Trained chef Ian Gibb speaks to Rebecca Shearer about his career and his hand in enabling some of the nation’s top chefs ahead of his retirement from teaching at the end of the summer.
If one thing is certain, Scotland’s hospitality industry owes a lot to Ian Gibb, sector manager for Food Studies and Hospitality.
The lecturer and trained chef at Perth College is due to retire this September after almost five decades in hospitality and shaping the educational institution’s hospitality curriculum which has helped mould much of the nation’s food and drink scene.
He has seen many students walk through his classroom doors and go on to be top chefs, including the likes of Jamie MacKinnon from St Andrews’ Seafood Ristorante, Perth’s Graeme Pallister and even celebrity chef Tom Kitchin.
Now, one of the leading educational institution’s in the country in terms of food studies, Ian has helped put Perth College on the map and a place on one of Ian’s courses are heavily sought-after by numerous up-and-coming chefs.
Ahead of his retirement, just a few weeks after he turns 60 in August, Ian reflects back on where it all started – at the age of 13 and how his experience as a young school boy helped shape some of the college’s offerings.
He said: “I went to Perth High School and I was only 13 years old when there was this opportunity to go to Perth College for some classes and I was always a practical sort of person as opposed to a school person.
“I actually remember meeting my home economics teacher from school a few years later at Perth College when she came in for a dinner. She told me there that I was actually the first boy from Perth High School to study home economics. I’d even won the prize at school for best home economics student.
“In my own wee way it was the fact I was breaking down barriers as well throughout the years – now, I’ve got this four year degree at Perth College set up that allows people to specifically become a home economics teacher.”
Breaking down barriers is what Ian became known for at Perth College, with the home economics course being the first of many ways his passion for cooking shone through.
“It’s almost like it’s come round full circle,” he continued.
“We’ve tried to break down the barriers on that course in terms of making home economics a female-orientated career option, to making it open to guys as well.
“I love food. I always have done. I had a natural passion for it at a very, very young age and experimenting with food and being at home and cooking were part of the reasons why I went to study at Perth College so young.
“People ask me why I wanted to be a chef, and it’s almost like the feeling of making stuff from raw ingredients and being able to actually sell it to the consumer is something nobody can take away from me. I saw the whole process through and it was down to me.
“As soon as I stepped through the doors of Perth College as a third year school pupil, I just loved the environment. At that time it was more of a taster course about the different areas of the college, but the only area I wanted to be in was the cooking bit.”
After enjoying his experience at the college as a third year pupil, Ian went back through its doors again the following year, which, little did he know then, was the start of the rest of his career.
“When I got to fourth year and started being asked to specialise in my courses I just ticked the box to go back to college as I had enjoyed it so much.
“At the college you were a person as opposed to just a number, even at such a young age. I think, even then, they saw something in me and I just built a relationship up with them and I think that’s why I decided to come here as soon as I had turned 16 and left school.
“I started doing a general catering course and it had an ethos I still use for students today – if you’re unsure about being a chef, do a general hospitality course as you’ll learn about things like the bar, housekeeping and the whole industry.”
Part of his studies included experiencing the hospitality industry itself, and Ian went on to earn an apprenticeship with former hotel group British Transport Hotels.
He continued: “I was given the chance to do an apprenticeship at The Station Hotel in Perth, which was part of the British Transport Hotels (BT Hotels) group at the time. When you worked for them it was like you were committing your life to the industry but it was also about the opportunities that became available through working for such a company.
“The mentoring and opportunities they gave me have still stuck with me – it’s not just about doing a course, it’s what you do with curriculum to make it like a ‘wow factor’, such as tying in industry links.
“That has been my forte I suppose, when I’m teaching. It’s not just about getting a student through a course, it’s about how everyone is treated as an individual person and tailoring their experience for what they want to go on and do.
“I can also say something on the talent that BT Hotels employed, because Andrew Fairlie came in just as I was finishing my apprenticeship and he was the one who got my job as their new apprentice.”
“After that, I continued working but studied in my own time to become a lecturer, which I also did in Perth. There was a lecturer at the college called Bernie Wilkie who asked me at the time what did I want to do with the qualification, which I think was called Advanced Cookery. So I told him I wanted his job! He actually never forgot that.”
Thoroughly immersed in his apprenticeship and the world of cooking, Ian was then offered the opportunity to study abroad on a scholarship, choosing the location because he’d heard about it from the TV show of the same name.
“One day a person from the BT Hotels company came round the apprentices at The Station Hotel and met with us individually to go through this massive checklist of what we should be doing in the workplace.
“He asked me if I had ever thought about working abroad as there was a BT Hotel scholarship coming up that involved travelling to another one of the group’s hotels abroad.
“It had a massive selection process and I had to travel down to London for interviews. He asked me where in the world I’d like to work and the first place that came into my mind was Dallas from the TV show. So I just said I’d like to work in Dallas, Texas.”
While in Texas, Ian’s career was about to take on a whole new lease of life and gain momentum back in his homeland of Perthshire.
“Somehow I was lucky enough to get one of those scholarships and worked at the Westin Hotel in Dallas for a year. I think I was about 20 going on 21 at this point,” he added.
“After a few weeks I got a call from my parents to say the college had been on the phone and they’d offered me a job.
“So I decided to travel back home to work at the college. But I never put all my eggs in one basket. I thought I will work and study hard and when I was in Dallas I actually studied at one of their community colleges and it was amazing. They didn’t recognise the qualifications I had in Scotland so I had to start with the basics again but that didn’t bother me as it was an experience.”
With the opportunity to pursue his dream job as a food studies lecturer at Perth College, Ian had one more hurdle to overcome – to prove that he could teach a classroom of trainee chefs.
He said: “Back at the college in Perth the job was going to be a fixed term contract for a year and three of us were in the running for it but only one would be kept. I knew I had to work my socks off as it was absolutely my dream job.
“Though I was confident because I was so young, one of my first assignments was to teach a room full of 18 chefs that were wanting to study professional cookery. This was the first time I’d ever been put in that situation and it was Bernie Wilkie who sat in the room with me.
“He showed me the ropes and I remember a 10-minute induction before I went into the room. Basically all I got was a set of keys, a timetable, a box of white chalk and a duster. I think I asked Bernie for coloured chalk but I think he said that was for senior staff.
“My first day in this classroom I was shaking just from the transformation of being a chef to then transfer those skills into teaching, which is a much more supported profession now. But I survived and was thankfully kept on.”
Having appreciated how much his own experience and career has been built upon the individual support he received when he was first starting out in his career, Ian also wanted to ensure this continued for the students who came after him.
“The curriculum we have now is built around the experience I started off my career with, ensuring that the qualification could be turned into practical use and you could carry out the job,” he added.
“For all our further education students we actually have a partnership with Sodexo who do the internal college catering. We are the only college in Scotland that’s got that day-to-day link with the curriculum and the industry itself.
“At the end of the day you’re getting people ready to work. That’s the aim here, to make sure we can train students up for the industry. It’s the added value parts of the curriculum that I love in terms of the competitions and the fact it’s about the up and coming people in our industry having not just the qualifications but the added recognition throughout their course. That’s the bit that helps them get their dream job.”