In 2019, Centre for London published Kitchen Talent. 1 This report looked at reasons behind the persisting skills gap in London’s professional kitchens and set out proposals to strengthen culinary education, increase retention, and improve pay and conditions for cooks and chefs. Among other proposals, the report argued that London would benefit from a College of Food – a new high status, public institution that would raise the standing of the culinary profession, appeal to aspirant cooks in both London and beyond, widen the range of courses taught and become a centre of research and innovation in food and cooking.
Of all the proposals in our report, this clearly resonated most. This idea was welcomed by the Greater London Authority and the hospitality sector. Against that background, this report looks in more detail at what role the College of Food could play, how it should operate, what its relationship should be to existing colleges and courses, and how it could be established and funded.
Shortly after we began working on this report, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK, with devastating consequences for the hospitality sector. Both in London and across the UK, hospitality businesses made more use of the Job Retention Scheme than any other sector, with around three quarters of jobs furloughed. 2
At the time of writing, the extreme disruption of COVID-19 looks set to continue, with social distancing rules in place for at least a year. Many businesses will close and the whole hospitality sector is likely to take time to recover – and will no doubt look very different when it does come back.
But there are reasons to think that coronavirus will dent rather than permanently weaken London’s culinary industry. Looking back at pre-pandemic trends, accommodation and food services were one of the fastest growing sectors in terms of employment and productivity. 3 Looking at food businesses only, the number of restaurants, takeaways and street food businesses in London has increased by almost 50 per cents since 2001, 4 and the number of chefs tripled between 2008 and 2018. 1 The rate of growth may slow, but Londoners’ enjoyment of food will not. On top of this, London’s food scene is one of the city’s greatest visitor attractions, and the number of visitors to London has grown quickly: the capital saw 21 million visits from overseas in 2019 – an increase of 50 per cent since 2009. 6 Again, COVID-19 might slow this growth. We might even see a fall in visitor numbers. But once we are through the worst of the pandemic, the visitor economy is likely to remain strong. A College of Food would therefore support job creation after the pandemic: as the hospitality sector returns to growth it could offer work opportunities to people considering a career change, but there will need to be a structure in place to support their reskilling.
There are, however, very difficult times ahead: businesses will have to work harder to meet consumer expectations on quality, sustainability and good value. Indeed, COVID-19 may usher deep, and perhaps more positive changes in our appreciation of food, as many spend more time cooking at home. Efforts to reduce contamination in response to the pandemic could also accelerate automation of food preparation – many cooks could see their roles redefined as the more repetitive tasks are performed by robots. Finally, the climate emergency and intensifying habitat and species decline are already contributing to rising awareness of the impact of food on our environment.
To innovate and return to growth, businesses will need a skilled workforce, and London has been short of chefs and cooks for years if not decades. Our Kitchen Talent report found that the city isn’t training nearly enough chefs to meet demand. 1 With 85 per cent of London’s chefs born abroad and over a quarter of them from the EU , London’s food scene is largely reliant on migration.
In this context Brexit and associated reforms to migration policy are likely to add pressure onto recruitment, and without a step change in London’s training offer, the shortage of chefs and cooks is likely to persist or worsen.
We therefore think that COVID-19 in some respects changes the context, but does not lessen the case for a rethink of London’s culinary skills training. It is the right time to invest in the recovery of this dynamic, economically and culturally vital industry.