Small Biz Spotlight is back! You guys LOVED hearing from Toby Boutall, of Raw Boys Club last month, so I hope you will enjoy this month’s feature just as much. As you know, I am a big supporter of The Brasserie, which is MK College’s restaurant. I hosted my second Sophie’s Supper Club there in November 2019, and later collaborated with them on a private dinner I organised for the developers of Saxon Court and another Sophie’s Supper Club in March 2022.
The Brasserie is a bit of a gem that you need to know about – Though I may regret saying that when you all flood to Thursday Taste Night… The restaurant is run by Level 3 Catering Students. The environments provides them with invaluable experience of a real working kitchen, menu development and catering for large events.
I caught up with the Head Chef, Nico Baker, to find out more about The Brasserie’s story so far, how it supports students and what they have planned for the future.
Can you start by telling us about The Brasserie?
The Brasserie is a college run restaurant where you can enjoy a modern dining experience in a relaxing and stylish environment in the heart of Bletchley. We pride ourselves in creating high quality, delicious food daily for our students, staff and the local community while ensuring sustainability and support for the local area, we do this by using locally sourced ingredients and local suppliers.
How does The Brasserie support catering and hospitality students?
Here at Milton Keynes College, we have over 60 Catering students studying at different levels, these range from Level 1’s learning the basic skills needed to work withing the kitchen. We set them up for their kitchen journey, all the way up to up to Level 3 where they learn the most intricate parts of cooking which are then executed at our Thursday night taster sessions. On these occasions, we provide a fine dining experience to the public, created and served by our Level 3s. This is a very enjoyable part of the course giving the students the experience of working in a fully functioning kitchen while setting them up for a real working environment.
As well as the catering students, we also have a stand-alone hospitality course where we teach an array of different skills that the hospitality sector relies on. These students also work alongside the chefs on our taster evenings. Here they learn about service in a fine dining setting, but also learn and understand the day to day of a busy café where they are required to multitask, serving coffees and making paninis whilst giving great customer service.
The Brasserie gives all these students unquestionable transferable skills learning on the job, creating that flowing pathway to further employment.
As well as internal taster nights, we also ensure our students have the opportunity to visit and be creative in different environments. This includes a regular slot for us to cater for the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire’s justice dinner, SOTY awards nights allowing them to cook at the brand new Hotel La Tour as well as our new partnership with Silverstone which gives our students the chance to work within another positive environment where they can utilise all the skills they have learned and developed in The Brasserie.
What does the teaching team look like at The Brasserie and how do they support the students?
Our teaching team is what keeps us all ticking! From the support of our curriculum teaching team, to the chef support team, everyone has a part to play. My role is Head Chef. Having worked within the industry for several years this enables me to share my passion for food, knowledge, and experience every day.
I feel I am a positive role model, always pushing the students to be the best chefs they can while being there to support and guide each and every student. I create and develop menus alongside the students enabling them to create delicious food. With many chefs completing their course and moving on to full time Chef positions, we have also managed to retain some of our students who now have been offered full time work within our food outlets throughout our campuses. For me, this shows the skills and development our team are able to teach but also the opportunities that can be created by enrolling on a college course and working hard.
We also have Front of House Manager Joanna. She is a dedicated member of staff that strives for perfection in her services which she has passed on to many hospitality students both current and passed. Joanna is a big part of ensuring service standards are kept to a high and every customer has the best experience when dining with us.
Tell us about how the everyone can support The Brasserie and what’s on offer?
We do a fantastic Taster Night every Thursday evening where the public can indulge on a six-course menu developed by myself, Chef Carr and the Level 3 students. Whether you just wanted to come along and try some great food, celebrate an occasion or just want a change of scenery The Brasserie is here!
We also currently offer a great Christmas lunch menu which can be booked by the local community or for local companies and corporates to enjoy with their colleagues while supporting our students.
Our coffee shop is open daily, offering a great range of hot drinks served by our Barista trained students and staff, a light bites menu consisting of soups and paninis that can be taken away or eaten in as well as delicious homemade cakes for those with a sweet tooth.
Private hire is also available for functions, with a spacious and comfortable environment this can be used for meetings, parties, or any other event you can think of. This can be available with or without catering.
What support do you get from the community in Milton Keynes and the surrounding areas, and how can other restaurants and foodies get involved with supporting the students?
We receive a lot of support from the local community and the suppliers we work with such as AB Fruits and Wooden Hill who regularly support our charity events. Our partnership with the local area is vital to us and we enjoy giving back as much as we can. This includes regular training sessions with local schools including Lord Grey, where we support their GCSE students with the more intricate skills for their course, as well as regularly giving to the local West Bletchley Council at the Frank Moran Centre and St Marks Meals.
We received fantastic support from our local partner MKFM who regularly offer us slots and advertising opportunities to spread the word about what we have on and the great things we are doing.
We are also involved with the MK Food and Leisure Awards every year. This year, we have our two Head Chef’s competing for Chef of the Year, with James Carr looking to retain last year’s title. This competition is hosted at The Brasserie where chefs are welcomed to use our great facilities to create the best meals they can think up!
Saf’s Kitchen is another business we work closely with. Saf brings current industry skills and cooking in a different way to our kitchens. She regularly hires out The Brasserie for her pop up events which allows the students the opportunities to work with, serve and create something a little different.
Pop up events are things we enjoy doing which has been supported by Sophie from Sophie etc. We have hosted Sophie Supper Club which was a great success and enabled us to meet a different group of people and create dishes and an experience a little different to our own.
We would welcome any local businesses to support in any way they can, whether that is to come down and try our wonderful food or taster nights, promote the great work we are doing or sponsor or support with produce or opportunities.
The taste nights are a great way to experience your food – How do the students come up with the menu? How does it evolve over the year?
Being a Chef myself, I am a very creative person and express a lot of my personality within my food. Creativity is at the forefront of our minds and ensuring the students are also given the chance to express themselves, we ask for ideas every week that we can turn into the menu. This allows them to feel a sense of pride in what they are doing. From my experience there is nothing better than someone enjoying a dish you have come up with and created.
We of course must ensure they meet the requirements of their curriculum course, so working with the curriculum team we grade each student throughout the academic year. Every student gets the opportunity to work of every station, from garnish to fish or meat.
As the students develop within their course, we get to see how their ideas change. They become more confident and want to push themselves further which from a trainer perspective, is always a great moment.
What’s the thing you love most about teaching the students?
There are many things I enjoy about my role, being part of and seeing the students progress each day and week brings a huge feeling of accomplishment. There are times I challenge them with questions or tasks and I really enjoy seeing their brains ticking and seeing them learn from mistakes or reach those answers of their own accord.
Being a part of the jigsaw that creates the chef they become and being there throughout a critical learning point where they have enough of a blank canvas to take on lots of information and allowing their creativity to develop is incredible. The journey we go on from Level 1 to Level 3 with some of them really inspires me.
What’s been the biggest highlight for The Brasserie over the past few years?
For me, getting to the final of the AA Best College Restaurant Awards after a tough lockdown was an amazing feeling. When returning after lockdown, it felt like we were starting from scratch and getting back on our feet. We had to rebuilding the rapport with the customers and community after being closed, develop our recipes and menus as well as our team, so to then be rewarded for our hard work made it all feel worth it.
It gives the team and the students something to strive for to win next year. We are all working hard to put plans in place and to drive forward. This is something that keeps not only my motivation high, but everyone around me.
We are the only college restaurant that has reached to the final every year since 2015! We have never let our standards drop no matter what we have faced and for me as Head Chef that’s a reward by itself.
And what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
I joined the team after lockdown. At this point there were no previous Chefs in post and no team for me to work with as well as no customers.
This was a tough time and at the beginning, it was a little daunting but I would say it has shaped me as a Chef. During this period I had to develop a plan on how we moved forward and quickly but although it felt like things were against me it also gave me the opportunity to be creative and really put my stamp on things.
There are still a lot of things I want to do, and I have so many ideas that I’m slowly implementing alongside my students and my team. My passion and drive not only for great food but for the Brasserie keeps me pushing forward.
Congratulations on your most recent award! What’s in store for The Brasserie over the next 12 months?
I feel this one is easy for me – Firstly, to win the of the College restaurant of the year, we want to be holding that winners award next year!
But we also want to welcome more community groups into the college. Alongside our new College strategy of ‘Building Fairer Futures’ we aim to give more people the opportunity to join us. We are already working towards this by supporting YMCA MK, West Bletchley Council and running our local HAF project where we give children who receive free school meals the chance to join us for a week for sporting activities and a hot meal throughout school holidays.
We also want to continue to develop our students, not only creating great chefs but also great people who are prepared and ready for the working world with the skills and opportunities we continue to work hard to give them. This could mean coming up with a great dish, supporting a fellow student within the kitchen or entering a competition no matter their goal we want to give them to foundations to succeed.
And finally – What is your dessert island dish?
It has to be a Lasagne, cant beat it!
To book a table or enquire about private hire, head to thebrasseriemk.co.uk. You can also follow @thebrasseriemk on Instagram.
Thank you so much to Nico and the team at The Brasserie for being part of this month’s Small Business Spotlight. I hope you enjoyed this interview. If you have an interesting story to share and would like to feature in an upcoming spotlight, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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