"I don't need chefs who know 15 ways to garnish a Dover sole, I need them to recognise a side of beef." So says Paul Merrett, head chef at London's Greenhouse restaurant, giving his view on an age-old problem at this year's Chef Conference. Namely, that the hospitality industry believes colleges aren't teaching catering students what they need to know.
And Merrett is by no means alone in his views. In June, Caterer's annual employment survey showed that this classic problem isn't going away. One-third of all those responsible for recruitment said college training in this country was fairly poor, and one in 10 considered it very poor.
Those, like Merrett, who manage kitchen staff were the most incensed, with more than 25% regarding it as very poor and most of the remainder regarding it as fairly poor.
The fact is that colleges and employers have always been at loggerheads over the standard and knowledge of students coming out of each graduating year. The employers say they haven't been taught the skills they need, while colleges say they haven't the resources to do this.
So why is there this divide and can anything be done to, if not close it, at least narrow it? Michael Gottlieb, chairman of the Restaurant Association, pulls no punches about who is at fault. "If you have to attribute blame or responsibility, it's down to the colleges themselves," he says.
"They have a tendency to be more hotel-oriented, too old-fashioned, not up with the trends and they don't even teach basic cheffing skills."
Gottlieb points out that some colleges are better than others, but the idea that the teaching staff themselves are out of touch with the industry is important.
"It's partly because of how they are funded and partly because too few people running the colleges are in tune with what is happening outside in the restaurant world," Gottlieb believes.
Jacky Isaac, human resources manager for Letheby & Christopher, admits there is a recurring problem. "It's easy to blame all the ills of the industry on the students coming out of colleges; sometimes we have to look at ourselves as an industry.
"However, they're not well enough trained in the basic skills, I would agree with that. They have lovely social skills and know all about finance, but with the students I deal with at big events, they're not trained to do the deed we're there for."
Isaac's possible explanation for this is lack of competition to gain places on the many catering courses available and simply the way the timetable is set up.
"It seems that more and more time is spent in the classroom rather than on practical skills," she says.
Many of the colleges accept their students' limitations, but maintain it is a lack of resources that restricts them, rather than a lack of knowledge.
"Most further education colleges have faced, over the past few years, some severe restrictions in their funding and the way they can deliver programmes," says John Roberts, director of the Butlers Wharf Chef School in London. "A lot of people in industry, through no fault of their own, don't understand that."
And, he says, it is not just the funding problems that industry doesn't appreciate. "Colleges have a problem with the ability to change their way of delivery, but most employers don't understand that either," he continues.
"There's a lot of very committed people within a great many colleges who would love to change the system if they could."
Money seems to be the key factor. Thanks to the necessary small class sizes and expensive supply of raw materials, catering is one of the most expensive types of course to run.
If this doesn't change, Roberts says, he has a chilling forecast for the future of hospitality training. "It's cheaper to stick 50 people in a lecture room than stick 12 people in a kitchen, that's obvious," he says.
"I would predict that we will see the end of the majority of catering courses held in colleges simply because they are too expensive to operate."
So that's the problem and it's a well-documented one. But what, if anything, can be done to solve it, once and for all?
"My view is that, particularly on the cheffing side, they should concentrate on teaching very basic skills well," says Gottlieb. "It needs one college to show the way and until that happens we'll just all keep muddling along.
"I have an image of somebody creating an independent college such as the Culinary Institute of America, where people pay high fees but get first-class training - that's where the UK industry needs to look to see how it's done."
Anne Walker, managing director of Springboard UK, the organisation set up to encourage young people into the industry, believes it is the colleges' teaching methods that need modernising.
"We need to be looking at a variety of different types of course that will meet different needs of the industry and appeal to a broader band of students coming into it," she says. "But we need to stimulate dialogue between industry, colleges and the specialist schools and put more emphasis on getting employers involved in apprenticeship schemes to help people coming out of college."
Roberts from Butlers Wharf also agrees that partnership with employers is the answer, along with providing more realism in teaching by having proper commercial enterprises within colleges.
"There are a lot of people who, because the system isn't in some colleges, have a completely unrealistic idea of what the industry is about," he explains. "And so when they enter, it all goes wrong and they want to leave.
"We need fewer colleges running catering [courses] but more centres of excellence doing it particularly well in partnership with industry around the country," he adds.
As with most of the problems in the hospitality industry, the solution is by no means straightforward. Perhaps the answer lies in not considering it as an "industry" problem too daunting to solve, but in encouraging each operator do their bit to try to solve their problems locally.
What is sure, though, is that this isn't the last we'll hear of it.
Published by: The Caterer