Culinary training – an Olympian challenge

The 2012 London Olympic and Paralympics may still be more than six years away but judging from a morning spent on the top floor of Tower Hamlets College in east London their arrival may be setting in motion a process that ultimately could lead to the long-term solution of the biggest challenge facing British chefs and restaurateurs today – the continual search for the right number of properly trained staff.

This shortage confronts chefs and restaurateurs worldwide but it does seem to be worse in the UK than elsewhere. Despite the emergence over the past two decades of a number of British restaurateurs and chefs who can hold their own with the world’s best – Chris Corbin and Jeremy King at The Wolesley, Jamie Oliver seemingly everywhere and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck – in many instances the growth of British restaurants has only taken place thanks to a heavy reliance on imports: Australian cooks; French sommeliers; and, most recently since the accession of 10 new member states of the EU in 2004, many new staff, across all the ranks, from Eastern Europe.

This is a situation that is unlikely to change unless and until the British education system addresses these issues. The situation is particularly acute in the UK because at the school level so many cooking, or home economics, lessons have been cut from the curriculum, thereby stifling interest at an early age while at the tertiary level there have not been any new training institutions to educate the hospitality leaders of the future. The UK, for example, still lacks a specialised hotel school despite the importance of tourism to its national economy.  

When, therefore, an email arrived asking me to address 54 heads of further education colleges, where 600,000 students enrol annually (of whom over 20% are aged 14-19) on how they could best set the curriculum to meet the needs of the hospitality industry, I readily agreed.

Fortunately for them no address was necessary. Instead, there was a much more informal but much more personal and productive Knowledge Café where each of the ten ‘experts’ on hand, ranging from hospitality to tourism and language skills sat at a round table and was joined for 15-minute sessions by 10 college heads. Each table was covered with a paper tablecloth on which anyone could write any salient points from each session which were then collated into three major action points.

As I sat at my empty table I noticed several educators walking up to the sign that read ‘hospitality’ and walk away, a sign, I was to realise, of just what a challenge the British hospitality industry is facing. These were educators who had given up on their catering departments predominantly, I was to learn, because of the absence of any cookery lessons at the secondary level with one woman even citing the example of the cookery department at her daughter’s school being replaced by an engineering laboratory.

After a 30-second introduction I pointed to the two staff training manuals I had brought along. Although staff training manuals are now common these were from the two hospitality companies I admire most in the world – Attila Dogudan’s Do & Co based in Vienna and Danny Meyer’s New York Union Square Hospitality Group. What I wanted to stress to these educators was the common theme shared not just by these two excellent practitioners but also by all good restaurateurs – that none of them think it is their role to look after their customers. Instead, and far more importantly, they see their role as looking after their staff who will then, in turn, look after their customers.

In Do’s case this manifests itself as a working slogan that eschews the word service and instead, far more equitably, reads ‘ladies and gentlemen looking after ladies and gentlemen.’ The USHG manual stresses not just that the staff care for the customer but also for each other and for those  less well-off, an approach which manifests itself in numerous community programmes.

My presentation of this approach evoked the same response at every sitting – why if the restaurant and hospitality industries are about caring and looking after customers do so many British television programmes about restaurants and kitchens in particular concentrate only on the brutal side, a side that manifests itself in swearing, shouting and in certain cases, needless public humiliation? From every college head at every sitting I heard the same sad refrain: that every episode of these programmes not only turns prospective students away from the hospitality industry but also stops many parents from even contemplating suggesting cooking as a possible career to their children.

I countered that really television was to blame for this state of affairs rather than the hospitality industry because quiet, considerate and thoughtful chefs – the vast majority in my experience – do not make such a strong impact as their noisier counterparts. But this cut little ice. If the British hospitality industry is to be successful in securing the right recruits then, in the opinion of all these educators, it urgently needs to put forward a spokesperson who can not only espouse the positive advantages of the profession but also rectify the damage done and boost recruitment amongst their youngest students.

The obvious concern of all of those around the table for those they teach was echoed in what was invariably their follow up question: if they were to train sufficient numbers to meet the hospitality demands of 2012 would there still be jobs for them afterwards? Here I felt I was on safer ground because I was able to argue with enough conviction to convince most of these educators that no other profession offered such universal applications and one that was not constrained by geographical boundaries. Restaurant skills are now undoubtedly a passport to international travel.

Their obvious pastoral concern for their students materialised in the final major set of questions which revolved around the hospitality industry’s reputation for low pay and long hours. The latter I did not argue with, rather countering that any apprenticeship is tough but that cooking at least provided a contact with Nature many purely office-bound professions could not. As for wages the market, with the current shortage of skilled chefs, was definitely forcing the better employers to improve not just their pay but also their career opportunities.

During one of the later sessions just how this situation is changing was described by the head of a further education college in Dulwich, south east London, who had already worked closely with Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. The previous week, he reported, his college had been visited by a delegation from the Groupe Chez Gerard restaurant company who had put on an early evening demonstration to 300 of his enthusiastic students on the careers potential of their company.

At the end of the morning our three recommendations for improving recruitment to the British hospitality industry in the future were even closer ties between the colleges to concerned restaurant groups; a far more pronounced emphasis on the caring nature of the profession; and the long overdue need for the industry to put forward a passionate, positive and compassionate spokesperson.

My own message to all the educators I spoke to was that each of the excellent practitioners of the hospitality industry I cited were self made with extensive businesses, (Do&Co annual sales exceed 140 million euros while USHG now employs over 1,000) and that Blumenthal and Oliver had generated an international reputation which they could not have dreamed of when they first took to the stoves.

It is in all our interests that over the next decade these colleges produce their equals.