When you venture through the winding corridors of Westminster Kingsway College, it doesn’t take long before you come across a kitchen. There are 15 of them, in fact, all designed to prepare the next generation of chefs and hospitality professionals with the skills they’ll need for a life in the field.
Up to 180 students enrol on the college’s much-respected Professional Chef Diploma course every year and, as they navigate their way through this hands-on programme, they’ll have a chance to do everything from baking fresh bread in its in-house bespoke bakery kitchen to understanding confectionery-making techniques in its state-of-the-art chocolate laboratory.
And while the students might not initially realise it when they first set out on their path to culinary success, they are being trained on some of the most highly regarded and prominent catering equipment in the industry.
For Gary Hunter, vice principal for hospitality and adult learning at the college (main picture), it is vital that the facilities reflect the kind of set-up students will encounter in the profession, especially when some of them are visiting landmarks such as The Ritz, the Savoy, La Gavroche for work experience.
“It is crucial that we work with the leaders of the industry, which supply the industry, and that they do the same for us here at the college,” he explains. “There is no point working with a two-bob microwave that can barely melt chocolate when they are going to be going out on work placements — let alone going out to work after they graduate — and using some really super kit out in the industry. There is no comparison and we just wouldn’t allow that to happen. That is probably one of the biggest things our Westminster Kingsway College students achieve — whatever we teach them we know they are job-ready by the time they finish their academic course with us.”
The college relies heavily on partnerships with industry suppliers, leaning on them to share specialist insight and knowledge to the students as well as supply cutting-edge equipment. A plaque on the entrance to the college lists a string of companies that have played a major part in equipping its kitchens, including Control Induction, KitchenAid, Vitamix, Angel Refrigeration, Charvet, Nisbets and Rational.
Paul Jervis, programme manager for the Professional Chefs Diploma, says that in addition to giving students access to the kind of equipment they can expect to use when they graduate, there is another very good reason for partnering with A-brand suppliers: the sheer volume of activity taking place on a daily basis means kit has to stand up to the demands imposed upon it.
“We have got so many students that our kitchens aren’t just being used once or twice a day —sometimes you will have three different classes running through one kitchen. That equipment is going to take a pounding — it is no different than a hotel in that respect. So if you buy sub-standard equipment it is going to fail. You have to have a reliable system in place that can take the kind of abuse it receives.”
The college’s reputation for the quality of its culinary programmes is well-regarded, but it still faces the funding pressures associated with the sector. Further education has gone through a difficult period, with countrywide reviews sparking mergers between colleges. Consequently, it’s a competitive landscape and there is now a greater onus on colleges to offer compelling courses, attract sufficient numbers and deliver the right skills.
In order to maintain that, there has to be a budget that sits behind it. At Westminster Kingsway, Gary Hunter is responsible for that and he liaises with the faculty to establish what it might need in terms of equipment, tableware and resources every year. That budget, which will pass through a series of finance meetings before it is approved, is heavily influenced by commercial factors seeing as Westminster Kingsway operates two in-house restaurants (The Escoffier Room and The Brasserie) completely run by the students and open to the public. Trading for lunch and a number of evenings during term time, these restaurants are businesses in their own right.
If you buy sub-standard equipment it is going to fail. You have to have a reliable system in place that can take the kind of abuse it receives”
“Our budget is usually matched against what our income would be against the restaurants and function rooms,” explains Hunter. “This year we will bring in over target. Our target for both restaurants and our function rooms is £886,000 of income — that’s our target. We’ll exceed that next year.”
The award of an AA Rosette to The Escoffier, where contemporary cuisine is freshly prepared by second and third year chef students, is a glowing endorsement of the standards it has set and makes it one of the first colleges in the UK to receive such an honour.
“The AA has said they will have a place or a chapter in their book next year purely for college restaurants that have achieved this, which is quite an accolade,” says Hunter, himself the author of nine hospitality books. “Up until this point, RAC, Michelin, Hardens and so on haven’t really done it and because we are a training school they have really good reasons why not, but I think this shows we are also a very serious restaurant as well.”
As well as preparing students for life in the industry, culinary colleges must constantly track the latest food trends and try to predict what the working environment will be like for graduates when they enter the profession.
“We have had a spate over trends over the past few years, such as water baths,” says Hunter.
“You then have to invest in getting staff to understand how to use water baths and then, crucially, how to teach the methods of sous vide. We have got to get that absolutely right. We have aligned with the Culinary Research & Education Academy (CREA), which does a three-day training course in America and we have sent a couple of lecturers out there. We now run CREA’s courses on sous vide here at the college.”
Sous vide isn’t the only area where it has ramped up its expertise and explored new techniques. In the past year it has invested in Big Green Eggs and Kamado Joes, giving students the chance to experiment with ceramic grills and understand the ways they are being used in the industry. Wood-fired ovens are next on the list, while it recently commenced a partnership with Panasonic for commercial microwave ovens.
Up until now the college has largely relied on domestic microwaves, with the only real emphasis on this form of cooking coming during stage one of the course when students learn about food regeneration. Gervis thinks there is huge value in giving students the opportunity to experience the difference that commercial microwaves can make to a professional kitchen.
It isn’t just the build, or the components that are used to build them, microwaves are actually very complex things”
“The kind of misnomer within cooking is that if you see a kitchen with a microwave in it, it is a sub-standard kitchen because it is obviously not cooking fresh and there is an association with reheating. The reality is that it is no different to any other piece of equipment in that if it’s used properly it is absolutely incredible for what it can do in terms of quality and speed. To have students recognising how it can be used to improve efficiency and improve the product is crucial for when it comes to them going out in the industry.”
The college has typically used microwaves for tasks such as melting and warming, but the tie-up with Panasonic — which has already supplied six units to its kitchens — will allow it to explore more ambitious ways of putting the technology to use.
The man supporting them with this is Iain Phillips, sales and marketing manager at Panasonic (below). He says: “People of my age are very much bound by what they know; students are bound by what they can imagine. And something that we really hope to gain from our association with the college is exactly that — can it do something we didn’t know it could do? We know we can melt chocolate in it, we know we can regenerate food in it and we know we can dry herbs in it. I really hope that in the coming years we will be getting phone calls saying, ‘guess what we’ve found it can do now’. That is part of the excitement for us.”
Phillips is confident that as students learn more about the intricacies of commercial microwaves, it will also break down misconceptions. Even in the industry, the true value that a heavy duty microwave can offer a catering operation gets overlooked.
“People see microwaves as microwaves, but it is not until they use a commercial microwave they realise what a difference it makes. The fact is commercial microwaves take a pounding. It isn’t just the build, or the components that are used to build them, microwaves are actually very complex things. How you get the microwaves to bounce around the cavity so that you don’t get hotspots or coldspots is highly technical.”
Partnerships with the likes of Panasonic are vital for the college and next year it intends to open yet another training kitchen that will be equipped with state-of-the-art kit. Hunter envisages a ‘future kitchen’ concept, where suites are all electric, induction is installed throughout and the emphasis is on a small carbon footprint. He’d love solar panels on the roof and wants to become a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA).
“We have got space on the second floor that is empty at the moment and the power is ready to go, so we have the basic facilities for it. It is just a case of working with the right companies and manufacturers, and getting them round the table,” he says.
Hunter foresees the kitchen being used for a whole range of tasks, from patisserie and bakery to gastronomy and product development, which he believes makes it reflective of a real life scenario. “It means that if we want to teach something like the whole structure of a menu, we can do. The idea is that it has got a real degree of flexibility. And I think that is what a ‘future kitchen’ should be like.”
For Westminster Kingsway, the future is certainly bright. And that can only be good for the industry, too.
Different century, same problem
Westminster Kingsway College created the first ever training course and professional chefs’ school to tackle the dearth of young culinary talent entering the industry. That was more than 100 years ago and a century on it feels like things still haven’t changed. “There are 265 colleges up and down the country now offering courses in catering, and we still can’t meet the demand today!” says Gary Hunter, vice principal for hospitality and adult learning at the college. There are estimated to be 250,000 chefs working in the UK, with reports claiming that 93% of agencies think there are not enough trained chefs to meet demand.
Professional Chef Diploma Level 1, 2 & 3
The Professional Chef Diploma has been the starting point for many of the world’s leading chefs and is the UK’s first professional cookery qualification. Within the Professional Chef Diploma there are three possible pathways when you reach the third year, including cuisine; patisserie and confectionery; and restaurant management. The Professional Chef Diploma is supported and endorsed by the Craft Guild of Chefs, the British Culinary Federation, Master Chefs of Great Britain and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. Topics for study include gastronomy and product development, culinary science and food innovation, health, safety and food hygiene, kitchen management and food cost control, kitchen management, menu engineering and pricing.