Is the UK's culinary education system facing a crisis?

The  Staff Canteen

After Runshaw's award-winning college restaurant, Foxhole, announced its impending closure last week, we asked what role colleges should play in training young chefs.

Are college restaurant closures the symptom of an underlying inability to address the skills shortage?

While most agreed that the closure of training restaurants is likely to be detrimental to the industry, the issue isn't clear cut, which begs the question: 

On the whole, how useful is a college education?

College restaurants undeniably offer students a chance to hone practical skills in a purpose-built environment. 

For instance, Darren Creed of Loughborough College said his students cater for more than 100 covers a day at The Radmoor.

Others spring to mind, like Kendal College Restaurant, the Brasserie at Milton Keynes College and Vincent Rooms at Westminster Kingsway - all of which not only 

Darren Creed

Darren Creed, chef lecturer at Loughborough College 

and recipient of a British Culinary Federation award  

generate revenue for the colleges, but  give students real opportunities to succeed by training them to a high level, working in industry conditions and taking part in national culinary competitions. 

But in some colleges, the stress, pressure and deadlines aren't the same as in the industry; students don't necessarily walk out equipped to deal with the realities of a professional kitchen. 

That's not to say they aren't valuable: one of the purposes of college education is to be a springboard or a stepping stone - not necessarily to make young chefs 'industry ready.' 

For Gareth Johns, head chef at The Wynnstay Hotel in Wales, "it's all pieces of the jigsaw," and the industry can't survive without a strong college education system. 

"Colleges teach people how to cook, we teach them how to be chefs."

"I've had experience of taking people on and they've just not been ready, it's too big a jump for them. I ended up sending them to college and two years down the line they mature into useful guys," he said.

What are the consequences of college restaurant closures?

One problem with closing college restaurants, stressed The Wynnstay Hotel chef, is that it cuts off a revenue stream, further exacerbating the issue of underfunding. This is aside from the obvious issue, which is that it deprives students of a means of gaining experience,

"Anything that adds to the skills shortage in the industry is detrimental. Whether it's your philosophy that colleges are or aren't the way forward is not - to my mind - the point."

"Anything that reduces the supply of trained chefs and front of house staff into the industry has got to be a bad thing. It is the hardest thing for a college to recreate - the realistic work environment - and obviously the restaurants are a big part in that," said Gareth. 

Andy Doyle, membership operations manager at professional development consultancy People 1st, agrees that without the grounding provided by college experience, the onus will fall on the industry to train chefs, which many neither have the capacity not the time to do. 


Foxhole Restaurant students upon receiving the 

College Restaurant of the Year

"This will only lead to a further shortage of skilled staff joining the industry," he said. 

How do we make sure that young chefs receive the training they need?

"As an industry we've got to pull together," said Gareth Johns.

Collaboration between the industry and colleges is essential, he said, with the addition of stages, mentor programmes, competitions benefiting all of the involved. But critically, the bottom line is that funding is required on every level.

According to Andy Doyle, two things will ensure that training in the culinary sector is good enough to address the skills shortage.

The first will be the introduction of T-Levels in catering in September 2020 - two-year courses which follow GCSEs, which will offer students a mixture of classroom training and industry training - and the second is industry-led apprenticeships.

However,  unless there are preparatory qualifications beforehand - and these require funding - young people just won't be ready for either routes. 

He said: "Over the past 10 years the number of students undertaking GCSEs in food nutrition has dropped by 50 percent, and with no A-level provision available and poor careers advice, this is going to have a continued impact on the number of 16-18 year-olds looking at hospitality as a viable career path." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st June 2019

Is the UK's culinary education system facing a crisis?