Cooking up a storm

No longer a place of drudgery, the kitchen is where the most glamorous careers are made. And what's more, says Harvey McGavin, it's a growing market

Thirty years ago, you could count the number of celebrity chefs on the fingers of one hand and still have enough left to crumble an Oxo cube into your gravy. Working as a cook was mostly a low-status job with wages to match. Today, gravy has been replaced on the menu by jus and Oxo is a fashionable riverside restaurant in London. Chefs are celebrated - and rewarded - like never before, and the kitchen has become an exciting and creative place to build a career. As the catering and hospitality business has ballooned - it now employs one in eight of the British workforce - the range of courses and training available has grown with it. But how do you get a foot in the swing doors of the restaurant business?

Formal training - the basics of food preparation, hygiene and simple cooking techniques - used to begin with a City and Guilds qualification, but most colleges have now converted to NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications).

Practical skills are important but, as chef Jamie Oliver found out when he attempted to train 15 unemployed youngsters to restaurant standard in 12 months, so are punctuality and appearance. Like the food they prepare, chefs have to turn up on time and be well presented.

Just round the corner from Fifteen, the restaurant in Hoxton, east London that Oliver opened and staffed with his trainees, is another establishment with a somewhat lower profile but much the same mission. Zen Satori is a modern Asian restaurant with a cookery school attached, set up four years ago by three leading restaurateurs in the field of Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine.

It has proved a successful fusion. While Asian food is enjoyed in about 20,000 restaurants in the UK, many of the immigrants who set up restaurants here are getting older and their children do not always want to go into catering. Zen Satori - and the Asian and Oriental School of Catering (AOSC) upstairs - have the job of passing on these techniques to a new generation of chefs to replenish the skills base.

More than 2,000 trainees have passed through the AOSC since it opened, and the school and restaurant have strong links with Hackney Community College (which leases them the premises), as well as local schools. Four excluded youngsters have blossomed after being taken on to full-time NVQ courses and by next year the college hopes to offer after-school classes for 10 per cent of all Hackney children to encourage more of them to go into the trade.

Zen Satori means "enlightenment", and the school's director Damien Nolan admits they are out to change a few people's minds. "We want to enlighten students' skills, enlighten their taste buds and enlighten industry," he says.

Television chefs have made the job seem more glamorous and attracted new interest in cooking as a career, but they sometimes give a false impression of what the job involves, Nolan says. The school places just as great an emphasis on front-of-house politeness as it does on prowess in the kitchen. "Nobody wants to be Manuel," he says, referring to the unfortunate waiter in Fawlty Towers, "but everyone wants to be Jamie Oliver or Ainsley Harriot." New recruits undergo a six-week introductory course on basic food hygiene and service to assess their suitability before beginning training proper.

Places that combine a top-class dining experience with in-house training could be the chef schools of the future, but many colleges are already offering realistic working environments. RWEs have become part of catering jargon and an essential ingredient of training establishments, recreating as far as possible the kind of high standards and hard work that will be expected of them.

At Birmingham College of Food Tourism and Creative Studies, one of only two centres of vocational excellence for hospitality in the country, that means students work in three fully functioning restaurants, which are open to the public - The Atrium for fine dining, the Cap and Gown gastropub and The Brasserie - and an in-house bakery. The college's 1,600 catering students - on courses ranging from NVQs up to degrees and HNDs - also prepare food and serve in the students' café.

"The first thing we look for is enthusiasm," says Bill Farnsworth, the college's director of catering and bakery studies. "We are not looking for a large range of academic qualifications. We like them to have a good school record but they don't have to be high fliers."

At Thames Valley University, Professor David Foskett offers a veritable smorgasbord of training opportunities, from a Saturday morning Young Chefs Club, which is a 15-week course for 14- to 16-year-olds sponsored by the contract caterers Compass, through NVQs and up to a BSc in Culinary Arts management.

"There's a thirst for knowledge about food among young people," he says. "It brings out their creativity. Speaking to their teachers, this course does a lot for them - they learn how to work with others and it develops their social skills."

The career opportunities in catering have never been so good, Professor Foskett says. "If you want a good career with guaranteed lifetime employment, this is the industry to be in. Hospitality and tourism is going to increase over the next five years to the extent that another 300,000 practitioners will be needed. Also, qualifications in this industry are a passport to travel - they are highly transferable and you can work in lots of different countries. But it's not for everybody - you have to have a passion for food."

In the long term, he says, chefs will have to become more business-like if they are to prosper. "Too many people go in thinking: 'I like food, I'm good at cooking, I'll open a restaurant'." But 90 per cent of new restaurants fail, he says, because of bad planning. "You have to have flair and creativity but if you look at someone like Gordon Ramsay he's a good businessman too." Things like menu engineering (the gross profit contribution of various dishes) are now as important as ability in the kitchen. Next year, he plans to start a new course for product development chefs, the people employed to create prepared supermarket meals such as Tesco's "Finest" or Sainsbury's "Taste the Difference" ranges.

Keeping up to date with new techniques, unfamiliar cuisine and customers' tastes is all part of the job and a good chef never stops learning. Chris Galvin, the Michelin-starred executive chef at the Wolseley restaurant in London, is a prime example of this. He is a recent graduate of Thames Valley's BSc course and has spent about nine years of his career training. He started as a teenager washing up at a restaurant in Essex run by Anthony Worrall Thompson. He has trained at Westminster and Ealing colleges and, despite becoming a head chef by the time he was 26 and working at top eateries from the Ritz and the Ivy to the Caprice, he regularly took time out to go on "stages" (unpaid stints in other people's kitchens to learn new skills). "I'm excited for youngsters becoming chefs now because there are so many avenues open to them," he says. "You can cook your way around the world, you can write, you can teach."

He is in charge of a kitchen of 40 chefs who cook for up to 800 people every day, and though the hours are long - he puts in about 60 a week - "the rewards," he says, "are fabulous." So what does Galvin reckon is the best recipe for a chef's success? "A giving nature," he says, "that's a pre-requisite. And lots of motivation and the desire to learn. We can give the rest."

THE FIRST RUNGS OF THE LADDER

Mark Jackman,18, left Islington Green school two years ago dreaming of making it as a musician. But a liking for the West Indian cooking his grandmother had taught him gave him other ideas.

He began an NVQ in food preparation at the AOSC (see above), learning how to prepare Oriental cuisine just as well as the curried goat and red snapper that he made for his family. "It took me a long time, but I mastered it," he says confidently.

Two months ago, he was taken on as a commis chef at the Carlton Club in London's West End, earning £13,000 a year with an annual bonus paid by members of the club. A typical eight-hour day involves food preparation for more senior chefs. At the moment he's working on starters, but every few weeks he rotates between sections of the menu. "You learn how to do things properly - they teach you all the things that build up to your being a chef."

The main quality he'll need to succeed is determination, he says. "You have got to really want to do it. There were times when I thought: 'Why am I doing this?' It is a hard job - there's the hours, and you know when things aren't going right you are going to get shouted at by the head chef. But because of the encouragement of my family I have stuck with it." Now his dreams have changed. His next step is an NVQ Level 2 and promotion to chef de partie; in a few years' time, he hopes to be running his own restaurant. "It took me a long time to realise this was something I wanted to do, but I'm glad I have."

education@independent.co.uk

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