Food campaigner and TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has spoken of his determination to create a new generation of chefs in his image.
Speaking at the launch of his new apprenticeship scheme, the campaigner said he wanted youngsters starting out in catering to adopt the River Cottage ethos of "buying local" direct from producers.
Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall added that flavour and provenance of food were now more important than fancy presentation in top restaurants – and that not enough trainee chefs were learning these skills.
"We want to introduce these values to chefs at the beginning of their careers, so we spawn a generation of chefs who have them at the core of the way they operate," he said.
"There is a skills problem in the industry and the problem has come about simply because the industry is moving so fast and needs as many skilled people as it can get to be as good as it could or should be.
"Our own experience of trying to recruit is that it isn't always that easy to find the young cooking talent, not because it isn't there but because the industry is so demanding and so competitive that the demand for skills is outstripping supply."
Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall was speaking at the official launch of his apprenticeship scheme for young chefs, at his River Cottage HQ base on the Devon-Dorset border on Friday. The scheme, partly supported by Government funding, is training 73 young people working in professional kitchens across the Westcountry. They spend two days a month learning cooking, sourcing and kitchen skills at River Cottage HQ, where they also have a mentor to help them complete their year-long programme, already under way.
Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, who employs some of these apprentices in his three River Cottage restaurants in Plymouth, Axminster and Bristol as well as the kitchen at the HQ, said the scheme, an alternative to those offered by further education colleges, was badly needed to instil the ethos popularised by his TV programmes in a new generation of chefs.
"We believe that the best relationships are direct with producers, with local fishing boats, vegetable producers, artisan producers of cheese, chutneys and jams, all that kind of stuff," he said. "The courses we run here for apprentices teach many of the key skills in catering, but they teach them against a background of our core values, which are about provenance and sustainability, cooking the very best local food in the most sustainable way. It is a very exciting journey, and of course it is just beginning."
Among those at the launch was Tim Bouget, chef-proprietor of award-winning restaurant Ode and its sister beach cafe at Shaldon in South Devon. He has taken on an apprentice under the scheme.
"His name is Johnny, he's 17 and he's very enthusiastic, he has moved down to us from Bristol which is quite a big deal at that age, with the help of River Cottage," he said.
The fact that River Cottage helped with support and mentoring made it possible for a small business like his to take on an apprentice, he said. "The key thing for us is that River Cottage provide the structure for the apprenticeship, and we don't have to worry about the admin."
He added that there was a pressing need for high quality apprenticeship schemes for chefs, as standards rose with the foodie revolution spearheaded by Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall and other TV chefs. "We are becoming more foodie [as a nation] but that also produces more pressure," he said. "It all comes down to the youngsters, so we have to make sure we train them well."
The launch was attended by local Conservative MP, Neil Parish, and the head of the National Apprenticeship Service Karen Woodward, who praised the scheme for encouraging more young people to consider this route to working in professional kitchens.
"Whereas people actually often see catering as a job, they are promoting it as a career," she said.
The launch came as River Cottage invited applications from teenagers aged 16 to 18 with a strong interest in food and cooking for 18 traineeships at its chefs' school, starting in January.
The free three-month course, partly funded by the Government, will teach basic kitchen skills and food hygiene and give advice on CV writing and interview techniques, with a view to helping them gain a place on the apprenticeship scheme.
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