There are many reasons why catering remains a decidedly unsexy career option in the eyes of most school-leavers, but primary among them is training. Compared with some of the catering schools that flourish abroad, the traditional British routine of craft courses run by state-funded colleges of further education is just not cutting it.
This is the view of leading restaurateur Oliver Peyton, who says that the Government needs to redirect its spending on further education away from academic courses and into practical courses, such as catering and hospitality, so that they can offer the same inspirational training found overseas.
"At present, catering colleges in this country do not have the remit or money to do the job properly," says Peyton, whose company, Gruppo Restaurants, runs the Atlantic Bar and Grill, Mash and Isola, all in London. "Why is money directed at universities for geography and classics courses, which will not directly prepare anyone for anything, while catering colleges get so little in comparison? Tourism is a huge global business, but this country will not be able to compete on the world stage if the colleges cannot turn out students that are able to meet the expectations of discerning travellers."
Peyton says that the industry, as well as the Government, needs to contribute more towards training. "And it is not just the colleges that take on school-leavers that need to be addressed," he says. "Learning cookery skills is an ongoing process, but not enough is done for working chefs who want to top up their training. There is also not enough training of specialist subjects. The catering colleges that I've visited in France are fantastic. Why can't we have the same here?"
However, making comparisons between catering educational establishments overseas and those in the UK is not a straightforward matter, and funding is often the key differentiator.
Many of the most successful catering colleges abroad are run privately. Their income from high tuition fees, topped up with generous donations from big businesses, helps explain why they have state-of-the art lecture rooms and demonstration kitchens, as well as unlimited budgets for the freshest, first-class ingredients, and opportunities for extensive periods of work-based training.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), for instance, is run as a private, independent, not-for-profit institution, with funding from tuition fees, grants, and financial gifts from private companies and multinational corporations. As a result, the CIA, established in 1946 as the USA's first culinary institute, has developed to become one of the world's most prestigious catering colleges, with campuses in New York State and California.
Although smaller in size, the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyons, France, is equally impressive. About 300 students, most of them school-leavers, are taught at the college each year, some studying for the culinary arts and management diploma and degree qualifications, and the rest on the equivalent hotel and restaurant management course. There are also short, specialist courses for both professionals and amateurs.
The non-profit making college is financed by a mixture of tuition fees (€9,600/£6,680 a year, currently) and money from industry. The director of the Institut, Herv‚ Fleury, explains that restaurants, hotels and catering companies in France contribute 1% of their labour costs towards training, via their local chambers of commerce. Companies can specify which college they wish their contribution to be directed towards. "All of our investment goes towards improving the quality of the curriculum," Fleury says.
While private institutions such as these are shining lights in the arena of culinary expertise, the lack of private funding isn't the only reason the UK falls behind. Private institutions aside, France has an impressive range of training options available to students, and most of them are state-funded.
Culinary training is included in schools from the beginning of a child's education, and beyond that there is a clear structure of courses on offer, from basic craft courses for 16-year-olds to the three-year Baccalaur‚at Professionel, which focuses on technical and management skills, and the more advanced Baccalaur‚at Technologie, which gives broader management instruction. Such courses are available in state-run schools and colleges around the country, at little expense to the student. There is also a much more firmly established and respected apprenticeship system in place.
In the UK, domestic science no longer forms any part of the national curriculum and, while there is now more money going to catering colleges, much of it comes from European social funds rather than the British Government. Furthermore, the way in which the Government makes funding available to colleges can cause problems.
Currently, catering colleges receive funding in three stages. Money is handed out for each student enrolled on a course; a second lot is received if he or she sees it through; and the greatest amount is awarded when a qualification is completed. Apart from the implications this system has for the quality of students produced, it is clear that British colleges are stuck in an uncomfortable chicken-and-egg situation. To attract more students, they need to appear to be a more glamorous option, but to get the money to be able to do so, they need to enrol more students.
And this is the key to the root of the UK's problems. Catering is still not considered an attractive career option by most British students, parents or mentors. "There is a disparity between the view of hospitality workers in the UK and Europe," says Julian Burnell, a spokesman for the Learning and Skills Council. "Here, we have certainly looked down on vocational professions in the past, although their image is improving."
James Brown, chief executive of the Academy of Food and Wine Service, concurs. "The problem is not the quality of training available," he says, "it's creating the demand for it in the first place."
Despite the revolution in British restaurant cuisine in recent years, old visions die hard. "The British still suffer from a terrible profile as far as their cuisine goes," says French chef Raymond Blanc. "We have to give the industry some respectability. The UK's problems come down to a chain of events, starting with how we have traditionally valued food in this country. This is compounded by the Government, which has never looked at our industry seriously."
This may explain the failure of so many attempts to bypass the Government's lethargy and set up private schools akin to those in the USA and Europe. Notable closures include the Academy of Culinary Arts, the Scottish Chefs' School and the Butlers Wharf Chef School. Paradoxically, colleges mainly aimed at amateurs - Le Cordon Bleu School, Leiths School of Food and Wine and the Tante Marie School - have flourished.
The high cost of running such bodies has been largely responsible for the closures. The Academy of Culinary Arts, for instance, attempted to establish a purpose-built culinary school at Sussex University in 1991. The school planned to offer a high level of professional training to all levels of chefs and front-of-house staff, at a cost of about £800-£900 for a one-week course. But despite an initial Government pledge of £100,000, the £2m project collapsed because of widespread cutbacks in training throughout the hospitality industry brought on by recession and the first Gulf War.
Brian Turner, executive chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts, says: "The structure of what already exists here has got in the way of the evolution of the type of culinary institute that can be found abroad. People are generally not going to pay huge sums of money for training when they know they are going to enter an industry where the wages, to start with, are not very good."
The British Food Trust, the body behind plans to open a purpose-built Chef's Academy at a cost of £3.6m in Stafford, certainly hopes this will not be the case when the school opens its doors to its first students in the spring of 2006.
The Academy is only a part of a £40m development that will include a range of commercial outlets, restaurants and exhibition spaces. About £4m of this money will come from the Advantage West Midlands regional development agency, Stafford Borough Council and Staffordshire Council. The rest of the finance is expected to be generated over time by the commercial elements of the development.
The Academy is intended to be a national centre for the culinary arts and will be aimed at both school-leavers, with training on accredited courses, and professional chefs, who will be able to further their education on specialist training courses in such subjects as bakery, pâtisserie work and international cuisine. Amateur courses and opportunities for distance learning will also be available.
The chairman of the project, Prue Leith, says: "The problem with catering colleges at present is that as many as 60% of students leave their courses, and then 63% of those who do finish leave the industry during their first year at work. The reason is that colleges often project the wrong image of the industry by teaching students in a third-floor classroom, where they are expected to prepare food for a pretend restaurant, then they go into the industry completely unprepared for the long and unsocial hours."
Whether or not the school is a success remains to be seen, but what is clear is that efforts to strengthen the UK's tourism and hospitality industry are not only vital to those who work within it, but also to the country's economy as a whole. The sooner the Government wakes up to this fact, the sooner the industry can maximise its potential - and the amount it pours into the exchequer
Asian and Oriental School of Catering
One school trying to buck the trend is the Asian and Oriental School of Catering, which meets a very specific training need. It opened its doors in 2000 and is now training about 600 students annually.
As well as offering a mix of courses available both to new recruits to the industry and to existing employees, specialist training programmes can be tailor-made for individual companies.
The school was established in London by Holland Kwok of the Good Earth, Cyrus Todiwala of Caf‚ Spice and Atique Chowdhury of Yum Yum Thai Restaurant, at a cost of £1m, with nearly £800,000 provided by the Government Office for London.
Central to the training process is the school's public restaurant, Zen Satori, which offers full-time students the chance to spend 16 weeks training in a real working environment before they venture out into the industry.
State Funding for catering colleges
As a result of the establishment of Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs), some new funding for catering colleges has been provided by the Government over the past two years. CoVEs are intended to raise the profile of vocational learning by celebrating excellence in colleges and by providing more investment in specialist facilities.
The Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies and the Lancaster and Morecambe College were the first two hospitality and catering colleges to receive CoVE status, in September 2001. They were among 16 colleges, covering a variety of disciplines, which each received £300,000 to further develop their specific expertise.
Westminster and Kingsway, Thanet College and City College Norwich now also have CoVE status.
Institut Paul Bocuse, Lyons, France, Tel: 00 33 04 72 18 02 30, www.institutpaulbocuse.com
Asian and Oriental School of Catering, 40 Hoxton Street, London N1, Tel: 020 7613 9292, www.spice-train.com
Great British Kitchen, Stafford, Staffordshire, www.greatbritishkitchen.co.uk
Development director Scott Antony: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org,
Westminster Kingsway College, Vincent Square, London, Tel: 020 7802 8814,
The Culinary Institute Of America, Hyde Park, New York State, Tel: 00 1 845 452 9600, St Helena, California,
Tel: 00 1 800 333 9242, www.ciachef.edu
Guest Editor's comment
"Where's the Oxford or Cambridge of catering colleges in the UK? It seems to me that ‘applied crafts' are dirty words to this as well as previous governments, which have poured money into ‘higher'-minded disciplines and fed catering colleges to the wolves. I hear that ‘private funding' is the key; from where I'm standing, this notion is waved around like a get-out-of-jail-free card and we, as an industry, shouldn't let the Government off the hook quite so easily. We need a truly inspirational, stand-alone institution that our chefs of the future aspire to attend. It will take a big hit of money to get off the ground, but it's sorely lacking, and one truly great institution could alter the perception of the hospitality industry in one fell swoop. Private industry could play a part but they're not the sole bearers of responsibility."