'I want to do something for the whole of the UK, something that's going to bring the industry together and make us go forward in a big way'

The  Staff Canteen

Today, a think tank called the Centre of London issued a statement calling for the establishment of a College of Food, a 'centre of excellence' which would consolidate the capital's culinary higher education courses in order to support the UK hospitality industry.

By teaching a more comprehensive and up to date set of skills and creating  more"homegrown chef talent" in London, the think tank is calling for organisations to form a group in order to prepare said school's branding, identity, fundraising, course structure and qualification award.

But Fred Sirieix, a longstanding advocate for the promotion of careers in hospitality and the founder of National Waiters' Day, believes that this would only go so far to resolve the staff shortages the hospitality faces.

London might well suffer from the Brexit exodus, not to mention that it will have to fill the gap left by the tens of thousands of foreign workers who left because of the pandemic. But is a single academy in the capital likely to uplift the whole of Britain's hospitality industry? 

Too chef-centric, too capital-centric, too reactive 

"It would be good to have a school, a 'world beating' one, as that goes in the direction of the rhetoric we've heard for many months," he said. 

"But first of all, it's talking just about food and cheffing, but the hospitality industry is much more than just chefs and cooking."

"And although it may be very good to have a great centre in London, it forgets the whole country. And when you have an industry as big as hospitality which employs millions of people, we need a solution for the whole of the UK.

Fred remembers when he first started working with colleges in the UK, when there were around 280 across all four nations. 

"Now there are 120, which is not a lot."

Comparing the situation to that of building a house, he said: "you need to build your foundations first, you need a grounding that is stable so that you can build walls." 

Thus, the suggestion of a Centre of Excellence is akin to building a roof on its own, and won't do anything to fix the problem, he explained. 

"What we need is a campaign of information and communication, to share the benefits of working in the industry with the whole of the UK. 

"At the same time, we need to look at education." 

He argues that as funding is lacking, course structures tend to be uninspiring, and young talent is lost.

When he studied catering in France, he worked in the college restaurant multiple times a week, and "nobody who left school had no work," but for a handful of people who chose a different career path. 

"I'd love to know how many people come off of a catering course, find a job in the industry and stay in the industry," he said, but so lacking in resources is it as an education sector even that information isn't available.

A more recognised qualification? 

Questioning the content of the NVQ syllabus across the board - from within the industry to the wider public, Fred argues that it is high time to clarify and promote the qualifications that lead to a career in hospitality.

The need for cross government consultation - not just from the two ministers currently representing hospitality but education and business will be crucial in raising the industry's status. 

"They need to inform schools and teachers and career advisors so that if students are thinking of a career in hospitality, they can advise them correctly. Because at the moment, nobody is advising kids to go into hospitality because nobody knows about it and it's the barrier to entry - people are going to talk about the negative stuff, working conditions, working hours..." 

The Maitre d' says he used to attend his children's school and they would engage in an exercise of "how to run a pop-up restaurant" in order to show children what that might look like and plant the seeds of it being a viable career choice.

"That should be part of the curriculum where a chef and a front of house professional like myself go and teach the kids how to open a restaurant." 

"It's a great exercise, and it's learning by doing and by having fun - and the kids have a good time. Not everyone is going to be interested, but for others it might open their eyes that there are interesting things to do. It's much more than just waiting on tables as the negative connotations go." 

A strong campaign with a clear message

The message from within government - with support from the industry - needs to be clear and consistent, Fred argues, to reap the rewards of a talented, motivated hospitality workforce. 

"If you don't have a consistent message like that, people are not going to believe it and it's never going to happen." 

But policies that affect hospitality workers - such as, for example, the decision not to include TRONC in furlough payments, which has left hundreds of thousands of workers in dire straits for the past ten months - need to be revised to make it an attractive sector, too. 

And that may or may not come about with the establishment of a hospitality minister, a campaign which he supported but isn't certain will be fruitful.

"The government has a business minister, a finance minister - The Tory party is a party supposedly of business, so you would think that they would know what they're doing. I'm not sure a minister for tourism or hospitality at the moment will do what we want them to do.

It would, he concedes, "position the industry as a leading industry," but argues that "If it's to cut VAT and business rates and stuff like that - the government can already do that, and should already be doing that."

As we are, Fred is awaiting to see what the state of the sector is when it comes out of the pandemic, but, he said "we have a lot of people without jobs in the industry, why don't we educate them and skill them up?" 

"People will go straight to restaurants because they are so bored, whether it's a top restaurant or anything, just to sit down and have a meal with their friends and family.

Taking the time to commend the suggestion made by the Centre for London of a College for Food, he said: "But this is not what I want to do. I want to do something for the whole of the UK, something that's going to bring the industry together and make us go forward in a big way, not just for this year or next year, something that in 20-30 years, we can see the benefit of what we've done today. 

"If we don't do it, we're going to be in the same position in ten or twenty years."

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th January 2021

'I want to do something for the whole of the UK, something that's going to bring the industry together and make us go forward in a big way'