Dirty aprons and scruffy kids, poor facilities and unimaginative menus, elderly customers and demoralised teachers - training restaurants in colleges are battling against a pretty negative image. Yet they are a fundamental part of catering education. A student studying for an NVQ could spend up to 80% of his or her time in the training restaurant.
But it is not just the rest of industry that blackens the reputation of college restaurants and catering courses: it is perpetuated by those in the training profession who hit out at their peers. This summer, Garry Hawkes, chairman of Gardner Merchant and president of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), lashed out at the standards of some of Britain's catering colleges. His colleague Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the BHA, expands: "We are concerned about the level of training. Colleges are being squeezed and the money is simply not being invested in catering courses and training restaurants."
There are more than 300 colleges in the UK and all of them will have at least one training restaurant. Students, especially those at NVQ level, will spend the majority of their time in these facilities.
Anne Walker, director of careers promoter Springboard, has, like Couchman, seen some shining examples of training restaurants as well as many poor examples. "There are a lot more colleges than there used to be - perhaps they are being stretched too thinly. But the industry is desperate for skilled workers."
Training restaurants are important because NVQs dictate that, where possible, students must be assessed in "real work environments". As a result, colleges are busy trying to bridge the gap between what happens in industry and what goes on in the classroom. But it's an expensive business. How do you teach chefs to roast red mullet when the fish costs £4.25 for 8oz and the equipment gets increasingly expensive?
The Isle of Wight College copes by making its restaurant pay for itself. "We have a fully functioning commercial restaurant that is open Tuesday through to Friday for lunch, Thursday for themed dinner, Friday and Saturday dinner, and Sunday lunch," says Stuart Dyer, head of food and hospitality. "We manage this by having scholarship students - we pay them to work in our restaurant rather than somewhere else at the weekend."
All the students do four-week stints in the kitchen and then four weeks in the restaurant. Dyer is reluctant to reveal the revenue from the venture, but he says it regularly does 80 to 90 covers on a Sunday lunchtime and 50 to 60 on other days, at up to £26 a head. It more than pays its way.
But this in itself raises a problem. To cover all angles of teaching while at the same time running as a commercial operation, training restaurants could be priced out of the reach of most customers.
Cornwall College has bought 20 small pasta rollers, rather than a larger machine, so students can learn to make pasta. "It would be madness in a commercial field, but students need to be assessed," says Vince Falco, head of hotel, catering and baking.
This is the sort of detail that leads to tension between industry and colleges. How do you train thoroughly while ensuring students have a realistic view of the profession?
"Most colleges have some problem, in that no matter how hard we try to make it seem real, at the end of the day it is still just a classroom," admits David Mennell, senior lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, which is modernising its training restaurant. "However, most of our students work at the weekend or have experience before they come, so they have an understanding of how the industry works."
Even so, employers are unhappy about the quality and numbers of graduates entering the industry. It's not helped by the drop-out rates from colleges, now running as high as 50%, while up to two-thirds of those who do manage to graduate leave the industry within three years of qualifying.
But how many employers are putting their money where their mouth is, like hotelier David Levin who coughed up £300,000 to transform the dowdy function room at Oxford Brookes University into a plush restaurant? Most training restaurants are struggling to get even minor sponsorship.
There is also a worry that some training restaurants are unable to run financially successful businesses because of their location, facilities or lack of support. The risk then is limited opportunities for the students.
But for those that have got it right, being commercial can mean flexible and exciting menus, spotless venues and motivated students. These are the places where the diners keep coming back and where the students can have the pick of the jobs in the industry. The only problem is, they appear to be outnumbered by the bad, and only serious investment will improve what is available.
Vince Falco, head of hotel, catering and baking
Cornwall College, in Camborne, boasts a four-restaurant complex that is open to the public every day, each facility targeted at a specific market. The fine-dining restaurant, Trevenson, does 40 covers at lunch and more than 50 at night with an average spend of £7.50. It was refurbished last year at a cost of £27,000. However, much of the work was done by other students: the painting was done by those doing an NVQ3 in decorating, while an ex-student framed antique menus for the wall.
Sponsorship is difficult to get in Cornwall, because there are few manufacturers in the area. However, the college has had a good relationship with Nescafé for eight years and is also partnering Rationale, the combination oven producer. The company has lent the college one of its cookers indefinitely and, in return, the college will lend it its kitchen when Rationale wants to demonstrate its equipment to potential buyers.
"It works very well. We host their demonstrations about twice a term and in return we have a superb Rationale combi in our kitchen," says Falco.
Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies
Bill Farmsworth, director of catering and baking
NVQ students at Birmingham spend about 22 of their 25 hours a week at college in the kitchens. The college has a number of practice kitchens and four training restaurants are open every weekday, three manned exclusively by students.
The college can offer all types of meals, from fine dining in the Atrium to pub-style food in the Cap and Gown, and the 1,300 degree-to-NVQ students spend four weeks in each.
But juggling training opportunities with profitability is a big issue. The students must learn how to cook and serve a lobster, yet the restaurant must hold down the price. "There are some dishes we have to charge at cost or under, while some do make a profit," says Farmsworth. "The restaurants are popular and pay for themselves."
Birmingham has received support from industry. When it was refitting its bar in 1995, Bass Taverns sent in its designers and shop-fitters, while Wing Kip, wholesaler and importer of Chinese produce, gave the college a turbo watt cooker and duck oven.
The college is also considering an offer from Nestlé to refurbish its Nescafé coffee bar on a match-funding basis.