Victor Ceserani, one of the UK's most inspirational catering educationalists, died last week at the age of 97. His contribution to the teaching of professional cookery was immense. Janet Harmer celebrates the life of a man that was not only renowned for his work, but also loved for his generosity and spirit of true hospitality
The death of Victor Ceserani from cancer, two weeks after he was admitted to hospital, has prompted an outpouring of tributes to the immense contribution he made to the hospitality industry over three generations.
Ceserani was born of Italian-Belgian parents on 23 October 1919 in Knightsbridge, London. Shortly after his 15th birthday, keen to get away from academic subjects that he said were "beyond my comprehension", he joined London's Ritz hotel as an apprentice, on a salary of seven shillings and sixpence for a six-day week. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Letty, at the Pheasantry Club in the King's Road. The couple remained devoted to each other throughout their 75-year marriage.
Ceserani went on to become second chef at the Orleans Club and then joined the Royal Fusiliers, initially training as a motor mechanic. When the Second World War broke out, he was promoted to lance corporal and went on to work as an officers' mess cook. He was posted to France just after VE Day and demobbed in June 1946. On returning to London, Ceserani took on the position of second chef and then head chef at Boodles. In 1950 he decided that he would like to share his experience as a chef with young people, and his move into education began with a year's teacher training course at North West London Polytechnic.
Ceserani then applied for a job at the new Acton Catering School, even though - with no sexual discrimination laws in those days - the job advert specified a woman. However, he was successfully appointed and joined head of department Mary King.
At the time, students copied all their recipes from the blackboard, but Ceserani and his fellow lecturer Kinton decided to save time by having the recipes printed. This proved to be the first step towards the publication of Practical Cookery.
When King retired through ill health, Ceserani took over as temporary head of the catering department at Ealing College of Higher Education (where Acton Catering School had been transferred), later taking over as head of school.
During his time at Ealing, as a result of a desire to make up for what he felt were his own academic shortcomings, Ceserani spent a year in the US at Michigan State University, where he completed an MBA as well as teaching hospitality students.
Soon after returning to his career in Ealing in 1974, Ceserani was awarded an MBE for services to catering education. He finally retired in 1980 and was announced as an honorary fellow of Ealing College of Higher Education in 1982.
Ceserani was presented with the Catey Special Award, then called the Personality of the Year, in 1984, and received the Catey Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.
In 1999, he was granted honorary life membership of the HCIMA, which later became the Institute of Hospitality. He was also an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts.
Ceserani remained active within the industry during his retirement and spent considerable time as an enthusiastic judge of the Roux Scholarship.
He devoted his final few years to Letty and their two sons, John and Michael.
Ceserani's funeral will take place at 10am on 14 March at the Church of St Vincent de Paul, 2 Witham Road, Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 4AJ, with a reception afterwards at Syon House. Anyone who would like to attend should contact Jonne Ceserani at email@example.com
A personal tribute I met Victor almost exactly 30 years ago, when I joined The Caterer (then known as Caterer and Hotelkeeper) as a young restaurant reporter. I had been working in journalism for several years, but I was new to the hospitality industry.
Victor had retired seven years earlier from his full-time position as the head of the catering faculty at Ealing. However, he was as active as ever within the wider industry, and one of his many roles included working as a consultant to The Caterer. I think he quickly realised that my knowledge of the professional kitchen was zero, but he assured me that he would always be there to help and support me whenever I needed him. So I may not have seen him formally teach, but I regard myself as exceptionally fortunate to have benefited from his gentle encouragement and the belief he instilled in me that I could master a subject about which I had previously little experience.
One of my fondest memories of Victor was from around 1990 when I joined him, Richard Shepherd of Langan's Brasserie and several others on a whistle-stop, three-day tour of some of the UK's leading catering colleges to judge a student competition, the name of which escapes me. Not only did I learn a lot, but I don't think I've ever laughed so much at Richard and Victor's marvellous double act.
Age gradually crept up on Victor, but he always remained enthusiastic about the industry and wanted to contribute in any way he could. Six years ago, concerned as to where the next pool of talent was going to come from to support the expanding hospitality industry, he spoke to me in depth about why more needed to be done to facilitate kitchen apprenticeships.
Over the past few years, Victor was no longer able to join in at industry events, but he always kept up to date with what was going on through his copy of The Caterer. Nothing escaped his attention. Every few months we would chat and he would pass comment on the latest news.
I, like hundreds, if not thousands, of people have very special memories of Victor and am extremely grateful for his generous and inspiring spirit. We are all very lucky to have spent time with him and will miss him enormously.
Janet Harmer, hotels editor, The Caterer
The industry's tributes to Victor
Victor was simply the best, most passionate academician, an excellent cook and a great chef - a rare combination, not just in the UK, but also in the world.
He was a giant in our profession, yet so gentle, humble and generous with advice and support. He was a man of action and an inspiration who led by example.
When I invited him to become our vice-chairman of the judging panel of the Roux Scholarship, he instantly said yes. At a time, when Albert and I were flat-out running our businesses, his support as a judge was priceless. Victor's towering legacy lives on, not just in all the countless chefs he taught and inspired, including me, but in his many books. I love having his library at hand.
I will remember him as a gifted teacher and a true chef but, first and foremost, my friend.
Michel Roux, proprietor, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
Victor was an inspirational man who has touched so many lives and left us with a great legacy. He was a man of integrity, faith and compassion; a truly wonderful person who will be dearly missed.
David Foskett, retired head of school of hospitality and tourism, University of West London
I was a student at Acton when Victor was one of the chef instructors and he taught me cookery. He was such a generous man who was always willing to give up his time for past students, always remembering who they were and where they were working.
We have lost a legend, but his contribution will go on for a long time for the benefit of our profession, with students still using their editions of Practical Cookery.
Vic Laws, director, AVL Consultancy
If anyone deserves to be called a legend, it's Victor. He was loved and revered in equal measures. His knowledge of the culinary repertoire, which he was always willing to share, has been acknowledged across the world of hospitality.
Sara Jayne Stanes, chief executive, the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts
Victor was a marvellous communicator and a proud Englishman who was always generous with his time and knowledge. He may have been a little fellow, but he had a big heart and exuded the true spirit of hospitality. He also knew how to laugh and we had some wonderful, fun times together.
Brian Turner, president, the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts
Victor judged me when I won the Roux Scholarship. I remember looking up during the finals and being in awe, realising that he was there, actually tasting and judging my food. He was always very encouraging.
Steve Love, chef-proprietor, Loves restaurant, Birmingham, and 1997 Roux Scholar
I worked with Victor to develop the Forte apprentice and graduate chef programme. He was an amazing man - small in stature, but a giant among chefs.
Roger Hulstone, retired chef and father of Simon Hulstone
What a brilliant man. Victor was the kindest person to both dad and me when I was a young chef.
Simon Hulstone, chef-proprietor, Elephant restaurant, Torquay, 2003 Roux Scholar
Victor was my head of school. I was once called into his office, and I thought I was going to be told off, but he actually congratulated me on being very entrepreneurial.
Wendy Bartlett, proprietor, Bartlett Mitchell
My first industry hero. A lovely man and a true inspiration to so many. Practical Cookery was our bible. RIP Victor.
Mike Smith, chairman, Oakman Inns