River Cottage: training chefs of the future

Learn how the innovative cookery school is tackling skills gaps through holistic teaching

02 May 2014 / Be the first to comment

River Cottage is known to millions as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s initiative, bringing to life his ethos and commitment to ethical, sustainable food production.

What you might not know is that River Cottage HQ is also home to the Cookery School, where food enthusiasts can take short courses to develop their skills and knowledge, as well as the Chefs’ School, launched in spring 2013.

The Chefs’ School offers a number of qualifications and accredited training, developed with City & Guilds Kineo, all aligned to River Cottage’s strong values around ethical and sustainable food production. The River Cottage team has three full-time apprentices working on-site, as well as apprentices from local restaurants and hotels, who come to River Cottage to receive their training. It also recently launched its Young Chef Apprenticeship Scheme, which is open to 16-24 year old unemployed school-leavers who have the ambition and desire to become a chef.

‘We want to be known for creating the chefs of the future,’ says River Cottage’s Head of Education, Chris Griffin. ‘We want to provide a holistic view of the industry, so students can learn not just about great food production, but about the many different aspects within the industry.’

This is an approach that Gelf Anderson, River Cottage’s Head Chef, certainly agrees with: ‘We give them full exposure. They learn about butchery – and how to use every part of the animal – as well bakery, smoking and growing, to name just a few. We don’t hide them from anything here.’

The cookery industry itself faces future skills shortages that urgently need to be addressed. 

‘We’ll see a shortage of chefs in 10-15 years, unless we start putting people back into the industry,’ says Gelf. ‘That’s why it’s so important that we show young people the opportunities available to them in the industry, and how qualifications and apprenticeships can pave the way to further things.’

As part of this commitment to inspiring the workforce of the future, River Cottage recently launched its Rising Star initiative. It encourages the River Cottage apprentices to put themselves out there to show their passion for food and their drive to succeed in the industry.

The Rising Star for 2013, Sam Lomas, 18, has certainly demonstrated this. He regularly writes blogs and engages with young people on social media to talk about his experiences as an apprentice, and about the food industry. 

‘I really hope I can get more people interested in apprenticeships, and in the ethos of River Cottage as a whole. What really distinguishes apprenticeships to me is how they are streamlined to what you’re interested in,’ he says. ‘A lot of what you do at University won’t be that relevant, but my future employers will see the advantages of my experience in the workplace.’

Looking forward to the future, Sam isn’t clear about where he’ll go next, but it’s clear the River Cottage ethos has been embedded through his training. ‘I don’t know exactly what I want to do next, but I do know that I want to show the people how they can save the planet a bit’.

Samantha Whiteside, 17, is another apprentice who works at a local hotel. She became an apprentice following advice from her brother and one of her teachers and has no regrets: ‘I love it. I absolutely love it. I lost my passion for learning at school, and stopped caring. All I cared about cooking so when it was suggested I take an apprenticeship, it made sense. I haven’t looked back since.’ 

After completing her Level 2 apprenticeship, she hopes to progress onto Level 3, and although she has plans to work in America in the future, her commitment to the River Cottage philosophy is clear. ‘Their sustainable ethos…you take that with you wherever you go.’

And it’s not just the apprentices who have benefited from the training. ‘The business has benefited a great deal through its apprenticeships,’ says Chris. ‘By offering education, we’re increasing stability in the industry, but the overall culture of learning and development also improve staff satisfaction. They send a positive ripple out to the rest of the team. This in turn improves our guests’ experiences.’

‘Young people change the dynamic for the better. They’re inspirational to us, with fresh ideas. Their youth and passion keeps us young too,’ says Gelf, who started out in his career with a City & Guilds qualification.

For this reason, it is important to River Cottage to deliver the very best qualifications to help its apprenticeship scheme develop. ‘Choosing to work with City & Guilds was a simple decision, says Chris. ‘It has a great history of providing high-quality qualifications and it’s well-known and trusted in the industry’.

In the future, River Cottage plans to expand even further: ‘We’ve just launched a traineeship programme, as well as a higher level apprenticeship. Overall, we want to train and qualify 250 people over three years,’ explains Chris.

‘Ultimately, I hope that the apprentices qualified through River Cottage and City & Guilds don’t just help to meet skills gaps in the industry, but are better informed so they can make the right decisions and carry our philosophy forward. If we can make that change, it’ll benefit not just local communities, but the food industry as a whole.’

Video: see the apprentices at work >

Video: learn more about the trainers >

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