There are people in the hospitality industry who will happily tell anyone who listens that the moment this country went to the dogs was the moment cooking was taken off the national schools curriculum.
The inherent grumpy-old-mannishness of such a stance aside, it's a pretty compelling argument. These days, we are all panicked by plummeting standards in the nation's diet. We have been warned about the catastrophic implications that bad eating will have on our wider society, from a generation burdening the health service with diabetes to sugar-fuelled riots in primary schools. Add to these concerns the industry's more selfish motive of needing to source future generations of chefs and, surely, the question of whether to teach children to feed themselves better becomes a no-brainer.
However, so far, any noises the Government has made about putting cooking back on the national curriculum have been barely audible.
Former chef and restaurateur Rob Rees sits on the School Food Trust, a body set up by the Government to research ways to improve meals in schools. He says the trust is lobbying both the Government and individual schools to adopt a wholistic approach to food education, with a catering GSCE playing a central role.
Rees has himself developed a catering GCSE for Maidenhill School in Gloucestershire. "We've not met with much enthusiasm from the Department for Education and Skills," he says. "Not enough people even know about the catering GCSE."
One initiative, though, has quietly materialised within the industry itself. This is the Junior Chefs Academy, or JCA, which is geared towards getting teenagers into school in their free time in order to learn some basic culinary skills. This year, the project will see an incredible 1,200 secondary school kids go to their local further education college every Saturday morning to complete a 15-week course in basic cooking and food preparation.
In terms of teaching kids about food, it's really doing the Government's work for it.
The idea was kick-started eight years ago by Professor David Foskett of Thames Valley University (TVU) at the college's premises in Ealing, London. Foskett wanted to make the Academy of Culinary Arts' Adopt-a-School programme open to children of secondary school age. Interest in his project grew and, very soon, it became the norm for the programme to be fully booked.
Its success paid dividends when, four years ago, former Compass UK boss Don Davenport agreed not only that the catering giant should sponsor the initiative, but also asked that the JCA be rolled out to other colleges. David Mulcahy, then Compass's food service and craft development manager, spearheaded the expansion.
Compass's support of the JCA means 11 colleges are now signed to the initiative. Parents make a small contribution to food costs, while Compass takes care of college overheads and provides a subsidy for the food.
The reason no one has heard much about the project until now is that Mulcahy, now craft and food development director at Sodexho, was anxious to get it properly established before spreading the word. "We didn't want it to become just another project that gets lost to the annals of hospitality history," he explains.
With a total of 2,000 students expected to graduate from all the academies next year, there seems little danger of that. Instead, the JCA looks likely to take off and become the recruitment drive the hospitality industry so desperately needs.
This would come not a moment too soon. Even though TVU is rightly regarded as one of the premier higher education catering institutions in the UK, Foskett says his full-time NVQ in catering has, relatively recently, been in danger of being closed down because of a lack of uptake. Encouragingly, since he ran a JCA, as many as 70% of those attending it have come back to attend one of his further education courses.
Other colleges should take note. Watching two sets of 30 kids working in two different kitchens at 10am in the morning at TVU, it's easy to see the excitement generated through cooking. Most students are aged 14, with a few 15- and 16-year-olds, and they're filling the kitchens with something modern teenagers are rarely credited with: enthusiasm.
All have chosen to be there; indeed, Foskett says he has had to turn others away. "We have had kids turning up on a Saturday anyway, even when we have told them that there is no space," he reveals.
Half of this particular group is getting to grips with jam-filled turnovers. In the next-door kitchen, the other Junior Chefs are knocking up chicken suprêmes with a tomato and pepper sauce with rice. They have cooked the meal from scratch, chopping vegetables, pan-frying then roasting the meat - even, hurrah!, learning to remove the breast from the carcass themselves.
Mainstream teachers at the schools involved with the JCA back up what specialised catering tutors are seeing with their own eyes on Saturday mornings. "We get reports that the worst-behaved kids are turning up back at school with their attitudes transformed - across all their subjects," Foskett says.
He puts this remarkable turnaround down to allowing kids to study a new subject in a completely fresh environment. If they are interested in the cooking, they do well, which in turn builds their general self-esteem. "There is a thirst for knowledge from kids," he says, "but too often the school curriculum is not broad enough to capture all their imaginations."
While food technology, introduced in the 1980s, teaches how to design a pizza on a computer, it includes less practical knowledge of food. Cooking, on the other hand, covers that - but, through a hands-on approach in the kitchen, it also teaches diet, nutrition, how to work in teams, how to manage time, how to perform safety checks and how to enjoy a sociable activity. "It's about life skills," Foskett says.
As far as the industry is concerned, what the JCA also does successfully is to get the kids when they're still young, before they have to make decisions about their GCSEs and sixth-form or college courses. If the JCA can convince the teachers as successfully as it has the kids, it may yet trigger a shift in policy.
"Schools are realising they need to bring back catering rather than food tech," Foskett says. "Hounslow Manor is about to put in a second kitchen because of what it has seen here."
What is disappointing, however, is just how many other schools still can't - or won't - offer a catering GCSE. Although he can claim many local converts, Foskett says headmasters and headmistresses are still too obsessed by league tables to encourage non-academic avenues.
"There is a lot of competition for students, and a lot of schools want the kids to stay on at school to keep up their quotas," Foskett says. "But this is a gross disservice to the kids - and it's immoral if those kids then go on to get E grades at A-level. We need that talent as much as any other industry. The JCA could be a chance for us to talent-spot, to take people on and develop them. But we are being denied. It is a public scandal."
School heads still see catering as offering only long hours and low pay. But while no one would pretend there is not still plenty of hard graft, the sector is now characterised by investment, dynamism and profit. "What the schools and teachers don't realise is that some people are making upward of £250,000 a year from this industry," Foskett says. "The parents only have to see the successful figures like Brian Turner or Ainsley Harriott at the graduation ceremonies to see what can be achieved."
Ironically, it's at a graduation ceremony only a few weeks later, at the School of African and Oriental Cooking (SAOC) in Hoxton, that Harriott tells the kids to expect exactly that - "long hours". Never mind, by this stage, they are all so bewitched by their new cooking skills it hardly seems to matter.
Rowan and Mustapha, two boys you wouldn't imagine being bothered by the delicacies in life, are putting the finishing touches - wings made from sweet pastry - to some miniature strawberry cream swans. Richard, a bit of a bruiser, is declaring that he is going to be a chef because of his "passion for food", while the diminutive Clare nods that she also plans to cook for a living. "In a hotel or restaurant?" enquires Harriott. "No, on telly," she replies.
All around, there is the invincible confidence kids can have - but, importantly, a respect, too. After receiving their own (much-coveted) medals, they cheer Paul Osborne, the SAOC lecturer who has been teaching the group, when he says what a pleasure it has been to have them around. "I love being a chef," he says, "and I want them to see, when they go into McDonald's, that there is more to this profession than just slapping a burger in a bun."
Unfortunately, although 11 colleges are signed up, the current arrangement with Compass as the principal sponsor cannot be sustained. "We are actively looking for new sponsors," says Bill Vickers, marketing and food service director for the UK and Ireland at Compass. "We can't prop up the whole of the UK. Other companies and institutions are very enthusiastic. But turning enthusiasm into the actual signing of cheques is hard."
Although other companies and organisations are now involved - Whitbread, City & Guilds, as well as Russums, the chefs' clothing company - Mulcahy's message is clear: "We are planning to open five new JCAs per year," he says, "but if we had the funding we could turn it into 40 colleges - tomorrow."
Part of the problem may be that Compass has, up to now, had most of the ownership of JCA. Companies are notoriously anxious about sharing sponsorship, especially if it means sharing credit. However, as Mulcahy, who has now left Compass, points out: "You won't see the Compass brand plastered all over this. We want the kids to be attracted to the college."
But there is a more pressing reason why the industry needs to join forces over the JCA. In truth, Mulcahy is not just looking for funding from industry, but matching funding from the Government. But the hospitality industry has been here before, last September, when a failure to present a united front meant it failed to win for itself one of the Government's six National Skills Academy (NSA) places.
People 1st, the Sector Skills Council for tourism and hospitality, was charged with leading that bid. When it failed, it lost most of the few friends it had made. It also lost momentum with the Government.
Now, though, People 1st is back, trying to bid for the next round of NSA places. It has become involved with the JCA because it could provide the blueprint for a second, much more successful, NSA bid.
If won, the hospitality and tourism NSA could provide the chance for the Government to show some commitment, albeit belatedly, towards the future of hospitality training in the UK. It can hardly afford its complacency much longer.
It would also vindicate Mulcahy's strategy of waiting until the JCA's success had proved that the industry was capable of delivering results. But the Government still needs to see proof of commitment. So, if you get a call about the JCA, treat it as one very good chance to secure the future of hospitality training.
"The JCA is just extraordinarily good value," Vickers says. "I don't know of any other way of touching so many young lives and of potentially affecting so many careers."
The JCA and People 1st: A blueprint for the future of hospitality training in schools?
People 1st sees the JCA as a blueprint for other vocations in the hospitality and tourism sector to create their own training programmes for schoolchildren. What wasn't widely appreciated last September, when the bid failed, was that to win Government funding, there also had to be presentations given by the travel industry and in more specialist areas such as barista training.
Together, the presentations failed, but the JCA now offers a better template for spending funding effectively.
Mike Burton is Compass UK's human resources director, but also a trustee for People 1st, so is well placed to give an explanation of People 1st's role.
"Too often, this industry presents a confused picture," he says. "The biggest challenge for People 1st is to join up all the existing groups in a way that each one does not see as a threat."
People 1st is, he says, trying to create a strategic framework and to lobby Government and other relevant parties with that framework. "It is not concerned with providing products and services, it is designed rather to act as a hub," he says.
There are, of course, misgivings. Professor Foskett, for one, is not happy about People 1st's involvement in the JCA initiative, because he does not want it to take ownership of the scheme. As an organisation, he adds, it has already managed to use a lot of money without tangible results.
Bill Vickers says there is also a danger that People 1st's vision for using the JCA as a template could add too much bureaucracy, denying the simple impact the JCA has on kids' lives. "The key for the JCA is using existing infrastructures," he says. "We don't want to add too much complexity, or for it to be subsumed into something huge. As soon as you add complexity, you add cost."
However, the chance to win an NSA bid is rare. Whatever its track record, People 1st is the vehicle launched by Government to connect the industry to that funding, so supporting it could be vital to proving the industry wants to develop an NSA.
More importantly, the JCA opens up new potential for switching kids on to this industry. Westminster Kingsway College has already begun a second JCA course which deals with front-of-house skills, and it's a model ready to be rolled out.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if young people got a broad experience of the whole industry?" Burton says. "They could spend some time doing front-of-house management in a hotel or learning to be a barista. It would be like a stable of academies."
With discussions, Mulcahy says, to link the JCA to the Adopt-a-School scheme and Springboard's hugely popular FutureChef competition, there is hope that a clear career trajectory could now be formed for children who show an interest.
Whether you would call this a virtual academy, or just a series of programmes, its attraction is undeniable.