Frying high

21st November 2014 at 00:00
Vocational education is struggling as budgets are butchered, but the reputation of catering courses is sizzling. Stephen Exley asks whether their recipe for success can be replicated across the sector

The students at City College Plymouth do not have their own cookery show on television. Nor do they have lucrative cookbook deals or a successful food empire. What they did have for most of October, however, was the top-rated restaurant in Plymouth, called PL1.

"For us to make the top spot in a city which has become a bit of a foodie hotspot was amazing," says Sharron Robbie, the college's director of marketing, corporate relations and enterprise.

Indeed, PL1 faces tough competition. The likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gary Rhodes - celebrity chefs with all the advantages of fame - have restaurants in the city. That the students can hold their own in such company, can even top the TripAdvisor ratings, should come as a surprise.

And yet it doesn't. Although vocational education in general suffers from an unfair perception of being "second class", learning high-end cookery skills is viewed as competitive, rigorous and unashamedly elitist. Almost everyone you see cook on TV or in luxury restaurants - including Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Tom Kerridge and Marcus Wareing - started out in the kitchen of their local college. The fact that the students of PL1 are competing with the best is not surprising; it is almost expected.

All this raises the question: what is catering and hospitality doing that other areas of vocational education are not? And can it be used as a blueprint and rolled out to other courses, and even schools?

When it comes to the UK's elite catering establishments, it's impossible to ignore Westminster Kingsway College's School of Hospitality in central London. Its alumni include Oliver, Ainsley Harriott and Antony Worrall Thompson.

The school was founded in 1910 in response to concerns that not enough home-grown culinary talent was being developed. At the time, the majority of London's head chefs were French, including the legendary Auguste Escoffier, chef de cuisine at the Savoy Hotel. He joined the board for the new catering school at what was then known as Westminster Technical College. The college's fine-dining establishment, the Escoffier Room, still bears his name.

A tour around the college's hospitality wing reveals that it has certainly evolved from the era of French onion soup and moules marinire. In one kitchen, first-year students wearing red neckties (they progress to blue and then white as they move through the course) are hunched over saucepans, cooking up sauces. In another, learners are busy boning and filleting hake for the brasserie's lunch menu. Upstairs, students in a patisserie class are rolling pastry for a custard tart.

Erin Yates, 18, is in the third and final year of a level 3 professional chef diploma. "I always wanted to cook. When I was little I liked making cakes," she says. "Then I got a job in a cafe and got bored of making cakes."

Yates has now developed a passion for quite a different skill. "Butchery I love," she says, beaming. "I've only been on it for two days but I've been filleting a lot of fish. I was just doing a salmon."

She is preparing for a stint of work experience at TV favourite Angela Hartnett's Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant, Murano. "I'm a little nervous," she says. "I'd love to work in [a restaurant with a Michelin star] one day."

There's no reason why she shouldn't, according to Geoff Booth, head of hospitality. "The level 3 students I'd expect to join a Michelin-starred restaurant," he says. "Level 2s might go into one of the deluxe hotels. Level 1s, if they leave us at the end of their first year, will go into the casual dining sector, which is vibrant and full of jobs."

A remarkable 98 per cent of learners at Westminster Kingsway go straight into employment when they leave and the path up the career ladder is clear and easily accessible.

"They all start at the bottom, but they can rise very swiftly in this industry if they've got commitment, personality and the skills that employers look for. There are always jobs. Throughout the recession there's been a year-on-year 4 per cent job growth in central London, which is amazing," Booth says.

Haute cuisine

The key to employability is the scope of the knowledge taught and that comes from having a very diverse teaching staff. Lecturers and guest teachers come to Westminster Kingsway from as far afield as Vietnam, Japan and Australia. "You'd be surprised just how far the web extends," Booth says.

Indeed, the college has, by accident or design, ended up with a contacts book to rival any independent school's old boy network. That helps the courses to excel and does wonders for how they are viewed.

"I recently went to a meeting at the Chesterfield Mayfair [hotel] and the general manager is an ex-student," Booth says. "Immediately you have a connection. The alumni network is very strong and that has a two-way benefit: for them, it means they know us and have affection for the institution. For us, it means we can place students on work experience with them and graduates can get full-time employment there."

The recruits the college sends out are a mix of those who have always wanted to cook and those who have belatedly realised that their future lies in the kitchen.

"We recruit people who may have started the academic route but decided it's not for them," Booth says. "They're bright enough to take it, but sometimes at 18 they'll decide that what they really want to do is get into hospitality."

The situation at Westminster is broadly typical of catering colleges. So, arguably, the reasons for catering and hospitality doing so well may be as simple as the mix of a thriving sector, well-connected alumni, clear job progression and a diversity of intake not common in other education streams. Yet to reduce the secret of success to these factors would be misleading. For starters, college restaurants provide an invaluable revenue stream for colleges, helping to shore up falling budgets.

Westminster Kingsway poached Gordon Ramsay's training manager to oversee its trainee-run Escoffier Room restaurant. A seven-course tasting menu is on offer at pound;55. And from the moment they start at the college, students are cooking for public consumption. First-years produce meals for the college canteen, priced from a more modest pound;2 per head. The menu changes with the curriculum; come spring, students can tuck into cut-price venison. As well as providing vital kitchen experience for trainee chefs, the college generates income from food products that would otherwise go to waste.

Such entrepreneurial thinking is vital in helping colleges to balance the books after a series of savage funding cuts. And more of these are on the way: the UK's national adult skills budget will drop by 19 per cent (pound;463 million) by 2015-16.

Westminster Kingsway has also started capitalising on its burgeoning reputation by offering high-end courses for adults from the UK and overseas. Tuition fees for the 24-week international patisserie diploma, for instance, are pound;12,500.

"There's no government involvement - we set the curriculum and we teach to what we think the outputs should be," Booth explains. "Without that income stream, we would struggle to make ends meet under the funding we currently receive."

These courses are integral, then, to the way in which colleges are dealing with budget cuts. But cooking education also has another huge advantage: an exceptionally high media profile that other vocational courses can only dream about.

TV shows such as MasterChef serve to open many young people's eyes to a career in the kitchen. The popularity of The Great British Bake Off, in particular, was a major factor in the 50 per cent increase in applications for Westminster Kingsway's patisserie courses between 2011-12 and 2013-14.

Chef's choice

Celebrity chefs such as Oliver have proved to be influential too, Booth says. "Jamie has dyslexia and found this was a calling that worked really well for him. Look how well he's done. He's a great role model, and a lot of students will see what he's doing and think, `I can do that'."

Many of these chefs actively promote catering education at colleges. For example, Oliver is vocal in his praise for Westminster Kingsway and has trained young people himself (his TV show Jamie's Kitchen was about precisely that). Marcus Wareing, meanwhile, chose his former tutor at Southport College when he talked to TES about his best teacher (18 April).

Some go further than just talking about their training and actively go back to influence the education of the next generation of chefs. A prime example of this is Michael Caines' close relationship with Exeter College.

Almost a decade after completing his training there in 1985, Caines returned to his Devon roots to take over the kitchens at Gidleigh Park Hotel in nearby Dartmoor. The move proved to be an inspired one: the restaurant has since earned two Michelin stars, catapulting Caines to national fame.

When Caines needed new kitchen staff, the logical first port of call was his former college. But the response he received was unexpected. "They were reluctant," he says. "They thought the quality of their students wasn't good enough. I thought that was appalling. There was a skills gap. The consensus was that the college-leavers were not fit for purpose."

Caines decided to take matters into his own hands. He became a college governor and in 2011 established the Michael Caines Academy at the college, with the aim of cultivating the next generation of restaurateurs, chefs, managers and waiters.

"We wanted to be slightly elitist, and to work with people with a real passion and desire to work in the food industry," Caines says. "Numbers have grown consistently over the past three or four years, despite government cuts. We have got good facilities, good stewardship and engaging teachers who are aware of the industry. It's exciting to be back at a college that means a lot to me."

This year, the academy received 90 applications for just 16 places. Caines and other chefs drop in to give demonstrations, while students also visit local food producers, hotels and restaurants before tackling a six-week work experience placement at an elite kitchen such as Gidleigh Park or the Ritz in London.

Students from the course have even gone on to work for Caines at Gidleigh Park, but he insists that self-interest was not his primary motivation.

"I don't feel this is a recruiting business for Michael Caines. We want the industry to be their first choice, rather than their last. I want them to have the experience I have had," he says. "You can earn a good - no, a great - living and get into a management position or become an entrepreneur. But it's a two-way conversation. Colleges complain that industry doesn't get involved enough; industry claims colleges don't engage enough. The only way to bridge the gap is to get involved yourself."

Cooking with gas

Not surprisingly, Exeter College principal Richard Atkins feels that the influence of Caines and those like him is key to how vocational cooking courses are perceived and run.

"It's hard to find someone who puts more back into the system," he says of Caines. "There's no doubt that standards have risen, both in the teaching and the students, because of his regular involvement. He demanded better investment from us.

"We need more people like Michael to put a serious amount of time and energy in. He's not slow to give advice from time to time. He's got a lot of business acumen; he will say areas that need investment. It has helped me enormously, having that source of advice."

The success of colleges with elite catering schools such as Westminster Kingsway, Exeter and City College Plymouth has not come easily or by accident. The principles behind their success - close links with industry, rigorous training, courses designed with real-world jobs in mind - offer a model that could be applied to any form of technical training.

But, of course, not every principal has the construction or hairdressing equivalent of a sympathetic Michelin-starred chef to call on. Not every college is able to draw on a network of elite contacts across the globe. Not every sector is lucky enough to have high-profile champions on TV to pique the interest of potential learners.

Atkins, however, still believes that catering education provides lessons for other vocational courses and colleges to learn from. "We have to work on our profile and so do employers," he says. "Colleges have to do more to work with business, but we need businesses to respond. When they do, it can be transformational.

"We need to have more people with technical and professional experience going to their local FE college. The more we can foster these links, the better - and the need for us to do this has never been greater."

Marcus Wareing: `The lecturers made it really fun'

Wareing is one of Britain's most acclaimed chefs. Currently appearing in BBC Two's MasterChef: The Professionals, he acquired his first Michelin star at the age of 25 and went on to run some of London's most celebrated restaurants. His own chain includes Marcus at the Berkeley hotel and the Gilbert Scott at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. He trained at Southport College, Merseyside, for two years.

Do you have fond memories of college? And how do you view the training that you received there?

Two of the most enjoyable years I have had in catering were at college. The lecturers made it really fun; they were real characters. One was called Mr Walker. He was ex-army and treated us all like cadets. Another was Mike Cundall. He was one of my biggest influences, as he really brought out the passion of cookery. He was as passionate about teaching as we were about cooking. He even made the theory (the boring part - all we wanted to do was cook) as exciting as the cooking itself.

Is the standard of catering education still at the level you would expect?

Definitely. I am very happy to recruit from catering courses - the education that students get lays the foundations on which they can build.

How do you view the relationship between chefs and college catering courses?

It's all about meeting halfway - I think they need to come and see us as much as we see them. I don't go as much as I would like to, but when I get more time in my business I definitely will.

You are currently presenting MasterChef: The Professionals - are you seeing the fruits of catering education?

The original MasterChef with Loyd Grossman inspired me to be a chef. I loved watching it on a Sunday night. It was on at 6pm, I still remember the exact time! And, yes, the chefs in MasterChef: The Professionals are where they are because of the foundations provided by the catering colleges.

Gary Rhodes: `I remember the quality'

Rhodes studied at Thanet Technical College (now East Kent College) between 1976 and 1979. The first two years were a general catering course, the third year was advanced cookery.

"What stands out most in my memory is the quality of the tutors and the variety of foods we had the pleasure of learning about. One particular lecturer, Peter Barrett, has had a huge impact on my career throughout. He's also become a very close friend over the years. He had a great eye for detail within foods, how to draw the maximum flavour from each and with that create a well-balanced blend of all the ingredients used.

"One of the great features of FE colleges was that you were never going to move on unless you fully understood the basics of cooking. From that point, classic dishes could be created because you had the knowledge of how they were born.

"Other sectors can learn that `don't run before you can walk' was - and still is, I feel - FE colleges' message to all who truly want to achieve in life."

Ainsley Harriott: `It was pretty tough'

Harriott spent four years at Westminster Catering College (now Westminster Kingsway) between 1975 and 1979. He studied part-time while working in a French restaurant. He went on to host Ready, Steady, Cook and has released numerous cookery books and his own brand of food products.

"We were brought up on the classic way of doing things, all the Escoffier books. You didn't watch a teacher filleting a sole, you got a whole sole to fillet.

"It was pretty tough, the old regimented way of running things. I wouldn't quite say it was the Gordon Ramsay approach; there was a bit of swearing but not to that degree.

"The most important thing in the kitchen was the time-keeping, which I was quite relaxed with. It brought a sense of discipline.

"Colleges give students an opportunity to learn in a well-drilled way. They have qualified teachers who are teaching you, rather than just going into a kitchen with a chef shouting at you and showing you what he can do.

"If you're prepared to put in the graft, you can learn a lot. The standard now, each time I go back to these colleges, is getting better and better."

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