The Combe, set within West Somerset College in Minehead, trains post 16 students in the fine art of catering and hospitality.
At the helm of this enterprising venture for over 4 years is Werner Hartholt, a Dutch / Indonesian chef who moved to the UK some 20 years ago.
Werner Hartholt, 41, was born in The Netherlands and lived in Groot-Ammers, east of Rotterdam on the Lek river. He was born of mixed parentage, having “an Indonesian mother and a Dutch Father.”
It was in Holland that Werner discovered his love of cooking. By the age of 20 he had become a chef, having qualified through college and 3 separate restaurant apprenticeships, and then went to Spain for a year.
Not really giving any particular reason as to why he chose that country, Werner said that he went to Spain, “because I was young and because I could.” It was here that he met an English girl and before long, the UK was inevitably calling, arriving in 1995.
Werner did try a couple of non-catering jobs, but by the age of 26, he had firmly decided on a career as a chef. He remembers a conversation with a friend who had asked him, “What would you do if you won the lottery?”
Werner knew immediately and responded, “well, buy my own restaurant.” His friend replied that he clearly and obviously wanted to be a chef. Werner added, “Actually, it made me realise it’s what I want.” And so the die was cast and a course was set for a life in catering.
Initially working in some pubs in Kent that were not really on the quality end of the spectrum, he promised himself to aim higher and move to the South West of England. “I will only do proper, very good cooking which is what I started off with and that’s what I did.”
Werner arrived in the South West in 2001, living in Taunton and working in the Blackdown Hills which straddle the Devon and Somerset border. Moving on from there, Werner settled at The Blue Ball in rural Triscombe, adding “We won lots of awards there.”
Eventually, the owner sold up and set his sights on Dulverton, the gateway to Exmoor. Werner said, “He bought an empty property, and I came with him and we started Woods.” Still today, Woods Bar & Restaurant is a thriving business.
Sometime later, Werner started working as the Head Chef at the Dragon House Hotel in Bilbrook. He said, “That was my full time job, and I saw an advert for a one day a week ‘Chef-Lecturer’ job… so I applied.”
After “rigorous interviewing,” Werner was selected and started work at West Somerset College as Chef-Lecturer, taking supervision of The Combe training kitchen, teaching post-sixteen students who wanted to become chefs.
Despite still being head chef at the Dragon House, Werner relates: “I kept the kitchen going here one day a week, and after about nine months that turned into three days, and then after a year it became full time.”
Explaining to me the rationale and function of The Combe, he told me, “We are a training restaurant within a college; so we are a licenced restaurant like any other business. The only difference is that all the food is cooked by students and served by students under supervision of lecturers obviously.”
Werner added, “We open two days a week generally for lunch and occasionally for dinners, and this is to give the students as real an experience as possible.”
Students are also in the kitchen for one day a week doing all the Mise en place (prep) for the two days that the restaurant is open. “One day a week they do all their theory and then also one day a week has been allocated for work experience outside of college.”
Werner told me that the lunchtime menu provides lots of choice to make it as realistic as possible. “We do some fine dining and we do some brasserie type cooking.” Werner explained that brasserie cooking is basically, “high end lighter meals that are a bit less intricate. It is not
quite fine dining but it is on the cusp.”
Undeniably, these students are gaining an impressive and thorough training at The Combe in Minehead, under Werner’s experienced hand. I have no doubt that this training restaurant will go from strength to strength, as they seek to produce quality chefs for Britain’s burgeoning restaurant industry.