Private cookery schools: they teach rich kids the basic culinary skills needed to hold dinner parties or go off for a winter season in a ski chalet, but they're no good for training up "proper" chefs. So runs the mantra among certain sections of the restaurant industry. But, actually, the mantra is out of date.
There's no doubt that the schools - of which Le Cordon Bleu, Leiths and Tante Marie are the best-known - still turn out competent chalet and home cooks, but chat to a few of our leading chefs and you'll discover that, increasingly, they're providing some of the most highly skilled and confident new recruits to the catering industry.
What's more, those recruits are often long-term, unlike their counterparts straight out of the state college system. Why? There are two main reasons: one, they will often have had to save up and fork out in excess of £12,000 to do their training; and two, many of them today are people switching careers. Either way, the end result tends to be a student who is focused and motivated.
"We have many lawyers, as well as City traders and accountants, who come to us who have a great love of food and want the training that will enable them to move into a completely new line of work," confirms Caroline Waldegrave, managing director of Leiths School of Food and Wine in west London.
One Leiths graduate, Rob Cottam, 23, is a former information analyst in the NHS who signed up for the three-term Leiths Diploma in Food and Wine. "I'd always had a passion for food, but going to Leiths was an eye-opener," he says. "The hands-on training was excellent, with 50% of the time spent in the kitchen." Cottam is now a fully fledged professional, working for outside catering company Rhubarb Food Design. Recent events he has catered for include a party for Elton John, and Bill Clinton's book launch.
Chris Cutler, 36, who's now with chef-proprietor Henry Harris at Racine in London's Knightsbridge, completed the same course at Leiths, having previously spent 12 years working in the travel industry. He has nothing but praise for the training he received. "The school teaches the basics very well and provided me with solid knowledge that gave me the confidence to enter the industry."
Similarly, Dan Levy - currently in the enviable position of progressing his career at Michel Roux's three-Michelin-starred Waterside Inn at Bray, Berkshire - credits the Tante Marie school in Woking, Surrey, for the self-assurance and skills that got him in to one of the country's most celebrated kitchens.
Levy, 22, undertook Tante Marie's six-month intensive Cordon Bleu Diploma. "I chose Tante Marie because, at 20 years of age, I thought I'd missed the boat with the catering colleges," he explains. "I'd already started a hotel and catering course at Manchester Metropolitan University, but quickly realised that I was more interested in cooking than management, and so left. At Tante Marie I learnt a lot very quickly."
The college, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, also has graduates carving out careers at Le Gavroche, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant.
It's clear that students like Cottam, Cutler and Levy benefited from the intensive, fast-track culinary training that cookery schools such as Tante Marie and Leiths specialise in. And it is an unfortunate fact that training at a private catering school offers benefits that state-funded colleges find it hard to compete with. As well as providing comprehensive training in a relatively short time, usually six to nine months, they also offer extensive practical tuition - Tante Marie's diploma, for instance, devotes 70% of time to actual cooking - a pupil-to-teacher ratio sometimes as low as one to eight, and unlimited use of ingredients.
For Michael Caines, head chef at Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, the fact that private cookery schools devote so much time to practical work is ideal. There is such a shortage of skilled chefs that "we almost want college leavers to hit the ground running when they join the industry," he comments.
Leading pastry chef Claire Clark, of London's Wolseley Restaurant and Caf‚, is another influential professional who is happy to recruit from private schools. She herself taught at Le Cordon Bleu for three years. "The one-year basic pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu is structured and comprehensive. It covers everything, whereas with NVQs you can choose what you learn. The school provides a balanced, all-round education," she explains.
As well as Clark, chefs such as Michel Perraud, who was head chef at the Waterside Inn for five years in the 1980s, and Giles Thompson, formerly executive chef at the Ritz, have also taught at Le Cordon Bleu in the past decade. Moreover, its current pastry team includes chefs who have worked at Claridge's, the Ritz and the Lanesborough. It's a definite plus in an industry where the trainers of next-generation chefs are often accused of being out of sync with the professional world.
"The demands of the industry to provide highly skilled people require us to ensure that our teaching is of the very highest quality," argues the principal of Le Cordon Bleu, Lesley Gray.
The catch will always be that, because the schools are commercial enterprises, this all comes at a considerable cost. Learning to cook professionally at a private cookery school can set students back between £12,100 and £18,945 for three terms' tuition. However, while some students self-finance their training, many receive help via Career Development Loans
But before you condemn all state college students to the scrapheap, Caines has a word of caution: "The best catering colleges - such as those in Birmingham and Exeter - are also turning out quality students," he maintains. And Philip Howard, chef-proprietor at the Square restaurant in London, adds: "It doesn't matter where our staff have come from - a catering college or a posh school. A chef's success is related to his or her natural ability and a willingness to work hard and learn once they arrive in a professional kitchen."
Career Development Loans Career Development Loans can be used to finance full- or part-time courses at private catering colleges. Anyone over 18 from a wide range of educational and employment backgrounds - employed, self-employed and unemployed - is eligible for the deferred repayment loans.
Up to £8,000 can be borrowed from one of three banks - the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays or the Co-operative - to pay for up to two years of learning plus one year's practical work experience. The Department for Education and Skills pays the interest on the loan while the student is learning and for a month after completion of the course. The loan then has to be repaid to the bank over an agreed period at a fixed rate of interest.
For more information call the Freephone helpline on 0800 585505 or visit www.lifelonglearning.co.uk
Ashburton Cookery School Hare's Lane Cottage, 76 East Street, Ashburton, Devon TQ13 7AX
Tel: 01364 652784
Courses: As well as running one- and two-day courses for the amateur on subjects such as sauces, seafood and Moroccan cookery (£99/£199), the school offers a five-day intense Pressure Cooks' course for £495 and a new four-week Basic Cookery Diploma for £1,695 aimed at budding professionals.
Ballymaloe Cookery School Shanagarry, Midleton, Co Cork, Ireland
Tel: 00 353 21 464 6785
Courses: A variety, from half-day specialist sessions on tapas for g95 (£65) up to the 12-week certificate course aimed at enthusiastic amateurs or those who wish to pursue a professional career, for g7,995 (£5,462).
Le Cordon Bleu 14 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2HH
Tel: 020 7935 3503
Courses: A full range, including evening classes and day courses for the amateur (£335 for eight two-hour lessons, or £160 per day), the 10-week Basic Certificate Programme for £4,427, and the nine-month Le Grand Diploma professional qualification costing £18,945.
Leiths School of Food and Wine 21 St Alban's Grove, London W8 5BP
Tel: 020 7229 0177
Courses: Everything from Saturday morning and evening courses for the amateur to the two- or three-term Leiths Diploma in Food and Wine, aimed at the future professional (£10,000/£13,000).
Tante Marie School of Cookery Woodham House, Carlton House, Carlton Road, Woking, Surrey GU21 4HF
Tel: 01483 726957
Courses: A mix of demonstration classes (from £30) and two-day courses for amateurs (from £199), short courses aimed at gap-year students (£490 for one week up to £4,500 for a term) and professional courses: Tante Marie Cordon Bleu Certificate (one term at £4,250) and Tante Marie Cordon Bleu Diploma (two terms at £9,000 or three terms at £12,100).
There has been a growing trend in recent years for chefs to diversify their commercial interests by opening cookery schools.
While most - such as Rick Stein, Raymond Blanc and Paul Heathcote - run their schools in addition to their main restaurant businesses, Nick Nairn has chosen to give up his career as a chef-restaurateur and concentrate on running the Nick Nairn Cook School at Port of Menteith, Perthshire. A recent £1m investment in the school has added a retail space, a 40-seat restaurant-style dining room and a demonstration theatre. The teaching area has also been expanded to enable 20 pupils to be accommodated in 10 CP Hart kitchens.
The latest chef to open a cookery school is Andreas Antona, who will be launching his facility for teaching up to 12 amateur cooks at a time early in 2005 alongside his new newly relocated Simpson's restaurant in Birmingham (see Caterer next month).
While the Paul Heathcote School of Excellence provides training for the industry in conjunction with South Trafford College in Altrincham, Manchester, most of the courses at the other chef-run schools are aimed at the amateur cook.