We must recognise that cooks, chefs and food artisans learn their trade in a variety of ways. Some prefer formal study and attend a cookery course. Learning on the job is also common. This section looks at the routes to becoming a cook in London, and how the training offer has developed over time.
London’s cookery schools have a long history. The National Bakery School was set up in 1894 and is considered the ‘first bakery school in the world’. The Westminster School of Hospitality and Le Cordon Bleu London were founded in 1910 and 1931 respectively, to ready cooks for the capitals’ prestigious restaurants and hotels, 8 but their aim was much more significant than this. These schools were borne out of a movement to codify, modernise and pass on the technical skills of Western European palace cooking. Up until then cooking was considered a lesser ‘domestic art’ and these schools successfully managed to professionalise it. Today these schools make quite distinct offers.
The Westminster School of Hospitality is now part of London’s largest further education college, Capital City College Group, which delivers courses in dozens of other disciplines. As London’s hospitality sector expanded, more further education colleges started offering culinary courses – 15 additional colleges across London offer these, though as the next section shows, attracting learners is a struggle. Public funding means that some learners are entitled to having their college course funded. However this is only available to people without a level 2 qualification (that is without the equivalent of core GCSEs) and some younger learners.
The National Bakery School has been absorbed into London South Bank University and teaches degrees in baking science. Over the last decade, there has been a flurry of graduate level courses designed for hospitality professions. The LSBU is one of several universities to offer three year graduate courses in hospitality management, alongside the University of West London, University of East London, Greenwich University and Middlesex. Other London universities teach degrees in food policy – SOAS and City University opened food studies centres in 2013, encompassing research and teaching. These university courses are funded by tuition fees and government grants, but they usually don’t teach food preparation.
By contrast Le Cordon Bleu remains an independent or private school, and more have been created since, such as Leith’s School of Food and Wine. These, however, do not benefit from public funds and learners have to bear the full cost of courses, which range from £20,000 to £24,500 for a one year full-time professional course. Whilst these courses provide a high standard of education, with students getting lots of contact with teachers, they are a costly investment and are geared towards international students – over 80 per cent of students Le Cordon Bleu London are from overseas. 9
Learning on the job
Learning on the job is also common, sometimes with the aim to learn from a particular cook, in a similar way to training in other arts and crafts. It is possible to walk into a professional kitchen with a passion and get a job as a prep cook or a catering assistant, and progress quickly to more senior roles.
While a strong element of practical learning is essential to becoming a cook, there are drawbacks to learning it all on the job. Recruits are too often thrown into a difficult learning environment without much preparation or support and end up leaving quickly.
Apprenticeships offer a formal framework for on-the-job learning, and over the decades the government has developed standardised programmes for most jobs with technical skills requirements. But as a government-led scheme they were considered to include too little commitment from employers and many were of poor quality as a result. 10 Learners have also increasingly valued formal study, particularly on leaving school, which has led the popularity of apprenticeships to progressively decline. A 2017 reform of the scheme introduced an Apprenticeship Levy that shifted the responsibility for funding the costs of apprenticeships onto large employers (those with an annual wage bill of £3 million plus), with employers paying for a day a week’s worth of learning outside the workplace. This training is often delivered by private training providers entering contracts with employers – although further education colleges can and do also provide apprenticeship training. Still, some have raised alarm at the continued drop in apprenticeship starts since 2017, 11 as well as high drop-out rates – although beyond the focus of this report, it is essential for these issues to be addressed.
Fortunately, the coming years are also set to bring new opportunities to seriously rethink food teaching and training in London. The government has made funding available for free tuition to adults without level 3 qualifications (A-levels or equivalent) across the UK (though this has yet to be extended to hospitality training). In London, the Mayor now controls spending from the Adult Education Budget, worth over £300 million, and has made it a key objective to improve the offer of technical skills by ‘raising the quality of facilities, teaching and leadership in London’s further and adult education sector, promote the sector’s specialisms and ensure its sustainability’. 12 We could also see new sources of funding for catering and food colleges. The City of London Corporation is proposing to bring together its Billingsgate, New Spitalfields and Smithfield wholesale markets as a single new complex at Dagenham Dock, which could well include new teaching facilities. And the City of Westminster is considering supporting Westminster Kingsway College to develop its Soho campus.
International examples suggest that if we get the offer right, there could be a big market for culinary colleges. Paris-based Ecole Ferrandi has doubled the size of its anglophone course over the last decade, for example, and Singapore’s Sunrice Academy is expanding.