By Gary Hunter, Vice Principal of Westminster Kingsway College
In it, we’ve pitted 16 of our famous culinary alumni, including Sophie Wright, Ben Murphy, Jeff Galvin, Ruth Hansom, Ainsley Harriott and Jamie Oliver, against each other in a series of head-to-head winner-takes-all ‘battles’ – where the public decided who went through to the next round by voting for their favourite former student. Now after 3 weeks and over 2,500 votes from fans and the public, we have a winner – chef Ben Murphy, the Head Chef at Launceston Place restaurant in Kensington. His prize will be top billing on the Alumni page on our website, not to mention bragging rights over his fellow chefs forever.
It’s supposed to be a bit of lighthearted fun, but looking at the comments and banter on social media, it’s clear that none of the chefs wanted to get knocked out – especially by one of their peers! For us, regardless of how many votes they got, all our alumni are winners and we’re very grateful to them all for their involvement in the competition.
As well as giving our social media followers and the wider public the chance to have their say, there is a slightly more serious side too. Colleges like Westminster Kingsway train a lot of the country’s hospitality and food service industry workers – not just the relatively small number who end up as head chefs in the finest restaurants and hotels, but people who work as sous chefs, commis chefs, sommeliers, waiters, mixologists, food scientists and in countless other related roles. By raising awareness of the college and showcasing some of our most famous alumni, we also hope that we’ll shine a light on the important role that colleges play in preparing hundreds of young men and women to work in our industry every year.
However, this work is under threat, as government funding cuts bite ever deeper and more and more colleges face financial pressure. Only last month, the Foxholes restaurant at Runshaw College was forced to close for lack of funds – denying their students the chance to gain immensely valuable experience of working and learning in a realistic working environment.
We run two public restaurants and have seen for ourselves the huge difference that working in the kitchens and serving the public at table, has made to our students’ confidence, skills and employability. But the year-on-year cuts to Further Education funding make it extremely difficult for colleges to operate their own restaurants and, while our restaurants are trading well, we fear that Runshaw’s will not be the last college restaurant to close – denying a generation of students the opportunity to work in one and only making it harder for the industry to recruit the trained and work-ready staff that it needs.
So, please spare a thought for your local college which is busy inspiring and training the next generation of young chefs. If you are a chef or a supplier, think about how you could support them – maybe by offering work placements, sponsorship or your expertise. Maybe you could offer to speak to their students about your role and how they could follow in your footsteps. There are a hundred and one ways that you could reach out to your local college and help them to continue their vital work providing new talent for our wonderful industry.