Author: Jo Corfield, Head of Communications, Centre for London
As a home to over 8.8 million people, London has a lot of mouths to feed. From businesswomen exchanging ideas over lunch to families enjoying a weekend treat, Londoners’ eating out habits have enabled the capital’s hospitality industry to flourish.
But look inside London’s restaurants and kitchens and you’ll find that not everything is so sweet. Chefs work long, inflexible working hours. They endure tough working conditions. And while cooking may have achieved greater recognition in recent years, the financial rewards are unchanged: the average hourly pay for London chefs, including overtime and tips, was no higher in 2017 than in 1997.
These long hours and low pay take their toll on the industry – around 10 per cent of chefs across the UK leave the profession every year. This in turn points to a growing challenge: in the last two years, take up of college courses and apprenticeships were far from meeting the country’s demand for chefs. Why is this?
Partly because young people are aware of the difficulties of working in kitchens, those who choose a career as a chef often go for it when there’s a lack of “better” options. And a considerable number of young people negatively associate being a chef with things like “getting shouted at by people like Gordon Ramsay”, according to research by psychologists at the University of Surrey.
At the same time, those who do decide to go to catering college don’t always finish with the skills they need to cope with a demanding workplace. Employers look for aspiring chefs who can thrive in a constantly changing environment. That means being adaptable: filling in for colleagues, working around customers’ allergies, or cooking in a badly equipped kitchen. Perhaps that’s why London’s catering colleges are often criticised for focusing on the theoretical elements, rather than on-the-job experience and why most chefs opt to learn on-the-job rather than investing time in college education.
Part of the problem is that none of London’s catering colleges – even the most recognised – are dedicated to cheffing. They are generalist colleges that offer chef or catering courses. The relatively low visibility of all but a few also means that few businesses are enticed to work with them on shaping catering education – even though in London they may be just around the corner. It is revealing that celebrity chefs have preferred to set up their own chef schools for young people.
But if London is to maintain its thriving culinary culture, chef training must evolve to better meet employer and learner needs. And as the Mayor of London gains control of adult education spending in September, the time is ripe to define a new vision for London’s catering education.
London’s catering colleges should work with the Mayor of London and businesses to develop a two-stage culinary education system, with catering colleges brought together as a new London College of Food; a networked institution with several campuses across London, following the model of the University of the Arts London.
Setting up an institution dedicated to culinary teaching would not only boost the sector’s image: it would also ensure that there is a dedicated resource to engage food businesses in teaching and apprenticeships. A London College of Food could centralise and grow the provision of apprenticeships through partnerships with businesses. Having a bespoke institution will create a focal point for partnerships with UK universities and other international culinary schools. Last, but not least, it would become a recognised brand for UK and international students, promoting culinary careers while working with industry and the Mayor to improve working conditions.
London is a global culinary capital that has many strengths to build on, but it must go further to cultivate local talent and train the chefs of the future.