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Britannia students and alumni hitting new heights

Speilsalen graduate Leon Haarberg Nilsen wins Best Assistant at this year’s Bocuse d’Or competition and several current apprentices are making waves in the industry.

Article · 6 min read
Leon Haarberg Nilsen

Throughout its 153-year history, Britannia Hotel has had a proud tradition of supporting young hospitality professionals. Since reopening in 2019, following a multimillion-dollar renovation, the hotel has maintained its reputation, with dozens of new apprentices starting every year. 

Already this year, graduates of the hotel’s academy have brought home silverware in competitions for waiters, sommeliers, receptionists and chefs, with one former employee making headlines on the world stage for his achievements in Lyon last month. It’s credit to the hotel’s dedicated apprenticeship programme, which is now accepting new applicants for autumn 2023.

Britannia's Fredrik Totland, Nils Flatmark and Ingrid Aas. Photo Wil Lee-Wright
Britannia's Fredrik Totland, Nils Flatmark and Ingrid Aas.

“The hotel has a great relationship with Opplæringskontor, the municipal training offices which recommend suitable candidates for apprenticeships,” explains Espen Aunaas, Britannia’s Executive Head Chef. 

“At any one-time Britannia may have 15-16 apprentices working in the kitchen, and many more across the rest of the hotel. Having good apprentices means we can teach new chefs and waiters how to behave and how to work efficiently. This is not only good for the hotel, but good for the industry and good for the reputation of Trondheim and Trøndelag as a centre of gastronomy.”

Espen Aunaas

The aspiring hospitality professionals (whose number also includes mature students offered placements directly from the hotel), will often use their education in Trondheim as a springboard for furthering their careers elsewhere. In doing so they become ‘spokespeople’ for Britannia; travelling the world, competing at the highest level, showing off the skills and standards they have learnt at the hotel. 

“The training we provide carries the ‘Britannia stamp’ and opens doors for our graduates. Many, hopefully, will return to Trondheim later in their careers with even greater skillsets. So, it’s an investment not only in the apprentices, but also the region,” says Espen, who studied in Trondheim, carrying out his apprenticeship at Michelin-starred Credo, before working internationally. He has also held the role of captain of the Norwegian cooking team. 

“Our 20-year vision is to have Bocuse winner who was trained at Britannia Hotel in Trondheim.”

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Christopher Davidsen, Filip August Bendi and Leon Haarberg Nilsen. In Lyon, the silver medalist team at Bocuse d'Or 2023.

Espen and Britannia can feel like they are already one step closer to that goal, following the incredible achievements by one of their graduates in Lyon last month. Leon Haarberg Nilsen won the prestigious title of Best Assistant in the 2023’s Bocuse d’Or, the world’s premier cooking competition. Leon was assistant to Filip August Bendi (Bristol Hotel, Oslo), the chef who spectacularly took silver for Norway. 

Filip and Leon were coached by Christopher Davidsen, Speilsalen’s Chef Patron, who won silver in Bocuse d’Or 2017. With mentors such as Aunaas and Davidsen, there is clearly great pedigree in the Britannia team, but as Leon points out success is never a foregone conclusion and hard work underpins every effort:

“Being an apprentice at Britannia was really a struggle at the start. When I started in 2019, I was not the most motivated guy. I dedicated all my time to my girlfriend and had no energy for work!” admitted the young chef Leon, now 21.

“But I was taught quickly about the grooming standards expected at Britannia and that being lazy was not an option. I picked up the pace expected by a high standard kitchen and started to like working hard.”

At Britannia Hotel apprentices have the unique opportunity to move between the six different food and beverage outlets, gaining invaluable experience of different types of kitchens and cuisines. When Speilsalen begun accepting applications for apprenticeships, Leon knew that this was an opportunity too good to ignore.

“I quickly understood that while Speilsalen looked cool on the outside, behind the scenes there was a lot more work than you could ever imagine. I pushed myself, worked on all the different stations and got the hang of the discipline. And from there I didn’t look back.”

Leon joined the team just after the restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2020. His colleagues included many who had competed at the highest level and the soon the discussions turned, as they so often do in Michelin kitchens, to where the next challenge lay. The newly revitalized Leon has impressed in the Speilsalen kitchen and was recommended by Christopher to the recently-crowned Norwegian Chef of the Year, Filip August Bendi, to be part of his team competing in Bocuse d’Or Europe. 

The rest is history as they say. “But what you don’t know,” reveals his proud mentor Christoper Davidsen, “is that Leon trained for that competition in Lyon like a professional athlete. We were all staying together in a small flat. Leon didn’t drink a drop of alcohol for four months. He woke up at four o’clock every morning, went for a run, trained on his yoga mat when he got home, and only had cold showers.”

“His one luxury was this really loud, old hairdryer, which would wake me up in the middle of the night. When I confronted him about it, he started sticking it under my bedroom door in the middle of the night!”

Leon laughs at this memory but reminds everyone that he is thankful for the team. “I’m nothing without them. With their help I found out that if I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. That’s my story of being an apprentice at Britannia, basically the best thing to ever happen to me.”

Britannia apprentices Mohamad Musab Almuslem and Maia Tingstad

Supporting the ambitions of young chefs and other hospitality professionals is central to Britannia’s philosophy when it comes to managing apprenticeships. The young professionals are usually teenagers when they start, and the learning curve is as steep as the rewards are great. It is not unusual for the apprentices to be supported financially to compete in a range of competitions, in order to push themselves to the next level.

Maia Tingstad, 19, grew up locally in the Byåsen and is now in her second year of apprenticeship with Britannia Hotel. She had the typical interests of a young Trøndersk girl, playing handball through school and playing in a marching band, but admits things have changed rapidly for her since starting at Britannia:

“There is not much time for that while I am a trainee here at Britannia! But I have incredible connections with everyone here at work. Everyone says hi, everyone looks after each other. It’s a great atmosphere.”

It has been a whirlwind journey for the young cook. Maia was invited to compete in the Trondheim Apprenticeship Championships within two months of starting at Britannia (Maia and her colleague Hilde placed second), and last year she assisted Britannia Sous Chef Nils Flatmark in his success campaign to win the National Championship in Culinary Arts. Maia received paid leave from Britannia to assist Nils for several weeks, training for eight hours a day, seven days a week, at the hotel’s kitchen garden at Braattan Gaard. 

So, with all the long hours and responsibility of such a placement, would Maia recommend the path for other aspiring chefs? “Yes, absolutely. Britannia is open to everyone, as long as you are willing to learn, are interested and take initiative yourself. You have to be engaged…. but, you also get a wider knowledge base, not just one specific area of cookery, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here.”

Britannia receptionist Stine Korstad and mentor Jakob Kern

Apprenticeships at Britannia Hotel are not restricted to those in the kitchen. The hotel is also home to plentiful opportunities for aspiring waiters and receptionists. Britannia trainee Stine Korstad recently competed in the national championships for reception and tourism apprentices, which took place at the same time as the chef and waiter championships. The contestants were challenged with a series of tasks which might come up during a regular day’s work, and were judged on the quality of their response and resolution skills. Britannia Hotel is proud to say Stine won gold in the competition. 

“It is so good to see that the hard work that Stine puts in every day is paying off,” said her mentor Jakob Kern, who travelled with Stine to Stavanger for the competition. “We’re so proud to have such talented people like her working here at the hotel.”

These are just a few of the many young professionals who are carving out a name for themselves at Britannia. The hotel is always on the lookout for new candidates for apprenticeships. If this sounds like the workplace for you and you would like to have a chat about working here, please get in touch with Opplæringskontor or with hotel directly at contact@britannia.no.

Who knows, you may end up on a podium in Lyon within the next twenty years!