Gary Hunter has created a community at Westminster Kingsway College that is an integral part of the hospitality industry, but the culinary director is determined to better the standards of culinary education in the UK. He talks to Lisa Jenkins
After graduating from college I worked with some very inspirational chefs, including Richard Hughes, chef-patron at the Lavender House in Norwich, and he became an incredibly close friend and mentor. In my spare time I took part in - and won - competitions, and I also had some stages lined up at Michelin-starred restaurants.
I got into teaching by accident. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a teacher, but someone asked me to apply for the role of chef lecturer at Torquay College when I was at a National Chef of the Year competition. So my wife Sarah and I went to Torquay for the weekend and they offered me the job there and then. While I was there, a job came up for a pastry chef lecturer at Westminster and I really wanted it - the
college had such a fantastic reputation.
How did you become culinary director?
In education, the paths are not always straightforward. Education likes to change systems on a cyclical basis every four to five years. Structures change within departments and that can be due to government initiatives, management changes or new thinking - and we have to change at the drop of a hat.
One of the first changes was when our head pastry chef lecturer left and I took on that role.
That was a real opportunity for me because I was able to mould the pastry team here in a way that I wanted to work. Westminster has allowed me to implement a strategy for creating the best, most knowledgeable and talented specialist teams and they are leaders in their field. Our chef lecturers include Jose Souto, Yolande Stanley and Dr Rachel Edward Stewart - there are so many.
How did your role grow?
From head pastry chef I became head of culinary arts in 2001 - it was a big jump and it was at the same time that Westminster College merged with Kingsway College [which is why there are so many different sites]. Suddenly I had a much larger college spread out over various locations.
Over time my job title changed, and I became head of faculty for hospitality and culinary arts. This entails the running of 14 [soon to be 15] kitchens, two public restaurants, function facilities, a student and staff canteen serving 500 people and then there's the teaching. I teach every year, mostly during the beginning of every academic year, from basic to advanced pastry techniques.
Do you get fed up of the criticism colleges come in for?
The general perception in the industry seems to be that colleges are boring places to work and that they operate from September to June - that's not true. If it was like that I would have left years ago.
The truth is it's always a challenge, whether it's a building refurbishment, developing new curriculum work or looking at changing how the curriculum is produced across the sector, not just here at Westminster.
We've done a lot of work with the governing bodies to develop vocationally related qualifications (VRQs). I was in the original group of people to develop the VRQ and move away from the NVQ, and it's one of my proudest moments to be involved in that. I have to get involved in a lot of government policy and deal with the fall-out of government policy, which inevitably means more students and less money.
What are the challenges for lecturers in hospitality?
It's about managing students' expectations. They are much more knowledgeable now than 10 or 20 years ago because of TV programmes and other media. We have to help them understand that even though Jamie Oliver and Ainsley Harriott studied here, nobody is guaranteed the TV cameras, and it's not always a glamorous industry. It's exciting and dynamic, but most of the time it's not glamorous.
And what are the challenges for students?
The main challenges are funding and accommodation. We attract students from all over the UK, so once they have set their sights on coming here, they might need some help. If you live outside London you won't understand the implications of living here. It's a massive
step, twice as big as you think it's going to be. We also help students with their funding because they will have gone through a lot of
processes to get in here in the first place.
Is it difficult to get into Westminster Kingsway?
The perception is that it's difficult and that's because we do all of our interviews on Saturdays and they last all day. We ask the parents and guardians to come and spend the day too - we want them to know what the commitment is going to be over a two or three-year period.
We want them to understand our family philosophy and that we will help and nurture the candidates. The day includes various tests, including cooking, written and visual identification.
The candidates need to pass these tests, but there are mini workshops too.
How many students do you take each year?
We take on as many as we can. If I can take on 200 first-year students a year I will. There is certainly the demand. We do have a benchmark, but if a student is not quite right for the professional chef's diploma, they might be right for an apprenticeship or a traineeship
or a hospitality diploma. We can put them in touch with a network of local businesses as we have so much connectivity. That's another
fallacy - that we are not in touch with the industry.
But nobody can level that at us. We are not in touch with industry - we are industry.
Do we have a skills shortage in the UK?
Yes we do, and as an industry we need to support the Professional Association for Catering Education (PACE) and lobby government
for stronger support and funding of existing courses - both culinary and hospitality - so that we can teach for longer hours and meet the industry's expectations. I'd like to credit Geoff Booth, head of hospitality at Westminster Kingsway and chief executive officer at PACE.
He has been an amazing mentor to me and is a true visionary. We all need someone like this to look up to.
How can the industry help?
The industry needs to be more involved in teaching. We have a template here that other colleges are welcome to use. We have our own gastronomic society that every student belongs to and industry chefs, experts and suppliers come in every week to do presentations and demonstrations, allowing us to create externships [work experience] in all sectors.
I guess it's easier for us as we are in central London, but I would argue that any college could use this template and make themselves more accessible to the industry and get more engaged. The British Hospitality Association needs to get more involved with colleges too.
What does the future hold for you personally?
I'll see the refurbishment through, of course, and on the way the college will have more challenges from government in terms of funding
and they will hit us over the next three to four years. To maintain the success and depth of the teaching will be even more challenging.
A crossroads for me will be 2016. My expertise then will be in the ability to overhaul a catering school that needs to be modernised and create a team of hungry lecturers who have a completely new mind-set. I'd love an industry role in education. I would also love to do it myself. I'd love to have my own school with the team of lecturers I've got here! That would be amazing.
I still think the industry is lacking a dedicated hotel school. When you go to America and look at their Culinary Institute of America or Paul Bocuse in France or ALMA in Italy, they are all iconic places. Although I believe Westminster Kingsway is the iconic place for teaching in the UK, we are not a hotel. We've looked at it - but it's not going to happen. So yes, if someone approached me to do that I'd love it. We would have to look closely at a bursary system to achieve it, but we are looking at doing that here at the college too.
A competitive streak
What is it that makes Westminster Kingsway students so successful in competitions?
"I'm very competitive and that's how we develop the students," says Gary Hunter. "We encourage competitiveness: the first ones in the kitchen get the best equipment, who is the best chef in the class - we consistently challenge them to be better. I admit it can be hard to adjust, but the industry is competitive - you have to stand out.
"Competitions provide the steepest learning curve. Students are pitted against the clock with a bunch of critical judges peering over their shoulder who expect quality and innovation. It's acute learning.
"They gain so much confidence and experience from each competition and if they don't win the first time, we'll analyse it and make sure they learn.
"Toque d'Or is the best student competition out there - it's incredibly challenging, but it turns the students into a team."
The Westminster Kingsway refurbishment
The refurbishment of Westminster Kinsgway started in 2013 and is due to be completed early in 2016. The purpose of the refurbishment is to bring the building up to date and fit for purpose to deliver state-of-the-art teaching. Parts of the building are protected: the faÁ§ade and the windows, an internal wooden staircase and various internal fittings, such as the ceiling lights in the restaurants, which are original art deco, have to remain.
"The benefits post-refurbishment to students and lecturers will include new extraction in all the kitchens, providing a cooler environment for everyone," Gary Hunter explains. "Eventually, all the kitchens will have all new equipment on a business-review basis per kitchen. We have built a brand new sub-station with a £1m investment and we've increased our utilities."
The college will have a new 'heart' with a three-storey atrium housing a new student canteen and break-out areas.
"It's not been without its challenges," Hunter adds. "We've continued to run a full curriculum with regular teaching and to grow the number of students around a heavy building timetable with lots of noise, disruption and mess. We also unearthed some bones from bodies buried here during the Black Death. We are close to Vincent Square, which is a plague burial site - hence the lime trees. That was an interesting discovery."