The Future for Student Chefs – The Importance of Industry and Education Working Together

The relationship between the culinary education sector and the industry it aims to serve has not always been harmonious. The reputation of cooking in the UK has increased dramatically in the last thirty years and the quality of food to be discovered in all corners of our joined nations is deservedly something to be celebrated.

However, we have witnessed a paradigm shift across so many aspects of modern life and professional cookery is not at exception to this. The hospitality industry has always had the, often deserved, reputation to be one of working long hours without the financial reward to compensate for the skill, hard-work and conscientiousness that is required to deliver excellent food, drink and service. Too often we hear of young people aspiring to work in an industry that is abundant in its creativity, innovation and opportunity, only to be disillusioned by the shock of entering the commercial reality of life at the chalk face.

When it comes to the readiness of students entering the industry, there has been much debate. Lecturers have been referred to as dinosaurs and escapists, whilst also proclaimed as being out of touch with the pace and demands of modern industry. The education sector, in some eyes, is held accountable for the lack of preparedness of students entering the industry. From the educator’s perspective, life is getting harder. With ever-tightening government funding regulations, changes to national curriculum models, increasing competition for growth in colleges as well as competition between awarding organisations for student registrations, there remains uncertainty as to what the future will look like.

This is a difficult debate as there are so many pressure points to consider from both sides of the argument. Historically, there was more certainty and collective understanding. For example, in the 1970’s and 80’s, nearly all of the national vocational curriculum in the UK was delivered through the City and Guilds 706 programme. As many of us will remember, the 706 qualifications were challenging and based largely on the principles of French classical cuisine. There were clear rules as to the composition of dishes, the precise ingredients to be used and the methods and techniques to be deployed. Sauces were made from bases with strict derivatives, the ingredients and garnishes for dishes were set in stone. A tournedos Rossini was exactly that, crème dubarry was a cream of cauliflower soup, prepared differently to its cousin potage dubarry, and carottes vichy required a canelé cutter, cartouche, fine slicing skills and, of course, Vichy water. Like so many items on menus, the origins of dishes were aligned to people (an Italian composer and a French countess in this case), as well as places, wars, events and even unique mistakes and a bit of quick thinking, as in the case of crêpes suzette.

However, we now live in a completely different era where chefs have had the freedom to break away from convention and use their creativity to explore new and exciting concepts. Diners are more intuitive and well versed in the trends and plethora of commodities available at the click of a button. Developments in science and technology have changed the landscape of cooking. The growth of media coverage has increased public awareness and the power of social media provides instant access to what’s current and happening right now. Consumers are more in-tune with food and largely aware of the importance food and drink has in our lives, on our health and well-being.

In response to the clear need to get education working in sync with industry, The Chefs’ Forum is staging a virtual Continuing Professional Development Conference on the 14/15th and 21/22nd January click here. The session being delivered by Hayden Groves and Neil Rippington intends to explore how education and industry can work together to develop a collaborative approach to curriculum development that builds on the strengths and values of tradition whilst exploring the opportunities to take this forward into the modern world of the contemporary industry.

When discussing his experience of working with college students, Hayden said ‘Colleges provide a fantastic foundation, but students need to experience the tempo of the industry and diversify their skillset. Learning never stops, we need to absorb everything, enjoy it and reap the rewards the industry offers. In terms of the curriculum, I would say aspects such as low temperature cooking and the basics of water bath cookery should definitely be covered. Stabilisers and emulsifiers are also more commonly used these days so I think students should be introduced to commodities such as Xanthum gum and Hyfoamer.

Neil added ‘There are definitely aspects of the curriculum that need to incorporate the needs of the contemporary industry and we hope to explore some of these during the conference. Today, there is more emphasis on quality control, standardisation, the basics of food science and nutrition, as well as the creativity and innovation we see from a wide range of very exciting chefs.

Throughout my career in education, chefs have asked questions such as ‘why are students taught to make bechamel, produce a mixed grill or cut a chicken for sauté? These are all old hat and not required in the industry anymore.’

On the surface, this might appear to be true, but we have to appreciate the transferable nature of the skills, processes and techniques that are taught. A bechamel can be used as a sauce but also a base for a soufflé, alongside many other products. Learning to control a grill and the degree of meat cookery is widely transferable as is the understanding of a bird’s anatomy. I am really excited by the concept of collective appreciation and collaboration as an approach to future curriculum development.’