The students wrote essays, as students do. Because they were catering students, they wrote about food. The standard was generally higher than it had been in the past, and one was better than most. A fourth-year undergraduate called Lizzie Mountford picked up this year's University of Surrey Food and Wine Society annual essay prize for her composition on food fashion and famous chefs.
Every year, the prize is donated by the society's president - hotelier and man of letters, Kit Chapman. He is an appropriate prize-giver, as he both writes (Diary of an Innkeeper was his last tome) and has a passion for food (his hotel, the Castle at Taunton, has spawned many a famous chef, including Gary Rhodes and Phil Vickery).
But Chapman has a complaint. "Where, in education today," he moans, "is the passion for food?" He says that the society of which he is president "serves to remind students that good food and wine are the heartbeat of the industry". Why on earth has it become necessary to remind students of this? "Because gastronomy and the study of food and wine are no longer important in education," says Chapman.
His point may be extreme, but it is a point. Has the passion for food been cut out of catering courses, along with everything else that can't be boxed and ticked by regulators and judged by written reports?
We're not talking about the passion of individual teachers here - that's something different and isn't in question. No, it's the fundamental belief that a catering education should be about the preparation and service of food that seems to be in doubt. All too often, for the sake of gaining funds, so-called catering courses concentrate on corporate management techniques, business studies and marketing. Where and when do students find the time to learn to love food?
At this year's Chef conference, Harrogate College lecturer Stuart Rhodes said that full-time NVQ level 1 and 2 students received fewer than 16 hours per week of tuition. Can that slender time include anything to do with gastronomy? Hardly.
This disregard for gastronomy isn't in evidence everywhere. At Dublin's Institute of Technology, the school head of Hotel and Catering Operations, Joe Hegarty, has set up a four-year degree course in gastronomy. Now in its second year, the main thrust of the learning on this course is food. Yes, food - the history, nutritional science and culinary value of what we eat. It's a model that educationalists would do well to study in the UK.
Generating a passion
We know all about funding cuts and falling student rolls and other difficulties facing education, and this is not another attack on the standard of graduates. It is a plea for colleges and education authorities to reintroduce some way of generating a passion for the fundamentals.
Catering education in the UK is still the best in the world, but the balance between producing well-funded business managers and graduates who are catering specialists has to be right. As Winnie-the-Pooh said about his spelling: "It's good spelling, but it wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places." Our college courses are in danger of wobbling towards the balance sheet, and Kit Chapman is right to question where the passion has gone.
Forbes Mutch, Editor, Caterer & Hotelkeeper