Why we need a Royal College of Food

London Essays – Issue 5: Food

Why we need a Royal College of Food

London’s art schools have shaped the capital’s economy and identity. What would it be like if we had the equivalent for food?

By Ben Rogers

No city in the world can claim to have better art and design colleges than London. The Royal College of Art is consistently ranked not just the best in the UK, but in the world. The University of the Arts, which brings together six colleges, each with a distinguished history – Central St Martin’s, Chelsea, Camberwell and Wimbledon art schools, London College of Communications and London College of Fashion – ranks in the world’s top five. Goldsmith’s, Kingston, Ravensbourne and the Slade at UCL all rank in the top 100. And London’s auction houses, galleries, museums and academies provide other, more limited art and design courses.

Together these institutions offer a giddying range of options, including animation, architecture, ceramics and glass, communication design, conservation, critical writing in art and design, digital fine art, furniture design, graphic design, history of art, illustration, industrial design, interior design, jewellery, metalwork, painting, photography, print-making, sculpture, textiles, theatre design and vehicle design. And that’s before we even consider the offerings of London’s 10-plus schools of architecture.

Why am I talking about art schools in a collection of essays about food? Because there is an anomaly in the way we do food in this city, and it starts from the problem that there are no food counterparts to London’s art schools.

Of course, you can study food in London. There are lots of colleges offering courses in catering, food technology and hospitality management, but they are at the vocational rather than the ‘higher’ end of post-18 education. Some of London’s more prestigious universities cover some aspects of food, but only as part of ‘serious’ subjects. You can study the anthropology of food at SOAS, nutrition and dietetics at King’s and food policy at City. But, rest assured, you won’t actually have to prepare any food as part of these courses.

To understand why this matters so much, it is worth looking at the contribution London’s art schools have made to the capital and the country. This is hard to capture with any rigour (most are now more than a century old – The Royal College of Art dates back to 1837 – and tens of thousands of young men and women have been educated by them over the decades, and then gone on to make their mark on the world); nevertheless, it is clear that their contribution has been profound.

They have transformed the lives of their students. Digging around a bit in the history of these institutions, it is striking how many of their best-known, most influential alumni have come from modest backgrounds: my impression is that it’s easier to make your way from a working-class family to a leading London art school than to Oxford or Cambridge. And regardless of background, many students have recounted in touching terms the world-expanding nature of London’s art and design education.

Art schools have not only enriched their alumni; they have enriched us all. This is certainly true in a narrow economic sense. London is a world leader in the visual arts and creative industries. A recent Greater London Authority report estimated that London’s creative industries – a category that admittedly includes writing, publishing, and the performing arts – made up more than 10 per cent of the London economy. 1 The average creative industry worker in London contributes around £71,000 per year to the economy, a quarter more than the average London worker. But the true economic contribution is almost certainly greater. A huge amount of the soft power that London exercises around the world can be traced back to the capital’s creative sector: London wouldn’t attract the tourists, students and talented workers that it does if it weren’t for its creative offer.

And where does so much of this originate? With the capital’s art schools, without which a huge part of the London economy would quickly disappear. That Lucien Freud, Terence Conran, Gilbert and George, Zandra Rhodes, Paul Smith, James Dyson, John Galliano, Christopher Bailey, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, David Adjaye and Thomas Heatherwick all graduated from London art schools makes the point. The schools are also at the forefront of design technology: both the University of the Arts and the RCA have well-funded centres supporting research into sectors with highly commercial outcomes, such as wearable technologies, textile futures and smart cities.

London’s art schools have also enriched us in a broader sense. London-trained designers have quite literally shaped our world, designing the chairs we sit on, the glasses we drink from, the shoes we wear, the train stations we pass through and the cars we drive. Our world is more delightful, functional and sustainable thanks to their work. London-trained artists have shaped and expanded our imaginations; the history of 20th-century English art would be very different without Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Eric Ravilious, David Hockney, Peter Blake and Bridget Riley, all alumni of the RCA.

So why have we ended up with this brilliant education for other creative fields, and nothing similar for food? Part of the explanation, I would guess, can be traced back to gender. The preparation of food has long been viewed as women’s business, so not worthy of serious study. This is particularly the case in the Anglo-Saxon world; in France and Italy cooking was seen, in past centuries, as a relatively respectable ‘courtly’ art: the most admired and successful cookery books were by men. In Britain, by contrast, fine cooking and professional chefs tended to be viewed with ambivalence, if not downright suspicion, and almost all the famous cookbook writers – from Hannah Glasse in the 18th century to Mrs Beeton in the 19th and Elizabeth David in the 20th – were women. 2

Whatever the explanation, it can’t be because there is any intrinsic difference between the disciplines taught in art schools and those that might be taught in food schools, if they existed. You might argue that cooking could never rise to the level of the fine arts such as painting and sculpture. But the same might be said of the applied arts, of design and crafts. In fact, the similarities between the applied arts and cooking are striking: each has more in common with the other than either of them has with the fine arts. Both involve intense bodily and, in particular, manual manipulation of materials. Just as we judge design by reference to three broad values, beauty, functionality and sustainability, so do we food, though here we are perhaps more likely to talk about ‘nutrition’ than functionality. It is no coincidence that we can naturally describe a friend as having great ‘taste’ in clothes, or that TV chefs talk about the importance of a ‘well-designed’ meal.

In the cases of both design and cooking, new technology provides ceaseless challenges and opportunities, furnishing new raw materials and techniques. And in the same way that design education falls into sub-disciplines, food school could variously teach cooking, drink-making, restaurant studies, food retailing, growing, food technologies and produce-innovation. The debates that take place in design and architecture are very similar to debates about food, pitting conservatives against innovators, locals against cosmopolitans, roundheads against cavaliers – with the difference that, because there are no food universities, the food debates are not nearly so sophisticated.

Food schools would turn out famous cooks, just as art schools turn out famous artists and designers. Other graduates would set up businesses – hotels, restaurants or shops. I am struck these days by the extraordinary number of middle-class boys and girls who study arts and humanities subjects at university and then go on to open up restaurants, shops or catering companies. If we had food schools, perhaps we might see young people travelling in the other direction, from food school into publishing, journalism, fashion, or teaching history. Chefs would become artists and artists, chefs.

But why do we need food schools? After all, we’ve lived through something of a revolution in food in the last few decades. I don’t think there’s a city in the world where you can get good quality produce as easily as you can in London. We take British supermarkets for granted, but they are veritable wonders of the modern world (at least for the consumer – it’s a different story for the farmers who supply them or low-paid staff that work in them). And, despite not so long ago being famed for bad food, London now has one of the most exciting restaurant scenes anywhere. These days, we look down on Paris.

Not so fast, though: consider how things would have developed in a parallel city – one with brilliant food colleges, but none for art. In this city, Felix Slade would have set up a food school at UCL, rather than an art school. Prince Albert would have established a cooking school alongside the Natural History Museum and the V&A, instead of the Royal College of Art. No doubt, designers would still flourish in this city. They would learn their trade just as cooks do in London today: they would pick it up from their parents, study it at undistinguished ‘designering’ courses in vocational colleges or acquire it slaving in the basement workshops of angry, foul‑mouthed designers.

Would design be better for it? I doubt it. And what would our food scene be like in this parallel city? First, thousands of people would have been given opportunity to attend food school – their world would have become bigger and more interesting, and ours, too. Just as art school graduates taught generations of children how to draw, paint and sculpt, so food school graduates would have taught countless boys and girls how to cultivate food, shop and cook. Everyone knows that ‘domestic science’ and food studies have long been a great black spot in the curriculum. If we had food colleges, ‘food’ would by now have developed as a prestigious part of the school curriculum, largely taught by graduates of food school. The school kitchen would be, like the art room, a place of fun and experimentation – one where creative children, especially those who aren’t particularly academic, might discover themselves.

School food would have improved, too – no self-respecting graduate of the Royal College of Food teaching Food GCSE and A-Level would let their school serve the bilge our schools have long fed our children.

But the difference between this parallel universe and ours would not just be felt in schools. Restaurant kitchens would become professional places where the bad behaviour of a Marco-Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay would be completely unacceptable. Chefs would know much more about, and be much more interested in, where their food comes from than they are now, to the benefit of agriculture and the environment.

Politicians, policymakers and public health experts would have food universities and research institutes addressing problems of poor diet and unsustainable food choices. Canteens across the country, run by alumni of food schools, might serve decent food.

London would have established itself as a mecca for chefs and food innovators from around the world, who would have expanded our palettes and delighted our tastes. There would be food incubators across the city – the food tech-scene would have been as lively as the design-tech and fashion-tech scenes are now. Restaurants in Soho would have labs above them vying with film companies, design studios and advertising agencies for space. London’s economy would be that much bigger, broader and more interesting.

Turning London into a globally recognised centre of food education would not be hard to do. Most of London’s art schools began as relatively lowly, utilitarian institutions before evolving into more rounded, sophisticated universities. (The RCA started its life as the inauspiciously named Government School of Design, set up to train art masters and boost exports.) Others, like the Slade School of Fine Art, were set up as departments in already established, elite institutions. A third category were set up as prestigious new institutions: the Royal Drawing School, created in 2000 by Prince Charles and now offering a range of courses, including a well-respected MA in drawing, is an example. All three strategies – growing what’s there, creating new departments within prestigious universities, and creating new institutions – look promising and could be pursued.

London would benefit from some proper colleges of food. Better late than never.

  • 1 Lara Togni, The Creative Industries in London, GLA Economics, Working Paper.
  • 2 Ben Rogers, Beef and Liberty; Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation, London, 2003.