Braising standards

July 4, 1997

In the second of our series on food, Prue Leith complains about the absence of cooking in education and calls on teachers and academics to embrace this 'fine art'

It is now almost impossible for a child in this country to learn to cook. Once, perhaps, children learnt at mother's knee. But now mother's knee is out working. Or they learnt at school, but the cost of teaching cooking and its low academic status has led to cooking being either optional or so theoretical as to bear little relationship to the real thing. In universities you cannot study cooking at all; there is simply no degree in culinary studies.

At the Royal Society of Arts recently we staged an event to provoke a debate about this gaping hole in the British education system. While upstairs lecturers addressed educationalists, downstairs some famous chefs, Caroline Waldegrave, Anton Edelman of the Savoy, and Albert Roux of the Gavroche, helped 30 nine-year-olds from an inner London primary school cook dinner for the 200-strong audience. Caroline taught them to make vegetarian samosas, Anton taught them how to make tagliatelle from scratch and Albert had them baking real bread.

Chefs and children had a great time and the children learnt a lot more than how to make supper. Mental arithmetic, for instance: if five of them needed to make 50 samosas between them how many would they each have to do? In Albert's corner the children learnt that it was the gluten in the flour that became stretchy as they kneaded the dough and allowed the air bubbles to be caught in the dough as it rose. An elementary chemistry lesson. Anton's salad dressing was a lesson in physics - the making of an emulsion out of oil and vinegar. None of the chefs set out to do more than teach cooking. But if you want to explain what is happening in cooking, you end up explaining why. Had there been time, they could have got into geography, (where do the spices come from?), history (did Marco Polo really bring back pasta from China?) or even religious studies (why is Hindu India mainly vegetarian?).

I would like to track my primary school cohort for the next 10 years and see if they eat more healthily than their peers; if they still cook at 15; if the boys still cook as much as the girls. We could learn a lot from such an experiment.

Homo sapiens is the only species to ritually prepare and eat its food. All other species eat it as and where they find it. This community preparation, cooking and eating as a family or tribe is common to every civilisation in every country from the dawn of man. We lose these rituals at our peril, for they provide the glue that sticks society together. We all know that close contact breeds tolerance. But the alien and unknown is feared, scorned, ignored. How are the generations to respect each other if they never meet; if they snack on the hoof, pass each other at the microwave, sit in silence in front of the telly? Cooking and preparing meals provide the opportunity for people to talk, something children today, glued to televisions and computers, rarely do face to face.

If you are poor, convenience foods mean junk food. If you cannot cook, you have to buy convenience foods. You are not going to risk something you have made being rejected by the children. So, understandably, you go for what is acceptable to them and that means junk. If on the other hand you are poor and you can cook, you can eat, if not well, at least less appallingly. Even if you are not among the poorest of the poor, if you know nothing about cooking, you are unlikely to be very healthy. Good health tends to go with awareness of nutritional needs and an interest in diet. I believe that teaching cooking in schools and universities could give a future generation that awareness and save the National Health Service a fortune.

But, I hear you protest, surely things are better now? Cooking has improved immeasurably in the past 20 years. Well, yes, it has, for the rich, who dine out and can afford private cookery schools for their children. And if they do not want to cook, or cannot cook, they can hare down to the Safeway shelves and help themselves to fresh pasta, ready-washed salad, ready-sliced pineapple and eat very well indeed. But the poor have got poorer. And they are the ones who cook the least and whose diet is most heavily dominated by fat and sugar. Fat and sugar are cheap.

The French take food seriously. They are terrified that a global tide of McDonald's will sink forever the great French tradition of gastronomy. They are right to be concerned. For the past 10 years, McDonald's has been the biggest restaurateur in France. So they are determined to do what they can. They have a programme under which chefs visit schools to conduct tastings, teach and cook. Children go into restaurants, cheese farms and bakers. In France gastronomy is now officially one of the fine arts and its status allows a chef to get artist in residence funding in a school.

When it comes to higher and further education, the cogent argument for cooking is that there is a crying need for cooks. The restaurant and leisure industry is the country's largest. Thousands of foreign workers are imported to British kitchens every year, while thousands of British youngsters join the dole queue. Universities and colleges have always rather looked down their noses at practical cooking and waiting skills. I dare say the funding councils would rather see more theoretical and less frying pan work done. But you cannot train hotel and restaurant managers exclusively in lecture rooms and on computers. Even bosses need to know if their chef has produced an edible omelette or an overdone steak.

So, what is wrong with the British system? First, primary school. Before the announcement of the national curriculum a lot of cooking went on in primary school. But now it features, if at all, as part of the design and technology syllabus, which requires all children to work with materials such as paper, card, dowel, fabric and food. Not all schools do anything with food, though they are meant to.

In secondary school there is home economics or food technology. You can do home economics if your school offers it. Few do, for the understandable reason that hands-on cooking is expensive to teach, (you need trained teachers, the equipment and ingredients are expensive, and the safety and hygiene regulations are draconian). Schools, in their thousands, have torn out their food rooms and kitchens to make way for computer centres. Food technology is a non-compulsory option of design and technology and is, unsurprisingly, a very popular one in the schools that offer it. But the course was never intended to provide much hands-on cooking. Like the rest of the national curriculum, it is essentially academic. Students may design and evaluate a chilled meal intended for sale in a supermarket, concentrating on the packaging, nutritional content, cost and marketing of the product. They may make it, and taste it in simulated factory conditions, but the hygiene regulations will not allow them to share it with their mates in the playground.

There is another reason for the lack of cooking in schools and that is the paucity of trained teachers. Generally, food technology and home economics are taught by the same people and many are leaving the profession to work in more rewarding jobs in the food industry. If you were a trained cookery teacher, would you want to spend your day teaching the theory of omelette making rather than making omelettes?

If I were David Blunkett, I would try to get real cooking into primary schools, with classes in school time, if not compulsory. What about a fully equipped cooking bus, maybe sponsored by the private sector, that goes from school to school with a trained teacher on board? What about getting some sense into the hygiene regulations so that students can cook in the school canteen, which is generally empty after 2 pm? What about after-school cookery clubs where parents and children cook together?

I want children to learn to cook for the sheer pleasure of it. There is nothing so gratifying as serving supper to your friends and family and watching them wolf it down. It is a pleasure that very few of our children will ever have. Over half of them have never boiled an egg. Shouldn't we do something about it?

Well-known restaurateur Prue Leith is chairman of the Royal Society of Arts.

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