London needs a new model for culinary training that can rise to the challenges facing the city – of job creation, inclusion, social mobility and sustainability – and support its recovery from the double disruption of COVID-19 and Brexit. This section shows why the existing model isn’t working and details the five main reasons why it is time to take a fresh approach to culinary training:
- Nurture local talent into professional cooking to reverse falling course take-up and give cooks the skills that restaurants and caterers need.
- Promote inclusivity in a sector where women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Londoners struggle to progress.
- Attract investment to repair the longstanding under-funding of culinary education, and boost London and the UK’s role as a centre for food research and innovation.
- Drive sustainability by improving cooks’ understanding of the issues and solutions to the environmental costs of cooking and diet.
- Raise employment standards to improve workforce attrition rates, by training a new generation of chefs and cooks on how to tackle workplace discrimination and poor wellbeing.
This section sets out the College of Food’s strategic objectives in turn.
1. Nurture local talent
London has successfully established itself as a global culinary hotspot, with considerable growth in the scale, quality and diversity of its food scene. 13
The number of people on publicly-funded chef courses has steadily declined, as shown in Figure 1. We have been told by senior college staff that fewer people have been applying to chef courses at London’s further education colleges in recent years, and at least one London institution, the University of West London, discontinued its chef courses in 2020.
Take up of apprenticeships has been falling too (see Tables 1 and 2). This might seem surprising as apprenticeships are an attractive opportunity for all parties, with learners paid throughout and training tailored to the needs of the employer. Part of the reason for decline might be the relatively slow take up of the Apprenticeship Levy, which shifted the responsibility to fund apprenticeships from the government to large employers. But the last few decades have also seen a broader societal shift away from training on the job and a preference for formal study, which could explain why appeal to learners has so far been limited.
Instead the capital relies on foreign workers and particularly EU nationals, who make up around 25 per cent of the city’s professional chefs – a much higher number than for any other region in the UK, 14 and one that leaves the city’s hospitality businesses particularly vulnerable to Brexit.
The government’s new immigration reforms are likely to reduce London’s access to foreign chefs. The proposed system consists of a points-based immigration system where those wanting to work in the UK need to score a certain number of points to be eligible for a visa. Applicants who do not have academic degrees are likely to score poorly.
2. Promote inclusivity
Despite relatively low barriers to entry and progression in terms of qualifications, professional kitchens are too often exclusive places. They have also long suffered from being dominated by men, as few managers make arrangements to allow flexible working, take on the macho culture of many kitchens, or address other forms of gender-based discrimination. 15 Whilst the situation is changing and colleges and training programmes now have a better gender balance, women still only make up 15 per cent of London’s chefs. 16
There is also strong evidence that upwards mobility for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Londoners is relatively poor. London’s professional kitchens are diverse in terms of ethnic background, but BAME representation is very low in more senior roles. Only 12 per cent of Michelin starred chefs are from BAME backgrounds. 17 It seems that BAME chefs are often in jobs which reflect their national background (chefs of Indian heritage in Indian restaurants) rather than having access to broader opportunities. The lack of BAME representation in professional kitchens could stem from top chefs being predominantly White and male, and chefs routinely describe how work placements often expose trainees to sexist and racist behaviour and attitudes. 18
“Many of the top chefs in the UK are well aware of the bias against BAME chefs and front of house staff in the industry but simply turn a blind eye. Conversely the BAME employees have no outlet to report ill treatment. Any institution needs to bear these factors in mind and have the process to nurture and encourage people from all ethnic and social backgrounds to take up this trade as a credible long term career.”
London chef and restaurateur
London’s food training institutions were also borne out of the Western European cooking tradition, and while some of them have since diversified their curriculum, the Western tradition continues to dominate. This is a missed opportunity, given London’s character as a global capital. There are few better places in the world than London to develop a wider, more global curricula, encompassing South Asian, West African or Caribbean cooking traditions.
Some charities are doing excellent work to improve access to hospitality careers for people with challenging life circumstances. For example, Blue Marble Training delivered by the Shoreditch Trust in East London offers young people wraparound support while on their course and after completing it – including on mental health, financial resilience and personal confidence in the workplace. There is much that the College of Food could learn from such programmes to broaden access to employment in professional kitchens.
3. Attract investment
It is remarkable that London is a global centre for education across disciplines but has a comparatively low profile in food and cooking training. In spite of the longevity of London’s cooking schools and the large size of some private training providers, none have much of a global reputation.
There are three main reasons for this:
First, cooking has a lower status in the UK than in many other countries. In France, for instance, the culinary arts are viewed as a creative industry with the same standing as design and fashion. But cooking has tended to be viewed in the UK as a ‘domestic science’ rather than an arts subject, with the result that its food schools have never had much status. You only have to look at the contrast between the reputation and standing of Central St Martins or the Royal College of Art, and London’s catering colleges to get the point.
The lack of status accorded to the culinary arts is compounded by the underfunding of vocational education. The UK has long neglected further or vocational education, and never more so than in recent years. Culinary education is no exception. In the UK most cooking qualifications are taught as part of vocational education in further education colleges, which have seen the largest fall in spending per learner than in any other part of the education system since 2010 (larger than primary and secondary schools, and higher education). 19 Total spending on further education for young people aged 16 to 18 has fallen by 25 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2019, while spending on apprenticeships and other work-based learning for adults has fallen since 2009–10 by about 18 per cent in real terms. We do not have specific figures for hospitality courses in further education, but we know they will have been affected by both a reduction in the number of learners, and a reduction in spending per learner.
Finally, as outlined in the previous section, most of London’s culinary schools are also part of bigger institutions and their reputations are rolled up into theirs. To survive, schools have had to find their ‘niche’ audience or segment of learners (e.g. international students for Le Cordon Bleu, tuition-funded university degrees for the National Bakery School). Contrast this with Paris’ Ecole Ferrandi or Copenhagen’s hospitality college, which have built considerable reputation from joining up vocational teaching, courses for professionals and international students into a single, large institution (see Appendix). There is also an instructive contrast with London’s arts colleges, several of which joined forces to become the world leading University of the Arts London.
Public sector under funding and atomisation taken together do not provide an attractive environment to private capital. Hospitality is an atypical sector in that it is made up mostly of small and medium sized enterprises that often operate on tight margins. And whilst interviewees speak of tight connections and collegiality, and some chefs give back by creating local culinary skills initiatives, such as Nicole Pisani’s work for Chef in Schools 20 or Asma Khan opening her restaurant kitchen to novices for free, 21 there also needs to be a more strategic approach to investment in training. Restaurateurs spend time training new recruits to their own techniques, but there lacks the structure to bring together corporate investment into education, and connect restaurants and caterers with colleges.
The lack of investment and atomisation also means that London lacks an obvious home for a food research and development institute, which could scope out consumer trends, assess impact of innovative approaches to sourcing or hospitality management, or steer university research projects on nutrition and sustainability. Indeed, several London universities are conducting research in food policy, nutrition and hospitality – there is an opportunity to do leading research and development into food and hospitality at a larger scale, in partnership with businesses. The College of Food could therefore become a centre of excellence in research as well as teaching.
To conclude, we believe that a world-leading food education institution has the potential to repair some of these gaps by bringing together public sector funding and leveraging it with international student fees and corporate contributions.
4. Drive sustainability
We won’t be able to tackle the climate emergency or the other environmental challenges we face without changing the way we cook and eat.
For this reason, sustainability needs to be put at the centre of culinary education and training – all the more so because consumers increasingly demand sustainable, ethically produced food. But while most culinary courses and schools now teach about healthy eating, there is much less emphasis on sustainable eating. Where colleges do offer training on sustainability, this tends to be as a separate, non-compulsory module, among many others. It is time for a step change in the way we teach food skills and cheffing by embedding sustainability into all courses.
“London restaurants are experimenting with zero waste, low-carbon and highly nutritious menus, but this kind of innovation isn’t really reflected in culinary training programmes. Too often sustainability is taught as a box-ticking exercise, rather than to give cooks the confidence to make sustainable choices when elaborating recipes or sourcing ingredients. As the hospitality sector resets after the pandemic, it has the opportunity to be at the heart of a green recovery and help the UK reach our Net Zero targets in 2050. But for this to happen we need to give chefs the tools to respond to rapidly increasing consumer demand for eating out options that are sustainable.”
Juliane Caillouette Noble, Managing Director, The Sustainable Restaurant Association
5. Raise employment standards
Whilst employers are best placed to improve some of the lagging working standards in London’s professional kitchens (as documented in Kitchen Talent), training the next generation of cooks, chefs and managers to tackle these challenges will also play an important part.
Long hours and stress can lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. In a survey of professional chefs in London, conducted by trade union Unite, 51 per cent reported that they suffered from depression due to being overworked, while 69 percent reported that their hours impact their health. Undoubtedly, this contributes to retention issues in the sector. Courses currently focus on delivering the practical skills to work in a kitchen, rather than preparing aspiring chefs for challenges like long hours and high pressure. While some of these issues must be tackled in the workplace and by the sector as a whole, there also needs to be much greater emphasis on helping learners to manage their health and wellbeing in difficult circumstances, and to be effective and empathetic managers as they move up the career ladder.
“There is a whole generation that needs support getting into a kitchen and finding their place there. The environment is harsh. If you make a mistake, other chefs feel you are letting them down. What struck me is that there is low self-worth and self-esteem [in professional kitchens], and chefs project this on each other. So I decided I should leave.”
The College of Food should work in partnership with training providers focused on improving mental health and wellbeing in hospitality, such as Pilotlight, to learn from many existing excellent initiatives. The College could provide professional support and a base for their programmes.