Masterchef: The Professionals champion Nikita Pathakji has told how her apprenticeship at Westminster Kingsway College gave her the skills and experience for culinary success.
Nikita, 25, from Clapham, became the second former apprentice from the college to win the grand final of the BBC TV series following Alex Webb’s triumph in the competition in 2020.
She said: “This is incredible. I can’t put it into words. This surpasses every achievement of my life. I don’t know how I’m going to top this. This is it, this is the peak, I think I’ve reached it!”
Her winning menu featured a starter of seabass cured in citrus dressing with smoked aubergine and spiced red pepper purées, followed by a main of crispy chicken thighs, tortellini filled with chicken, mushrooms and coriander topped with a coconut curry sauce, and for dessert a cardamom custard tart with poached apricots and a honey tuile.
Masterchef presenter Gregg Wallace said: “Nikita opened up the larder of the world and brought us dish after stunning dish after stunning dish.”
Michelin-star chef Marcus Wareing said “She’s a chef that has grown right in front of our eyes. Her food has been sublime,” while fellow judge, chef and restauranteur Anna Haugh, added: “Nikita is on the road to creating a very unique cuisine. And that is why she’s our champion.”
Nikita, who works as a Junior Sous Chef at Michelin-star restaurant Kitchen W8 in Kensington, trained at the college’s School for Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Victoria from 2016-19.
She undertook Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships, sponsored by The Worshipful Company of Cooks, at The Lanesborough in Knightsbridge and Claude Bosi at Bibendum in Kensington.
Nikita said: “My apprenticeship at Westminster Kingsway was a fantastic way to gain important foundational knowledge and skills, which compounded with real experience working in restaurant kitchens, set me up with both the skills and qualifications I needed to work in top Michelin-starred restaurants.
“I’m so glad I started my career on this apprenticeship. The guidance and extra support that made the job a little less daunting when I first started out.”
Nikita grew up in Derby and lived in India with her family for two years from the age of nine. As a child she would prepare meals with her mum, which inspired her love of Asian cooking.
After her apprenticeship at WestKing, she travelled for nine months around South East Asia, which further deepened her passion and appreciation for the region’s flavours and culinary styles.
Sharon Barry, Head of School for Hospitality and Culinary Arts Apprenticeships, said: “Nikita was a dedicated, passionate and highly motivated learner during her time at WestKing. It comes as no surprise that she has continued to grow and thrive within her culinary career.
“Winning Masterchef: The Professionals is a fantastic achievement, and we are all incredibly proud of her. She is a huge inspiration to all our current learners who has shown anything is possible if you believe in yourself and follow your dreams.”
To mark Hospitality Apprenticeships Week (18-22 October), we spoke to Craig Parsons, Apprenticeship Manager at Fuller, Smith & Turner, about apprenticeships and careers with the company’s 400 pubs, bars and hotels.
Tell us about your career in hospitality.
I’m a chef by trade but my job is to manage the apprenticeships for the whole Fuller’s estate.
Although I studied for a Sports Biomedicine degree, I loved cooking and wanted to pursue a career in the kitchen. At the time you couldn’t do an apprenticeship if you had a degree, so I applied for various jobs instead. I was given the opportunity to trial working in a kitchen, which eventually led to working for two AA rosette pubs.
I read a lot of books and developed my own style and role in restaurants, ski chalets and hotels. I’ve also been involved in food development for big supermarkets and worked for an apprenticeship provider. Because I couldn’t get on an apprenticeship myself, I wanted to give other people the education they deserve.
Tell us more about Fuller’s relationship with WestKing.
We began running Commis Chef and Chef de Partie apprenticeships with WestKing in 2019 and currently have 30 apprentices training. The college is renowned for being one of the best educational establishments for cookery in the world and we’re delighted they’re now in our network of education providers.
Whenever we look to work with a college, we always send our staff out to experience a class for themselves. You cannot fail to be impressed by WestKing’s prestige and ethos and we know the apprentices are going to be trained to the highest standards.
What skills will apprentices gain during their apprenticeship?
Our apprenticeships are about giving people the best education, not just for now but for later in life. At Fuller’s, we don’t always need to prep food from start to finish, but we still train our chefs with those skills because we know they’re going to use them in the future. It’s not just about what Fuller’s needs but about the whole industry.
The reason we use colleges is because they give students room to fail and that is often the best way to learn. From advanced pasta making to butchering, it’s important to have a safe environment where you can get advice and have room to improve.
What do you look for in an apprentice?
Ultimately, we’re looking for people with the right attitude, who want to get out of bed in the morning and have the drive to come to an interview and apply themselves at work and college. I don’t want anyone to feel they can’t join our apprenticeship programme.
Why is hospitality such a good career?
A career in hospitality can take you anywhere. I always had in my head that I didn’t want to stay in one environment for more than two years, although I’ve been at Fuller’s for seven years now.
At Fuller’s, you can move around and gain experience in many different environments and still have the security of a large company that offers great pay and benefits. You can earn from day one, add your own twist to dishes on the menus and become a head chef in four or five years.
What advice would you give to anyone considering a hospitality career?
Don’t just look at the name of the employer you want to work for, look at the training you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s not clear exactly what training is being offered. Make sure you know what you’re signing up for.
How is Fuller’s responding to the impact of the COVID pandemic?
COVID has had such an impact. The Government wants to push everyone into STEM careers. I can understand the motivation behind it but we’re starting to see big gaps across the hospitality sector.We need them to react to what’s going on and recognise the industry needs help to get people trained and into work.
There is going to be a new population of people looking for hospitality careers and there’s also a lot of untapped potential out there.At Fuller’s, we’re looking to expand our apprenticeship team and ways to increase awareness of apprenticeships across the sector.
We’re also planning further school liaisons to engage with young people.We’ve previously ran school events where we would teach the students skills such as how to fillet a fish and have had candidates coming forward off the back of that, so we know it works.
What are the benefits of being an apprentice with Fuller’s?
We started with a chef apprenticeship programme in 2016 because that is where we had a skills shortage. We started with 16 apprentices and now have more than 120 across the business. As well as chef apprenticeships we also run training programmes for our front of house and general managers. One of the biggest benefits is that we offer all our apprentices a permanent role upon completion of their programme. Fuller’s is also making big changes to its current pay and benefits package. We’re already industry leading with our apprenticeship pay and about to offer the highest national pay rate.
The learning opportunities are endless. Our apprentices can compete in our annual Chef of the Year competition, where past winners have had the chance to visit Michelin star restaurants in New York and Hong Kong. We also provide visits to our supply chain to see how our meat and produce is sourced and prepared.
Fuller’s has also won awards pre-COVID including Best Apprenticeship Training Programme at the British Institute of Innkeeping National Innovation in Training Awards and a silver award for Best Apprenticeship Programme at the Training Journal Awards.
How are our current apprentices doing?
They are all loving their apprenticeships and have remained positive despite COVID. They say it’s been tough but are seeing the positive impact the training is going to have on their future careers. There will always be cases where some people are struggling but we’ve got the support mechanisms in place to help them one-to-one and through the Licensed Trade Charity.
How do you see your partnership with WestKing developing?
I’ve been to an induction day at WestKing and plan to go and see some of the cookery sessions next year. I’m keen to get our general managers and head chefs along to the college and help co-train and co-assess learners, which will not only remind them of culinary techniques but also teach them about new trends and increase their skillset.
All apprenticeships at Fuller’s are advertised on our website and on job sites like indeed.co.uk. Successful applicants will be assessed by a college on their suitability for an apprenticeship.
WestKing runs Hospitality and Culinary Arts apprenticeships with many companies across the sector. Click here to Apply Now.
This week (18-22 October) is Hospitality Apprenticeships Week, a celebration of apprenticeships in the culinary and hospitality sector. It’s also a chance to showcase the unique and diverse range of careers that are available.
This year we will be training almost 100 hospitality apprentices for a wide range of well-known hospitality companies, so we’ve taken a closer look at why so many great employers look to us to train their apprentices.
On 24 September, Westminster Kingsway College’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts in the heart of London celebrated the graduation of its classes of 2020 and 2021.
Around 200 students donned mortarboards and gowns and received their diplomas for completing courses and training in culinary arts, kitchen and larder, hospitality and events, patisserie and restaurant service.
For Sharon Barry, the college’s Head of School for Hospitality Apprenticeships, watching the ceremony and celebrations that followed also marked the end of another successful year for the college’s apprenticeships team.
Westminster Kingsway College (WestKing) is part of the Capital City College Group. Most of the Group’s apprentices are trained by its specialist training arm, called Capital City College Training. But uniquely, the hospitality and culinary apprentices are all trained at WestKing’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Victoria.
This is for a very good reason. The college has a long-standing reputation in the hospitality industry, earned over many decades, of providing the highest quality training for young chefs and other restaurant and hotel staff. So, it makes sense for the Group’s chef apprentices to be trained by Westminster Kingsway College’s expert chef lecturers, in the college’s industry-grade kitchens. And, the college’s reputation in the hospitality sector is so strong, that employers know and trust WestKing to train their apprentices to a very high standard.
So far this academic year, 76 apprentices have enrolled on WestKing’s Chef de Partie and Commis Chef apprenticeship programmes, with another 19 due to enrol in Nov, making 95 in all. And, as Sharon explains, there is a greater need than ever before for well-trained apprentices.
“Even before COVID there was a shortage of chefs in the industry; now there is a massive shortage of chefs, as restaurants, hotels and other hospitality venues open up after the pandemic.
That isn’t the only thing that has changed in the industry, says Sharon: “Many employers are looking at their recruitment more than they had before the pandemic. They want to upskill their staff and they need people who have got a wider skill set – people who can move around kitchens and take on a variety of tasks. Taking on an apprentice enables employers to do that.”
Like most apprentices, those studying at Victoria have a full-time paid job – typically in a restaurant or a top hotel – and attend college one day each week to learn additional skills. “Apprentices need to know a lot.” says Sharon. “Even in the biggest restaurants, someone won’t be doing all the things that they need to know to successfully complete their apprenticeship, so coming to WestKing – combined with the skills they learn in their jobs – makes them more rounded, highly skilled and employable. The feedback we get from our employers is that they like the way we do things.”
“The majority of our apprentices come to us direct. We know what good quality culinary and hospitality apprenticeship vacancies are available, so we sit down with prospective apprentices, get to know them, and point them in the direction of vacancies that might be right for them – trying to match them up with suitable employers.
“Then they apply for the vacancy and go for an interview with their prospective employer. And if they are successful, they get the job and come back to us one day each week for their apprentice training.”
So which companies trust Westminster Kingsway College to train their apprentices? It’s a who’s who of hospitality employers, including: Harrods; the contract caterers Compass; Hilton hotels; The Landmark Hotel; The Waterside Inn (Alain Roux’s 3 Michelin-starred restaurant); The Dorchester hotel; the Grosvenor House Hote; The Ritz; the pub chain Fullers; and Le Gavroche.
One such apprentice is 18 year old Guy Sherman, who last year was on a Commis Chef apprenticeship while working at The Dorchester hotel. In June, Guy was interviewed by the leading hospitality magazine, Chef, and he was full of praise for the college. He said: “The support from the college has been exceptional, always pushing me to enter new competitions. In the middle of 2020 I entered the International Salon Culinarie where … I managed to walk away with two medals.”
Guy is far from being the only apprentice to have gained from the experience. Everyone benefits from a hospitality apprenticeship, says Sharon. “The apprentice has a paid job, and they are learning all the time. They are learning while they are doing their day job, and they are learning those extra skills when they are here on their day-release. And the employer gets a highly-trained specialist with more knowledge and expertise than they would have if they weren’t on their apprenticeship. It’s a win-win.
“I truly believe in what we offer here.” Sharon concludes, as she looks ahead to the coming year with a new group of apprentices. “It’s nice to see the new apprentices progress, even after a few weeks, when I do lesson observations, I can see they are more confident already.