If you’ve been enjoying the latest series of MasterChef: The Professionals, you should thank vocational catering courses for the skills on show, according to renowned chef Marcus Wareing.
“The chefs in [the show] are where they are because of the foundations provided by catering colleges,” says Wareing, who acquired his first Michelin star at the age of 25 and is a judge on the BBC Two series.
Speaking exclusively to TES, Wareing reveals that his own years at Southport College in Merseyside were among the "most enjoyable” he has had in catering and that the education provided on these courses is crucial for anyone wishing to become a chef.
He is interviewed in the cover feature of the 21 November issue of TES, which investigates whether catering colleges, regarded as the pinnacle of vocational education by many, could provide a blueprint for other vocational courses. The feature also asks whether schools could learn a few lessons, too.
The findings offer plenty of food for thought. Although catering education benefits from the high profile of cooking in the media, that is not the only ingredient of its success. An extensive and active alumni network, for example, means top-class opportunities for trainees and excellent industry input.
Alongside Wareing, TV favourites Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Tom Kerridge and Gary Rhodes all attended catering college and do a lot to promote the courses. Some even go back and run the training: Michelin-starred celebrity chef Michael Caines, for example, established the Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College in 2011.
“We wanted to be slightly elitist,” Caines tells TES. “We have got good facilities, good stewardship and engaging teachers who are aware of the industry. We want the industry to be students' first choice, not their last. I want them to have the experience I have had.”
Another big factor is the real-world experience trainees can gain by running public-facing restaurants. The trainee-run Escoffier Room at Westminster Kingsway College in London offers a seven-course tasting menu for £55 a head.
But can this model be easily transferred to other vocational and academic courses?
“Other sectors can learn that ‘don’t run before you can walk’ was – and still is, I feel – the message to all who truly want to achieve in life,” says Rhodes, who attended Thanet Technical College (now East Kent College). He adds that by refusing to let students progress until they fully understand the basics, catering education ensures the highest standards.
Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College and current Association of Colleges president, agrees that lessons can be learned from catering. And he says it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
“We need to have more people with technical and professional experience going to their local FE college,” he says. “The more we can foster these links, the better – and the need for us to do this has never been greater.”