Recipe for change: The case for a London College of Food


London has one of the world’s most creative and dynamic food scenes, but the capital suffers from longstanding weaknesses in culinary education:

  • London has long struggled when it comes to developing native chef talent: the number of students on food courses and apprenticeships has been steadily falling, even as employers report persistent skills shortages.
  • Brexit and immigration reform could well lead to a decline in the supply of migrant chefs – before the pandemic 85 per cent of London’s chefs were born abroad, and 25 per cent came from the EU.
  • London’s kitchens are far from inclusive: only around 15 per cent of London’s chefs are female, and only 12 per cent of head chefs in Michelin -starred restaurants are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background.
  • Chef pay has stagnated or declined, relative to pay in other sectors, over recent decades. Working conditions in London’s kitchens are often poor, with chefs complaining of long hours, hot and cramped workspaces and a macho culture.
  • Both climate change and healthy lifestyles have become top policy concerns. We badly need more chefs with a better understanding of how to cook and prepare healthy and above all sustainable food.
  • Existing culinary schools are strongly vocational in focus and have little capacity or resource for research, development and innovation.
  • International examples show that falling learner numbers and declining investment in culinary training are not inevitable. Paris’s Ecole Ferrandi has doubled the size of its anglophone course over the last decade, for example, and Singapore’s Sunrice Academy is expanding.

COVID-19 in some respects changes the context but does not lessen the case for a rethink of culinary skills training:

  • The pandemic has hit our hospitality sector especially hard and it will probably take some time to recover. But we will almost certainly see a return to growth over the medium to longer term — the number of jobs in accommodation and food services increased by 41 per cent between 2010 and 2019, compared to an increase of 25 per cent across London’s economy as a whole. Without strengthening culinary training and education, chef shortages could well get worse.

London needs a new model for culinary training that can rise to the challenges it faces on workforce shortages, inclusion, social mobility and sustainability:

  • London is a global education capital, with some of the best universities in the world, but its reputation does not extend to its food and cooking offer. Despite the longevity of London’s cooking schools and the large size of some private training providers, these don’t have anything like the standing of colleges in France and elsewhere, or of London’s top art, design and fashion schools.
  • Our aim should be to create a culinary skills system that opens up opportunity to people of all backgrounds.
  • We need to ensure that our future chefs are confident in cooking sustainable and healthy food, with the skills and resilience to adapt to future changes in the way we cook and eat.
  • We need to boost London’s strengths as a centre of culinary research, development and innovation, developing capacities, for instance, to scope out consumer trends, assess the impact of innovative approaches to sourcing or hospitality management, or undertake research on nutrition and sustainability.

There are three main choices to make to fulfil the objectives set out above:

  • Mission: whether to provide highly specialised training for a small group of learners, or more general training for a larger group.
  • Status: whether to deliver courses as part of the further education (FE) system or the higher education system.
  • Structure: whether to set up a new standalone institution or build on an existing institution or institutions.

We recommend building on the strengths of London’s existing culinary training provision, by bringing them together in a network that would include a new centre of excellence offering advanced and specialised courses. While the parts of this network would remain independent, they could be branded as a new London College of Food.

This college would:

  • Provide a range of entry-level and advanced courses: The hospitality sector requires a large increase in learners acquiring a broader range of culinary skills. This can only be achieved through offering a broad base of entry-level courses alongside a choice of specialised and more advanced courses in a new centre of excellence. We also need a more modular approach to training so that more working cooks and chefs can combine work and learning.
  • Develop within the FE sector: A new higher education institution would be slow and expensive to set up and run, with fees that would deter many prospective learners, while it is perfectly possible to create a world class centre of excellence within the FE framework.
  • Operate on a ‘centre and satellite’ model: The new central institution, which could be sponsored or developed by an existing institution, would offer a wider range and more advanced courses than anything London’s FE providers offer now. In time it should develop into a world class teaching and research institution, attracting students from across the country and beyond. The satellites would be made up of existing local culinary colleges and courses, teaching basic or entry level skills.
  • Be governed by a board: The board would be made up of the various learning providers within the new college. It would have an informal, coordinating power, though in time some of the courses and colleges involved might want to federate and become a single body

We recommend the following plan for creating the new college:

  • Organisations with an interest in creating the new College of Food should form a group, whose mission will be to complete preparatory work on branding and identity, fundraising, course architecture and qualification award.
  • This work should be supported and seed-funded by the Mayor of London, the government, and trusts, foundations and social investors interested in food skills and sustainability