Interview: Gary Hunter on sustaining talent

Footprint (F): Gary, firstly how important do you think Sustainability in Education is?

Gary Hunter (GH): For us at Westminster Kingsway College, sustainability in education is just as important as teaching our students about knife skills. We have always included a lot of theoretical and gastronomy work alongside our skills development and engage our students in sustainability and provenance right at the beginning of our programmes. Our young students today hold the responsibility for the future of our sustainable consumption of food, water, energy, use of plastic and the recycling of waste.

F: Does there need to be more emphasis on sustainability on the curriculum?

GH: Yes. Although industry associations such as the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts have been championing sustainability for a number of years, this voice needs to be heard much louder among the educational institutions and awarding organisations who write, assess and deliver qualifications across the U.K.

F: Do issues such as food waste, plastics, health and wellbeing excite students?

GH: Yes, and it’s great to see students engaging with this subject more than ever before. The information found on social media platforms and online forums inform and influence their thoughts and beliefs. They are very passionate about sourcing sustainable ingredients, recycling food waste and reducing their use of plastics. They are also extremely concerned about health and wellbeing, especially mental health issues in what can be a very stressful industry.

F: Do you get a sense of responsibility and stewardship from the modern student?

GH: Young people are often maligned as “snowflakes”, but the typical Westminster Kingsway student has a keen sense of responsibility – they know that they are the future of sustainability in our industry. A lot of today’s culinary competitions now have a sustainability element as a task or part of the marking criteria, and I love seeing students – not just ours, but from across the UK – being creative and using sustainable produce with provenance. But I also think it is essential that all senior and junior culinary competitions focus on food wastage. I judged at Hotelympia this year and was appalled at the amount of waste there is during a competition heat. We have to lead by example and set the standards higher ourselves, so that our students push even further under their eventual stewardship.

F: Do you get a sense of excitement on the topic from lecturers?

GH: The lecturers at Westminster Kingsway are specialists and leaders in their field and are always quick to adapt their teaching and learning to meet industry needs. To deliver this on a daily basis they must stay relevant to the businesses we work alongside and the associations we partner with. There is increasing room for the delivery of sustainability concepts in our curriculum and we have brilliant lecturers who have led the way on this subject and deliver this with some great innovation, from looking after our own bee colonies on our roof at the college, to researching water security at a higher education level. And of course we are the UK’s first Culinary Medicine Academy working alongside Dr Rupy Aujla to develop healthy food as an alternative concept to prescription drugs at GP level.

F: What trends are you seeing emerging? What really excites students?

GH: Advanced cooking skills always excites students, but this is now engaged alongside the ecology of food, understanding sustainable food systems and menu development with sustainably sourced ingredients. Making a difference through food on a social level is something which we all understand but making a difference to help with environmental issues, health and obesity is vitally important too. We need to address our challenges around food production in forward-thinking and creative ways.

F: Is the industry facing a crisis not being able to attract enough talent?

GH: The reality is that the industry has always faced the issue of not attracting enough talent. It was written into the constitution of the first hospitality school in the UK over a hundred years ago, that its objective was to fill the void of young skilled people entering the industry. Westminster Kingsway College was that very institution and there are now over two hundred catering colleges and schools around the UK trying to help bridge that gap.

F: Has catering become a less attractive proposition? If so, why?

GH: Our industry is in competition with other, perhaps more attractive, new career options such as digital media and technology – which tend to offer more pay (especially in the early years of a career) and more sociable working hours that the culinary industry usually does. These newer industries are growing rapidly, and are more financially rewarding at an earlier stage.

I think we have to consider new ways of attracting people into our industry and this has to be with key industry figures leading the way with strong, positive messages about careers in hospitality. These messages must then be shared with potential students and their parents and guardians, who are often central to the student’s career and education choices.

F: Do you feel we are preparing students enough for modern employment?

GH: I certainly believe that we are successful at this and have always had the right blend of ingredients for skills development and work experience that is relevant for the industry. Working alongside key industry associations and businesses, we constantly review what modern work skills our students will need and then do all we can to deliver these. We review our curriculum every year with a lot of input and feedback from the industry, including former college students who now work in leading restaurants and kitchens and who visit us regularly.

F: How does the sector, particularly the broader education community, need to step up to the plate (no pun intended)?

GH: I think that the education community and especially higher education institutions need to ensure that their qualifications are relevant and are respected and valued by the hospitality industry. However, the industry can't value qualifications if they don't understand them and the standards are being changed every few years – a situation that breeds distance and disassociation with training and education. Higher education qualifications need to have a defined purpose that meets the challenges of this industry, especially in terms of sustainability.

F: Are you and your peers getting enough support from government to prepare students from employment in the modern work place?

GH: The Government has reduced the levels of FE funding in real terms for many years. Compared to the school and university sector, colleges are very much the poor relation in terms of funding. We have had to adapt and search for new areas of funding to maintain our consistency of delivering a relevant education and training programme. Our adult education budget is especially reduced, with more adults being asked to pay for their own education at levels three and above. Attracting adults into this industry could play a significant part of the answer to meeting the recruitment gap, so we need to make it easier for people to change careers and upskill effectively to enter our industry and make an impact.

F: How much of an issue do you think the gender pay gap is to the next generation of chef’s?

GH: This is certainly a hot topic at the moment and I think that it is a big issue concerning not only the next generation of chefs but also the current generation. It is simply unacceptable to differentiate pay based on gender.

F: Is the industry diverse enough?

GH: I think this industry is one of the most diverse in the world. We actively encourage and engage with everyone to either work in the industry or at least connect with us as customers. London is probably the most diverse capital in the world and I'm very proud to work here. We know that workplace diversity in hospitality is a key factor in facilitating cultural exchange on a global level. It provides a unique platform to appreciate different cultures and enhances the delivery of superb hospitality services through communication, cultural understanding and observation.

F: What is your own personal vision for the modern student graduating into the modern workplace?

GH: The modern student going into work for the first time should be equipped with the right set of skills, character and confidence to make an instant positive impact in their workplace. And then to continue to develop, learn new skills and management concepts to lead the industry through the challenges we face now and in the future. Does this sound idealistic? Not at all: we are doing this at Westminster Kingsway College and our alumni are proof of that on a daily basis.

F: Will sustainability remain a key issue to the industry?

GH: Without a doubt, sustainability will be at the top of our agenda alongside skills development, customer experience and attracting new talent for many years to come.

F: Last but not least what is your image of the modern catering college?

GH: The modern day culinary school or catering college has to connect locally with industry, suppliers, schools and other stakeholders. It has to embed itself in the community. Its curriculum has to be diverse in its delivery and should be meaningful and engaging to employers. It should be making a difference to the local economy with research, apprenticeships and graduates who are ready to make an impact to their workplace. The modern college should a hub for sharing best practice in all areas – including culinary techniques, sourcing of ingredients and sustainability, and to be a focal point for businesses to meet students and support them as they develop their careers.

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