There is a striking contrast between the findings of Centre for London’s previous report – Culture Club: Social mobility in the creative and cultural industries – and this one. The problem with London’s cultural industries is that they are almost too alluring. Work tends to be high status, stimulating, and relatively well paid. As a result, the sector is dominated by the sharpelbowed, white, middle class graduates from the ‘better’ universities with ready supplies of financial, social and cultural capital. Breaking in can be very hard if you don’t have the right connections, cultural references and family money.
Cheffing, on the other hand, remains a relatively low status and poorly rewarded career choice. This does of course make it easier for those with talent to get into catering courses, secure work and prosper. But getting a good education, finding a job with decent hours, good pay and a supportive culture can be hard. Colleges say they struggle to recruit motivated students. Employers complain that apprentices and graduates lack skills and commitment. Students and younger chefs – especially women – drop out of the sector at an astonishing rate.
There is nothing inevitable about this. Being a chef is not so very different from a graphic designer or a music producer. The range of opportunities, the demands of the job, and the skills and qualities needed in all of them are broadly similar.
No doubt the contrast has deep historical roots. In Britain cooking has long tended to be viewed as a feminine activity, so chefs, even male ones, lacked status — all of France’s famous 18th century cookery writers were men; all of Britain’s were women. But it is sustained by our system of education and by policy. This report sets out ideas that can help change the attitudes and practices that have held London’s kitchens back for too long, so turning cooking from a trade into a creative profession. We believe that creating some great London food colleges is at the heart of this.
Both the challenge and the opportunity will be to make working in a kitchen as attractive as working in a theatre, digital agency or TV production company, while ensuring that cheffing remains truly open to people from all backgrounds.