London’s art schools have shaped the capital’s economy and identity. What would it be like if we had the equivalent for food?
No city in the world can claim to have better art and design colleges than London. The Royal College of Art is consistently ranked not just the best in the UK, but in the world. The University of the Arts, which brings together six colleges, each with a distinguished history – Central St Martin’s, Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon art schools, London College of Communications and London College of Fashion – ranks in the world’s top five. Goldsmith’s, Kingston, Ravensbourne and the Slade at UCL all rank in the top 100. Together these institutions offer a giddying range of study options.
But some years ago, I realised there are no food counterparts to London’s art schools.
Of course, you can study food in London. There are lots of colleges offering courses in catering, food technology and hospitality management, and some of them, like Westminster Kingsway College and Southbank’s National Bakery School, have a venerable history and strong teaching traditions. But they don’t have anything like the standing of London’s art schools.
To understand why this matters so much, it is worth looking at the contribution London’s art schools have made. Tens of thousands of young men and women have been educated by them over the decades, and then gone on to make their mark on the world. These schools have not only transformed the lives of their students but have also enriched us all. This is certainly true in a narrow economic sense: London is a world leader in the visual arts and creative industries, attracting tourist, students and talented workers from around the world and contributing £52 billion to London’s economy every year. But art school graduates have also raised the standard of art teaching in schools and helped us become a more art and design literate city.
So why have we ended up with this brilliant education for other creative fields and nothing similar for food? It can’t be because there is any intrinsic difference between the disciplines taught in art schools and those that might be taught in a College of Food, if it existed. You might argue that cooking could never rise to the level of the fine arts such as painting and sculpture. But the same might be said of the applied arts, of design and crafts. In fact, the similarities between the applied arts and cooking are striking: each has more in common with the other than either of them has with the fine arts. Both involve intense bodily and, in particular, manual manipulation of materials. Just as we judge design by reference to three broad values, beauty, functionality and sustainability, so do we food, though here we are perhaps more likely to talk about ‘nutrition’ than functionality.
In the cases of both design and cooking, new technology provides ceaseless challenges and opportunities, furnishing new raw materials and techniques. And in the same way that design education falls into sub-disciplines, food school could variously teach cooking, drink-making, restaurant studies, food retailing, growing, food technologies and produce innovation.
But why do we need food schools? After all, we’ve lived through something of a revolution in food in the last few decades. Despite not so long ago being famed for bad food, London now has one of the most exciting restaurant scenes anywhere. These days, we look down on Paris. Yet London has long-struggled when it comes to developing local talent: the number of students on the food courses available, as well as apprenticeships have been steadily falling. In fact before the pandemic, 85 per cent of London’s chefs were born abroad, and 30 per cent came from the EU. Brexit and immigration reform could well lead to a decline in the supply of migrant chefs.
The pandemic has also hit our hospitality sector especially hard. Many businesses will close and the whole industry is likely to take some time to recover. But there are reasons to think that coronavirus will dent rather than permanently weaken London’s food scene. The number of restaurants, caterers and street food businesses had been growing from strength to strength. The rate of growth may be slow, but Londoners’ enjoyment of food will not. The hospitality sector could offer work opportunities to people considering a career change, but there will need to be a structure in place to support their reskilling. Strengthening culinary education and training would support job creation too.
Consider what our food scene would be like if London had been home to a College of Food instead of its art schools? Thousands of people would have been given opportunity to attend food school – their world would have become bigger and more interesting, and ours, too. Just as art school graduates taught generations of children how to draw, paint and sculpt, so food school graduates would have taught countless boys and girls how to cultivate food, shop and cook. If we had food colleges, ‘food’ would by now have developed as a prestigious part of the school curriculum, largely taught by graduates of food school. The school kitchen would be, like the art room, a place of fun and experimentation – one where creative children, especially those who aren’t particularly academic, might discover themselves. School food would have improved, too.
But the difference between this parallel universe and ours would not just be felt in schools. Restaurant kitchens would become professional places where bad behaviour would be completely unacceptable. Chefs would know much more about, and be much more interested in, where their food comes from than they are now, to the benefit of agriculture and the environment.
Politicians, policymakers and public health experts would have food universities and research institutes addressing problems of poor diet and unsustainable food choices. Canteens across the country, run by alumni of food schools, might serve decent food.
London would have established itself as a mecca for chefs and food innovators from around the world, who would have expanded our palettes and delighted our tastes. There would be food incubators across the city – the food tech-scene would have been as lively as the design-tech and fashion-tech scenes are now. Restaurants in Soho would have labs above them vying with film companies, design studios and advertising agencies for space. London’s economy would be that much bigger, broader and more interesting.
Turning London into a globally recognised centre of food education would not be hard to do. Better late than never.
Note: This is an edited version of an essay written for London Essays: Food. You can read the original essay here.