Are Catering Apprenticeships Really Worth Their Salt?

As a deliverer of the Professional Cookery apprenticeship qualification, I

constantly find myself coming up against resistance when trying to sell the concept to chefs. If the first obstacle is the chefs themselves, we have to ask how valid is this qualification and why is it getting such a bad rap?

When you speak to most head chefs who came through the colleges in the 1990s (and earlier), they tend to all shed a tear of affection for the “old 706’s.” This shared nostalgic love affair seems to provoke a fear of betraying an old establishment rather than investing in the modern apprenticeship scheme. And it is easy to see why.

In many cases the NVQ became nothing more than a simple tick box scenario; assessors pushing learners through without actually gaining any technical skill or knowledge during their qualification. Also, where is the reflection of skills demonstrated between a qualification achieved in a sandwich bar or café compared to those achieved in a top restaurant or hotel?

This has caused great frustration for head chefs, who had always used the 706’s as a benchmark for employing competent chefs. This depravation of the system has disillusioned many into describing the NVQ as being nothing more than a slip of paper; a non-qualification reflecting nothing of the chef’s ability or skill.

However, this is not the feeling by the entire conglomerate of chefs. I spoke with head chef Chris Watts, of the Royal Air Forces Club in London, who is a firm supporter of the apprenticeship scheme.

“I’ve always had apprentice chefs,” Chris tells me, “but as things moved over from the City & Guilds’ 706’s we had to look at another way of doing it. I was sending them off to colleges to begin with, but I felt they weren’t getting enough experience to warrant them taking a day off and so we decided to take the training in house.”

Michelin starred chef, Michael Wignall, agrees with this. In an interview over on The Staff Canteen website, he explains that if he were to do his training all over again, he would not have done the 706’s as he felt it gave chefs a false sense of security. “I think you can get far more out of it if you go somewhere decent and get an apprenticeship.”

Chris Watts still believes that the Professional Cookery qualification should be used as a foundation for a chef’s knowledge, giving them the necessary initial grounding. “What I like about the modern apprenticeship is that when you get a talented student they can progress very quickly, which is good for them. Doing it one day a week at college may not give them that speed they require, causing a lack of motivation and their talent could be held back. By doing it in house, it also encourages them to stay longer which is a positive to both the learner and the employer.”

Many other establishments are looking to the apprenticeship scheme as a way of ensuring that their chefs have the foundation skills required by the sector. The success of the program now lies in the hands of the employer as much as it does the provider. A mutual responsibility needs to be built to ensure that apprentice chefs can still find work placements where they will receive the support and training needed to keep the catering skills sector alive. If this is to happen, the Professional Cookery qualifications will begin to silence critics, and maybe even win over the more nostalgic head chefs.