INTERVIEW: Catherine Farinha – The Chefs’ Forum

Catherine Farinha - The Chefs' Forum / Faydit PhotographyWords by Ed King / Profile pic by Faydit Photography

“People become chefs because there’s a passion; it’s a way of life, it’s not just a job.”

On Monday 15th January, The Chefs’ Forum hold their ‘Pay What You Can’ lunch – a four course meal from a handful of the city’s leading chefs, supported by students from University College Birmingham.

Aimed at “the glitterati of top chefs and food professionals”, The Chefs’ Forum – which launched its Birmingham & Midlands Chapter in February 2017 – organises industry showcase events, where young students and burgeoning chefs get the chance to deliver a menu under the direction of luminaries in their locale. Monday’s lunch will see “signature dishes” from Louisa Ellis (The Wilderness), Mark Walsh (OPUS), Luke Tipping and Leo Kattou (Simpsons) and Olivier Briault (The Edgbaston) – all prepared and presented by students from the ‘career-focused education and training’ provider.

“UCB is the Ferrari of catering colleges,” explains Catherine Farinha – founder of The Chefs’ Forum and a “specialist food marketing consultant” in her own right, whose Red Cherry marcomm agency has been representing food industry clients since 2011. “We work with 16 colleges nationally,” continues Farinha, “and it’s (UCB) up there with the best. It’s had a £25million refurbishment and there was no expense spared when it came to the kitchens; it has the best kit you could possibly have in any professional kitchen, let alone a college.”  

Ticking boxes from facilities to faculty, UCB also has a solid reputation for its business outreach agenda, as you would both hope and expect from such an institution. But was it such a clear choice of partner for The Chefs’ Forum when they opened in Birmingham? “The lecturers completely support the students and are grabbing each opportunity for them to make connections with the local business community,” explains Farinha, “and they’re supporting us 100% – they really do walk the talk. When it comes to best practice UCB is a shining example of how it should be; it’s a well oiled machine with good business links, all we have to do is galvanise that.”

But today’s educational landscape can be more tricky to traverse, with a myriad of shifts in both focus and funding creating a system that’s arguably more interested in retention than placement. Or it’s an apprenticeship scheme, which can all too often carry the echoes of the YTS debacle promulgated by Thatcher’s 80’s administration. Then there’s Gordon Ramsey (although he did give UCB the ‘Ferrari’ quote). But what are the biggest problems facing young chefs today?

“The main purpose of The Chefs’ Forum is to connect the colleges with the restaurants,” explains Catherine Farinha, setting out a stall that stretches from classroom to kitchen, “so that young people can feel more confident in applying for jobs. There’s a huge chef shortage, an international chef shortage not just a national one, and we can’t get enough young people into the kitchen. They don’t always know how to approach a chef to ask if they can have a trail shift or to pass on their CV; they can lack the confidence at the age they are (16-18) so we make it easier. When we hold events we place people in the kitchen with established chefs, we bring the chefs into their colleges to teach them, and then we host four events a year across nine areas – so we’ve got a nice easy conversation going on between both sides. And whilst we’ve got them all in one place we bring the brands in; without the brands we couldn’t stage the events, with them supplying ingredients and equipment.”

And how about those classrooms, outside of your work with UCB how do you find tapping into Levels 1 to 3 – the educational age and stage to begin inspiring young chefs?  “A lot of the schools are hanging on to their students to make them stay on to do A-Levels, as opposed to going to a college for a vocational qualification,” tells Farinha. “Purely down to funding, they want to keep hold of their young people so they don’t showcase other careers. There’s a lot of incentive for schools to hang on to their students and not send them to college – but we need the schools to help us and give those young people a fair range of careers to choose from.”

Sounds frustrating, but anyone who works in secondary education will tell you how difficult it can be to both fund and facilitate extra-curricular activities. Perhaps it’s more about logistics? “We run these taster days for 14-16 year olds and the schools can be an absolute nightmare to deal with, even when we offer to pay for a coach to bring the students into the event and see these great chefs presenting demonstrations. Some welcome it with open arms, but the majority are resistant to allow their students to experience it first hand, and therein lies the problem.”

Meanwhile, back on Summer Row… The chance to work alongside such established chefs is a valuable learning curve for any young kitchen focused creative, but what exactly will the UCB students be doing at The Chefs’ Forum lunch?

“Each chef has a different course,” explains Catherine Farinha, “there’s a starter, a fish course, a meat course and a dessert, and they will get a team of students cooking with them and being directed by them. The students will produce the food with the chefs as mentors, which will be a signature dish from the individual chef’s menu.” And this is supported by the industry suppliers that will be showcasing – both ingredients and equipment – as part of the event? “Absolutely, and we don’t charge the colleges to work with us. We charge the suppliers and there are about 20 to 30 at each event, so it’s like a mini trade show.”

I’ve already got my sights on Alicia’s – the Midlands based ‘handmade ice cream and sorbet’ outfit who I’m hoping will be make an appearance in Oliver Briault’s dessert course. But how does The Chefs’ Forum selected its suppliers? “The pre-requisite is that they are already supplying chefs in Birmingham, you can’t buy your way into The Chefs’ Forum. All those brands have been recommended by the chefs; without one of our committee members having road tested a brand we won’t let them come in. The quality control comes from the chefs.”

And Birmingham loves a committee. Who is ‘on the board’ for The Chefs’ Forum’s second city events? “Mark Walsh (Opus), Nathan Eades – who’s just moved over to The Wild Rabbit in the Cotswolds. Neil Rippington at UCB is also very much in the driving seat; whilst we don’t have a contract with them (UCB) he’s our committee member for the educational side. Then we’ve got Adrian Enescu and Bev Brown from Rofuto. We’re not from Birmingham but we made sure we’ve got a few local people who know it like the back of their hand.”

And the pay-as-you-feel approach? Not that I’m complaining, but the lunch menu presents four courses from some of the best chefs in the city – not exactly an M&S sandwich on a bench by the Town Hall. “It makes it accessible,” explains Farinha, “chefs aren’t always the best paid, so to ask them on their day off to pay a load of money for a lunch cooked by top chefs with a ticket price of £95 would be unrealistic. But I don’t care if they give me £10 or £50, because they appreciate what we’re doing and they know all the money is going to The Chefs’ Forum Educational Foundation. But people can pay what they feel; I wouldn’t ever turn anyone away.”

The Chefs’ Forum carries an agenda that is arguably well placed in today’s catering education and industry, namely one that helps clear a path between the two. And Birmingham has blossomed with gastronomy over recent years, from the five Michelin stars that now decorate the city’s listings to the profoundly successful Digbeth Dining Club. There is, too, an army or eager young chefs in this city that would benefit from any support of substance. But the proof is in the pudding, if you’ll forgive the outrageously obvious pun, and whilst The Chefs’ Forum may have a pretty successful six years under their belt only one has been spent in Birmingham. So, it’s both exciting and early days.

But for now I’m content to enjoy some fine dining in January, not what I thought my New Year budget would allow. And with The Chefs’ Forum committed to four events in the Midlands each year, reaching out to “new openings” and supporting “the new generation of chefs” across Birmingham and beyond, who knows what the spring and summer menus will present. I wonder what season is the best for a good burger..?

For more about The Chefs’ Forum, including news from chapters across the UK and details on upcoming events, visit www.thechefsforum.co.uk

If you would like to know more about The Chefs’ Forum Educational Foundation, visit www.thechefsforum.co.uk/foundation

If you are a chef, supplier, educator, or work within the food industry and would like to know more about opportunities through The Chefs’ Forum, please email Catherine Farinha at catherine@redcherry.uk.com

To know more about University College Birmingham, visit www.ucb.ac.uk

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