“I DO love conkers,” says celebrity chef Marco Pierre White as he reaches for another on the grounds of the Amber Foundation at Ockley.
The star has come to visit ex-offenders, recovering drug addicts and the homeless among other struggling youngsters taken in by the charity, which is close to his heart.
“My mother died when I was six,” Marco tells me, “and sometimes people aren’t very good at dealing with that sort of situation.”
The chef pauses, his trademarks locks fluttering in the wind as he sucks hard on the last of a cigarette.
“My father’s way of dealing with it was not dealing with it. And over time that manifested itself as anger.
“If you don’t deal with it well, the people who have the time to care for you and prepare you for the real world are at Amber.”
Marco was introduced to the foundation, created in 1995, by former racing driver Eddie Jordan in 2008.
He said: “I came from humble beginnings in the north of England and I was given chances.
“But it’s easy for every young person to end up in a situation that they never planned.
“A lot of people from working class England tend to leave home early for jobs and it doesn’t always work out for them.
“So Amber is a sensational charity in the sense that it builds people up in motivation and self-esteem and prepares them for the outside world.”
Marco joined staff and seven nervous ‘Amberteers’ as he prepared to judge their bread and butter puddings in a Hell’s Kitchen-styled ‘Bake-Off’.
The chef took his time to scoop out a mouthful from each carefully presented tub, before chewing critically, thrusting the spoon back on the table and breaking into a Cheshire Cat grin.
“You’re all winners,” he concluded, “but sadly, I can only choose one.”
It was 26-year-old Toby Hayden who emerged victorious, but all chefs won a free lunch or dinner at one of Marco’s restaurants.
Toby’s one of 28 unemployed 17 to 30-year-olds living at Amber’s Farm Place off Stane Street.
Staff provide a residential programme of structured activities and 24-hour support to help individuals gain the educational, social, emotional and practical skills required to reach employment or a place at college in a bid to turn their lives around.
But Amber chief executive Charles Drew insists ‘the one thing we’re not is an institution’.
“We try not to be, because they’ve already done institution. We do things differently here - we don’t conform to the statutory expectations of a rehabilitation centre because we’re not one. We don’t do group therapy or counselling - let’s stop looking backwards all the time and start focusing on what the future can hold.”
He said ‘people have a negative perception about the Amberteers’ but assures us that ‘not one member of staff has been assaulted’ since the foundation opened.
Speaking of Marco’s visit, the chief executive added: “One visit like this gives everyone here four to five weeks of motivation.
“It just takes one person who was maybe thinking of becoming a chef and this could provide that vital push in the right direction.”
And 21-year-old Sean Hughes is a shining example of how well the system works. He is preparing to leave the home for a career in care after joining the foundation in 2009 as a drug user with a ‘bad lifestyle choice’.
Sean said: “It’s nice to know that people who have done well in their work take the time out of their day, support and understand what happens here.
“Amber has done so much with me, I’ve been in the British kick-boxing championships and they’ve taken me to Bulgaria which are just a couple of things.
“I’ve got the support I needed from my team leaders which is amazing, and now I’m getting ready to leave for my job as a care assistant.”
Marco added: “It’s great to spend time with these young men and women - it’s such a special place filled with special people and it’s a privilege for me to be here.”
For more information about the work of the organisation visit the website at amber-web.org.