Something is cooking in Britain's catering colleges. Where once your average catering student would aspire to little more glamorous than a stove in the kitchens of a hotel chain, now the buzz around British cuisine and the rise of the chef as superstar have changed catering from a "safe" option to a window of opportunity. Today, a Bournemouth catering course, tomorrow, the new Gary Rhodes.
Little wonder then that catering courses have begun to see a rise in the number of applicants. "Growth has been stunning. We targeted 90 and got 155 this year," says Martyn Wagner, head of the Hotel, Catering and Tourism School at Westminster College, one of the key British training colleges with more than 700 chef students.
"Celebrity chefs are making the industry popular," he continues, "and chefs' conditions and salaries have got better, alongside a huge drive in this country to improve standards. We're now one of the leading culinary nations." A top chef in a London hotel can now earn pounds 75,000 with a company car, while the TV stars are well into six-figure footballer salaries.
"Ten years ago, chefs were thought of as tubby-faced 50 year olds, now they're hip," says John Hanrahan, a Westminster graduate working as a commis chef at the Dorchester. "You see them on TV and the front pages of the tabloids with stories about their love lives." Hanrahan opted out of a chemistry degree to get a catering diploma and "get in the real world. Cooking is a practical skill, it's a chance to be creative and use your imagination. It's also very hard work. Most people in kitchens are down to earth and the humour's raucous. You either love it or hate it."
Many young men like Hanrahan are following their idols into the business, with a five to 30 per cent rise in the number of male applicants to top courses at Westminster, Oxford Brookes and Bournemouth University. "It was mindblowing," 19-year-old Bournemouth student Andy Faulkes says of his work placement with Novelli in Farringdon this summer. "He's a fantastic chef and a great businessman. He's aggressive in the kitchen, but I like that - the adrenaline, the pressure."
Sponsored by the university to devise a designer recipe for 1998 Student Chef of the Year, Faulkes is keen to front his own star restaurant. "A lot of chefs come down to Bournemouth to do guest lectures - Gary Rhodes was down the other month, and we met Anton Mosimann. That gives students a chance to be in touch with famous people and helps our work."
Other students are heading to Leith's School of Food And Wine in Kensington. Founded in 1975 by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave, it has firm links with star restaurants such as Bibendum and the Sugar Club, and is viewed by some as the St Martin's of the catering world. Not surprisingly, its trainee chefs are savvy about the media.
Goh, whose kitchen stove lighter is a pink plastic phallus, admits that "it would be quite fun to ponce about in front of the TV camera". A former accountant, he entered catering because of an obsession with food and wine. "I really enjoy eating it, cooking it, thinking about it, I'd love to do something like Raymond Blanc, who has total control over everything, who created a whole place and concept."
Many aspiring students have changed careers and taken a pay cut to get into catering. Ian Aldridge left financial futures in the City. "Working in the money markets, with all the hustle and bustle, is similar to working in a kitchen. At the end of a day in the City, though, you've created nothing, whereas here, you make something," asserts Aldridge, who learned about the business through his mother, a caterer in a cocktail bar. "The City pays considerably more than this game," he says ruefully. "But if this takes off financially and I love it, fine, I'd like to check out a big kitchen in the West End."
But while cooking is now an attractive career proposition, there is still a high-drop out rate of young chefs discouraged by unsociable hours, difficult conditions and often exploitative low pay in an industry that has yet to catch up with the media hype. "People think it's more glamorous than it really is, they see the tip of a very grungy iceberg," remarks Time Out's food critic Caroline Stacey. She also laments the chauvinism that still exists, where the few female chefs now making inroads into the business go unrecognised. "As usual it's the pushy men who hog the headlines. More women are becoming successful chefs, but they don't get the stardom."
The real question is whether there will be enough of the new generation of chefs to fill an acute skills shortage. The opening of vast, glitzy restaurants has sucked up much of the available talent, while the less "sexy" side of the industry that deals with schools, colleges and four- star banqueting work is crying out for waiters, porters and washer-uppers as well as decent chefs.
But as long as chefs like Gary Rhodes command the headlines, there will be greater awareness of the industry, and greater possibilities for change. Jean-Christophe Novelli is optimistic. "There has been a huge improvement in conditions, ingredients and equipment, just in five years," he says. "And the standard of food is something serious. Five years ago, nobody knew chefs' names and nobody cared. Now a chef is like a pop star."