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The Caterer Interview – Victor Ceserani

16 May 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – Victor Ceserani

Veteran chef-lecturer Victor Ceserani explains why apprenticeships are so important in the hospitality industry and why more should be done to facilitate them. Now aged 91, he speaks to Janet Harmer about how his early career has formed his opinions about the importance of industry and colleges working together to provide training for young chefs

Why have you decided to speak about apprenticeships now? I've been reading about all the fresh impetus being put into apprenticeships and it made me think back to 1934 when I started mine. But before I say anything, I need to point out that I have no knowledge of any existing schemes, so apologies if I tread on anyone's toes.

Why is it important to offer apprenticeships to aspiring young chefs? Many 15- to 16-year-olds experience similar feelings to the ones I had at that age. They don't have the mental capacity or interest for academic subjects at school and would prefer to seek a job using their hands.

How did you come to start your apprenticeship? In 1934, shortly before my 15th birthday, I decided to drop out of a very good school in Chelsea. I was struggling with the work and told my parents that I wanted to leave and become a chef.

They were completely supportive. My Pop, who worked as a wine butler at the Ritz, spoke to the head chef, Monsieur Arsène Avignon, who offered to take me on as one of four apprentices for the wage of seven shillings and sixpence a week. I supplied my own uniforms and knives and worked a six-day week and split duties, 9.30am-2.30pm and 5-9.30pm.

What were the chief skills the apprenticeship gave you? Most importantly it gave me a discipline - both with regards to myself and achieving the highest standards of cooking. It taught me always to check everything. If something was not right, then I would be quickly told in no uncertain terms.

Were there any negative aspects of your apprenticeship? Many things happened which just wouldn't happen today. If the apprentices did anything wrong, then they would get a very tough talking to or even a whack, something which in those days was accepted. It didn't happen to me often as I was very willing.

Once I was asked by a tough chef de partie to make a hollandaise sauce using 24 egg yolks. I wasn't very adroit at whisking the eggs over the coal-fired stove and ended up scrambling them. The chef de partie took the whole lot and threw it on the floor. It made an almighty mess and I spent the rest of the day clearing it up.

What did you learn from that experience? It taught me the need for proper and thorough instruction before asking a young trainee to do anything - something I carried through to my teaching days. The episode also highlighted the difficulty of providing proper training within a busy kitchen. Apprentices should be offered some element of training in college, outside the pressure of service. There is more time available at college to run through all the pitfalls of making something like a hollandaise.

Who particularly inspired you in your training? My first day's work at the Ritz was in the pastry, where the pastry chef was Fritz Hofer, a genial Swiss, who I came to regard as a second father. He said he didn't mind if I made mistakes, so long as I learnt from them. He was so right.

How did you learn how to treat staff? After three years at the Ritz, I left to join the private gentleman's club, the Orleans in St James's, as number two to the head chef. On one occasion when the head chef was off and I was in charge, I took the pastry chef, Bridget, to task for attempting to camouflage a slightly burnt fruit pie with generous amounts of icing sugar. It was not what I said to her, but the tone I used, which I had gleaned from my time at the Ritz. Bridget, who was twice my age, promptly slapped me round the face. I had been unnecessarily abrupt and curt with her and came to realise I had to learn to communicate better in order to gain the respect of my colleagues.

What are your views on the way chefs treat their staff today? There is no room in today's kitchens for the type of behaviour I experienced at the Ritz, where M Avignon imposed such a rigorous standard of discipline that I thought he had missed his vocation and should have been a colonel in the French Foreign Legion! However, that was the way in which many top French kitchens were organised in those days.

Thankfully, things have changed now. Chefs like Anton Mosimann, who appreciate that people have feelings, have really helped to make a difference. However, there is a very fine line between being tough and instilling discipline in staff. Dressing down staff and belittling them in front of others is not right.

What do you believe is the ideal type of apprenticeship? Regardless of the size of a business, no one establishment can cover all the basic skills and range of dishes that a young chef should become familiar with. If an apprentice remains in one kitchen during his or her training, inevitably there will be gaps in their learning. This was certainly my own experience, where I was working as one of a brigade of 30 in the kitchens at the Ritz.

Gaps can be filled by establishments sensibly co-operating with colleges. Whether this should be done on a national or regional basis, I'm not sure. As well as apprenticeships in hotels and restaurants, perhaps they should also be considered within contract catering companies, hospitals and schools.

The college contribution can happen through day or half-day release, block release or through evening classes. Generally, I favour day release, which should include a three- to four-hour practical session and a theory class of one-and-a-half to two hours.

What should be the focus of the style of cooking? The French classical repertoire offers a sound basis of well tried and respected dishes. But in the UK we are fortunate in having some of the finest foods in the world, and we also have a heritage of many interesting dishes, so we should also include those too. And we are lucky that we have food here from many countries around the world, together with the availability of ingredients to produce them. So there should also be some elements of training in Italian, Indian and Chinese dishes.

Some thought should also be given to the number of intelligent science-minded chefs who are now experimenting with all aspects of cookery and evolving concepts that are thought-provoking. Altogether, there are a wealth of ideas to choose from for the apprenticeship scheme planners.

What should be included in the apprenticeship training? On the practical side, the methods of cookery should be taught, alongside sessions in basic food preparation. The theory should offer an introduction to the catering industry, teamwork, healthy and safety, first aid, fire precautions, simple nutrition and workplace skills. As well as teaching from the college staff, there should be talks and discussion from outside specialist and visits to markets.

It is important to ensure the theoretical subjects are made acceptable, digestible and interesting, to relate them to the practical topics and keep them at a basic, simple level.

How should progress be monitored? All work progress should be recorded and verified, but the amount of paperwork should be kept to an absolute minimum. Levels to be achieved should be kept suitable for a learner. This is not the stage at which supervisory or junior management knowledge and skills should be included.

An apprentice chef should concentrate on craft skills and be allowed to develop an enjoyment and, in many cases, love for the craft which he or she has chosen as a career.

What would you say to young people to encourage them to become chefs today? Well, the first thing I would tell them is how hard the industry is. When I was at Ealing College I would give the students and their parents what I called my "putting-off" speech. I think you have to provide a realistic view of cooking in a professional kitchen, otherwise you are doing a disservice to young people. I tell them that unless they are prepared to work hard during unsocial hours and be committed, then they should forget it. If this doesn't faze them, then I would thoroughly recommend it as it is an industry which, if you enjoy it, you will gain a great sense of achievement.

I am very proud of having been an apprentice at the Ritz and I still treasure my apprenticeship certificate signed by M Avignon.


Victor Ceserani: CV highlights
1934 Apprentice chef, Ritz hotel, London
1937 Commis chef, Orleans Club, London
1940 HM Forces: Royal Fusiliers and Army Catering Corps
1946 Chef, Boodles Club, London
1950 Teacher training college, London
1951 Lecturer in professional cookery, Acton Technical College
1962 Practical Cookery first published
1964 Head of School of Hotelkeeping and Catering, Ealing College of Higher Education
1964 The Theory of Catering first published
1975 Appointed MBE for services to catering education
1980 Retired from Ealing College of Higher Education
1982 Honorary Fellow, Ealing College of Higher Education

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