we�ve always wanted to take it further and were recently introduced to a chap called Martin Landers, who trained as a master butcher. A nicer man with an ability to put his obvious passion across, you�d have difficulty finding. He�s already spent time with us teaching us how to the get the best out a whole lamb, and is soon to be taking us through wild boar, beef and anything else that takes his and our fancy.

These skills are becoming rarer as independent butchers disappear from our high streets.

A good butcher knows not just how to cut the meat up but can provide tips and ideas on cooking, passing on their skills to you, the customer.

There�s no doubt that our chefs got a buzz from Martin, and maybe a skill we�ve learnt over the years is passing on that enthusiasm in the kitchen to our customers. But if there�s one thing I have learnt from the exercise, it�s that as a woodworker I make a very good butcher.


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