Think-tank condemns chef training in London and calls for reform

Chefs in kitchen

London must uphold its international culinary reputation by reforming chef education and training and improving working conditions, a report from the Centre for London think-tank has found.

The report calls for a new London College of Food to transform the city into a world leading centre of culinary education.

Some 21% of the UK’s chefs work in London – the equivalent of 55,000 chefs and cooks – and demand for chefs has been growing fast with the number of chefs in the city tripling over the last 10 years.

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But despite this growth, London’s kitchens still struggle to recruit and retain chefs. Approximately 10% of the UK workforce – around 20,000 chefs – leave the profession every year, while ‘chef’ is the most in-demand job title across London on the UK’s largest job website Indeed.

The report found that the growing demand for chefs has not been matched with an expansion and improvement of culinary education and training.

London has a good provision of catering courses – 16 of London’s 48 further education colleges provide catering courses – but many employers don’t believe colleges prepare young chefs with the range of skills needed to thrive in the workplace.

The government’s apprenticeship scheme is also not delivering for the profession, with London behind the rest of the country, according to the report. It claims just 660 chefs started a chef apprenticeship in London last year – a figure that works out as 12% of chef apprenticeships in England.

The report found that students who successfully complete their education or training are met with tough working conditions.

In the 2017/18 period, 50% per cent of London’s chefs earned under £21,000 a year, and 80% earned under £28,000. This means that, after adjusting for inflation, the average hourly pay was no higher in 2017 than in 1997.

The average working week is 50-60 hours in most restaurants, and it is not uncommon for chefs to work 80-100 hours at busy times of the year.

Women make up only 15% of chefs in London’s restaurants, yet make up the majority of school, hospital or office cook positions which offer daytime shifts and more regular hours.

The challenges around recruitment are likely to be amplified in the coming years, as London’s restaurant scene is heavily reliant on migrant workers; around 85% of London’s chefs were born abroad, compared to 50% in the rest of the UK.

To ensure that London’s restaurants and the culinary sector continues to thrive, the report argues that London must take action to equip aspiring chefs with the skills and experience to succeed.

It recommends that London’s catering colleges should work with the Mayor of London and businesses to develop a two-stage culinary education system, with catering colleges brought together as a new London College of Food; a networked institution with several campuses across London, following the model of the University of the Arts London.

To make the chef profession more appealing to the next generation, the report argues that the sector must urgently address working conditions.

It calls on London’s restaurants and food businesses to work with the Mayor of London to draft a long-term plan which would help them catch up to the Mayor’s Good Work Standard – including introducing family friendly working practices, taking a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination, harassment and bullying, and paying all staff the London Living Wage.

Chefs should also work together to establish an Institute of Chefs and Cooks that would give the profession a strong voice and spread best practice, building on existing structures such as the Craft Guild of Chefs, the Institute of Hospitality and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts.

Gary Hunter, deputy principal of Westminster Kingsway College, says the report highlights some fundamental issues that require a new collaborative approach to hospitality training.

Nicolas Bosetti, research manager, Centre for London and co-author of the report, said: “London’s food scene is booming but the city does not do enough to inspire chef talent. Despite being home to some of the best catering colleges in the country, London’s culinary education offer isn’t specialised and high profile enough. And London is a chef apprenticeship dark spot.

“London’s restaurants and colleges need to cultivate local culinary talent to maintain and grow the city’s global and national reputation as a hub for culinary creativity and good food, and benefit its workers.”

Restaurateur Jeremy King, director of Corbin & King, said: “This report shows that restaurants and catering educators have some work to do. Restaurants need to get better at engaging with colleges and schools, while catering educators must focus on equipping young chefs with the skills and understanding they need to thrive in a working kitchen.

“But training alone won’t create rewarding and fulfilling chef careers. London restaurants need to be more flexible and responsive to the needs and expectations of young chefs as well as those chefs thinking of returning to the kitchen after a break, especially working mothers.”

Gary Hunter, deputy principal of Westminster Kingsway College, agrees that the report highlights some fundamental issues that require a new collaborative approach to hospitality training.

He said: “Everyone in London’s hospitality and culinary industries has a responsibility to secure the future of our great city’s diverse hospitality culture and ensure that London remains a leading gastronomic centre and tourist destination.

“At Westminster Kingsway College, we constantly engage with employers to support their culinary talent needs and we’ve been delighted to share our experience and expertise with the Centre for London’s Kitchen Talent report.”

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Andrew Seymour

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