Training in hospitality is apparently improving thanks to a new Vocationally Related Qualification and renewed commitment by People 1st, as outlined by that organisation's Brian Wisdom in these pages last week. But is this really the case? Top chefs give their thoughts on the current crop of Britain's catering graduates, kicked off by the vociferous Gordon Ramsay, speaking to Fiona Sims
When Gordon Ramsay announced last January that he was to open a cooking school, the industry responded surprisingly favourably. In an online poll conducted by Caterersearch.com, it found that 75% thought Ramsay could do a better job. Others questioned his move into this sector, prompting furious debate - much of it through the pages of Caterer.
Catering colleges in the UK have had a bad rap in recent years. A lot of the blame for the dire skills shortage in the hospitality industry has been laid at their door.
The NVQ system, which too many in the industry regard as a joke - it stands for "not very qualified", they often quip - isn't preparing student chefs sufficiently, apparently, and its lecturers have been labelled "dinosaurs": out of touch with modern kitchen practices churning out the same old stuff.
Ramsay thinks he can do better. Earlier this year he bought into Tante Marie, Britain's oldest private cookery school, in Woking, Surrey, teaming up with partners Lyndy Redding and her event catering company, Absolute Taste, and Andrew Maxwell, the school's principal.
Range of courses
Established more than 50 years ago, Tante Marie has trained students from all over the world and offers a range of courses, from a one-day "Creative Christmas" course to the full nine-month Cordon Bleu diploma course. Ramsay has big plans for it. "We want to take a modern-day approach to the sector - put a bullet up its arse," he announces, with typical directness, when Caterer catches up with him at the Surrey school.
The students have been accused of, at best, entering catering as a last resort because they can't think of anything better to do or, at worst, being "one step away from prison" (by restaurateur Oliver Peyton two years ago). Some rather fancy a taste of Ramsay's millions, only to leave the sector after a few years, or even months, in the job because the pace is furious - which it is, all agree.
Ramsay, of course, thinks he can do better - albeit for a fee. The cost of a course at Tante Marie starts at £170 for one day, rising to £16,500 for the full diploma - but, remember, he is looking for the cream.
Ramsay and his Michelin-starred ilk represent just 3% of the industry, so you can't blame him for weeding out the wasters. And it makes sense for him to open a cookery school. "It fits hand-in-glove with where we are growing as a group," he agrees.
"But there's a bigger picture here, and I can't tell you about it yet," he says, tantalisingly. "What I can say is that the interest from the east and west coasts of America has been extraordinary," he hints. "But that's all down the line. I want one school functioning brilliantly first."
Ramsay is scheduled to do a demonstration here every two months, with other key Ramsay chefs sharing out the rest of the work. And yes, they reckon they can do a whole lot better than many catering college lecturers in the industry.
"It's the Madame Tussauds approach: a lot of these colleges have dummified the industry," Ramsay splutters. "I had this argument with a chef-lecturer a few months back. He said he had been lecturing for 25 years and he reckoned I wouldn't be able to change a thing. I said to him, ‘You mean you have been doing the same course for 25 years? You haven't moved on?' Anyway, the more negative responses I get like that, the more I want to prove them wrong."
And he has an equally bad opinion of the general quality of catering college graduates. "It's appalling. Kitchen Nightmares taught me that. Anyone can buy a restaurant these days, and restaurants are closing quicker than they open - that's the problem we are faced with here. But the industry must share some of the blame: very few of us actually go out and bang the drum."
And Ramsay reckons the current NVQ system can take some of that blame. "It is a horrendous format, and having gone through it they couldn't be any further away from becoming a chef," he declares. "What's arriving on my doorstep after graduation is half who don't even know if they want to become chefs. Where's the want? Where's the hunger?"
"We shouldn't be pointing the finger too much at the educational system," he says. "Chefs can be too elitist. The catering industry is a very broad church, and we need to improve skills across all levels. There's no doubt there has been an erosion of skills in certain schools due to a lack of leadership and investment, and because colleges aren't embracing the new styles of cooking out there. The colleges' mentality has changed beyond belief they aren't filled with teachers who are waiting for retirement any more. But it is us, the industry, that needs to engage colleges to give them these opportunities."
John Williams agrees. The executive chef of the Ritz in London reckons it is wrong to blame one aspect of culinary education. "It's a lot more complex than that. If you take the best kitchen in the world, they're not all great chefs some are just workers, and you need good workers. And all catering colleges aren't bad either - some are good, some are bad. But cooking is evolving quicker than they can teach it, and they just can't keep up. The new VRQ [Vocationally Related Qualification] is a little better, but it's still rubbish: it's a tick-box situation and no real measure of talent. I believe we have to modernise the apprenticeship scheme - take it round the country."
The problem starts, points out Professor David Foskett, head of school for hospitality and tourism at Thames Valley University, at secondary school, where not enough teachers understand hospitality, so they are not promoting it. "Hospitality and tourism is the future. It's a quick route to success - it's the new boxing. And OK, so we've got to weed out the dinosaur lecturers. But while there might be 50 bad catering colleges, there are 50 good ones. Departments are now attracting people into the industry who are passionate. I think there's a definite mood of change. Many get turned off by the industry - but they put too much on us the industry needs to work with us.
Talk it up
"Some advice? The young want to be young. Don't frighten them off right from the start give them time off. Let's talk it up, show people how good it is - you can travel the world!"
One chef who used to regularly bash catering colleges is Sat Bains, chef-proprietor of Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham. Not any more, though. Now Bains is working with the colleges instead. "There was quite a backlash when I accused catering college lecturers of being dinosaurs five years ago. But I realised they needed the support of the industry, so I got my arse into gear. I've launched a pilot apprenticeship scheme with the local catering college, working with 16 other restaurants. And we encourage the lecturers to come and work with us here at the restaurant. It invigorates them. I think ours is a nurturing role. It's obvious that NVQs are not working. We need to go back to basics - braising and poaching - to skill-based tasks," he advises.
So, is the industry for Ramsay and his cooking school, or against him? Michael Coaker, Thames Valley University's production and curriculum co-ordinator and current holder of the Education Chef of the Year award from the Craft Guild of Chefs, sums up: "I think it's great that Gordon has opened a cookery school. If every chef gave some of their time over to training, then the industry would be in a much better place."