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How West Suffolk College has continued nurturing future talent for hospitality through the pandemic

Andy Doyle, Partnerships Manager, People 1st International

Our research shows that despite the ongoing disruption across the hospitality industry due to Covid-19, 86% of hospitality students remain committed to a career in the industry.

This is a fantastic testament to the work of Hospitality Accredited Colleges in maintaining the profile of the industry, arming students with the skills needed to support businesses as they rebuild, and sustaining their enthusiasm to build a career in the sector.

To understand the types of activities colleges have been undertaking to retain student engagement and stimulate their passion for the industry, we spoke to Claire Waterson, Operations Manager at the Culinary Arts Academy at West Suffolk College to discover their approach over the last 12 months:

How has West Suffolk College tackled the challenges experienced throughout the pandemic?

Despite the pandemic, our students have made huge strides in their culinary journey during this academic year, thanks to their wonderful resilience and the professionalism of our inspirational teaching staff.  We are extremely proud of all that has been achieved this providing our students with a real insight into the world of hospitality. The teaching team displayed the resilience, adaptability, continuous improvement and positive attitude that can help navigate any storm…

The pandemic forced many colleges to remain closed, however, through hard work and determination we adapted our teaching to online and widened our commercial offering, introducing two new commercial activities, which allowed our students to continue with both theory and practical sessions.

As with the rest of the hospitality sector, we adapted our offering, introducing ‘Edmunds Express’ and ‘Edmunds at Home’.  The Express menu was a grab and go lunch service enjoyed by both students and staff. Edmunds at Home provides customers with an opportunity to still enjoy fine dining meals in the comfort of their own home and we have been overwhelmed by the local support, with 150 meals being produced each week. Since January we have delivered more than 1500 meals, to huge customer acclaim and this has become a core activity for us; and it will continue!                                          

What types of activities have you introduced to keep the students engaged?

The Culinary Arts Academy could not have been more engaged and active as we adapted to the restrictions.  

We hosted various Christmas events, adapting to the ever-changing guidelines. Our irrepressible students demonstrating core practical competences, to the delight of our customers. We spread our Christmas spirit across the community, working on projects with local MP, Jo Churchill.  Sponsored by the County Council and organised by Frank Carn-Pryor and James Carn, students helped to produce, package and deliver over 150 meals to vulnerable adults and we have ambitious plans for further community involvement.

We are delighted to be collaborating with Jamie Oliver & Tesco’s on an exciting recipe project that will see our students and teaching team create nutritious recipes that will be included in food boxes for families in need.

How did you adapt to online teaching?

The lockdown in January 2021 saw the Culinary Arts team convert our timetable into a full online programme. The department has embraced digital Learning with real, enthusiasm, determination and effectiveness. We have learnt lessons that will enhance our future curriculum delivery. 

The launch of Edmunds YouTube saw our chefs create and deliver online cookery demonstrations that have been an outstanding success. This video library will become a valuable and enduring learning tool that will sustain the engagement and focus of our excellent students but, beyond that, Edmunds YouTube is also providing an amazing reference archive that we will add to and curate. It already includes more than 70 cooking tutorials. 

Can you give us some examples of how students have continued to gain exposure to industry?

The Culinary Arts Academy continues our rewarding collaboration with the very best local commercial partners. The exposure of our students to such valuable industry expertise and best practice is vitally important, now more than ever. Hospitality has been hugely impacted by the pandemic, but the eagerness of our partners to sustain their crucial mentoring link has showcased the true spirit and can-do attitude of the hospitality industry. 

During the January to March 2021, a 10-week programme of specialist industry talks from leading professionals was organised including talks from our long-time friends at The Angel Hotel and Justin Sharp (now Suffolk’s only Michelin-starred chef) at his Pea Porridge restaurant in Bury St Edmunds. We also had wonderful input from Michelin-starred Galton Blackiston, from Morston Hall in Blakeney. All have played a crucial role in motivating our students.

Nothing compares with the inspiration – and detailed instruction and tips – that our students derive from the close involvement of industry giants. Together, we will emerge from the pandemic with confidence and a commitment excellence. 

In May, Place 21’s Youth Pledge Careers Festival was launched, with the support of our friends and partners at The Chestnut Group, Adnams, The Angel Hotel and Center Parcs joining us for a fantastic careers week - which resulted in students receiving job offers.

Is there anything else you’ve been doing to stimulate students’ passion for the sector?

Such enthusiasm from the team and the sector has triggered a giant leap in our student participation in competitions. We were delighted when our Professional Chef Level 2 student Harry Bennington was placed amongst the top four in a nationwide skills-for-chefs challenge.  

We are now hoping for even more success, with eight of our students taking in part in the Nationwide Tilda Challenge, a great platform to showcase their skills.

Our Professional Chef Level 3 student, Luke Harker was named as a finalist in the Zest Quest Tilda challenge with over 21 colleges taking part and 12 finalists being named. Sadly, Luke didn’t win but Luke gained valuable experience that has further inspired his ambition for the industry!

We are also delighted that two Level 3 Patisserie & Confectionery students have been selected to compete in a national competition - Young Pastry Chef of the Year.  Patisserie students Kim Nutley & Tanya Brown showcased their talents in the first round of the competition, and we are delighted our CAA students have demonstrated the skills, ambition and talent that is required to achieve such acclaim. Kim was selected as a finalist and recently competed in London, unfortunately Kim wasn’t chosen as the overall winner, the experience has cemented Kim’s passion for pastry and she has now secured employment with Wooster’s, the acclaimed Suffolk bakery.

With such an inspiring programme of education for hospitality students throughout the pandemic, it’s clear that the team at the Culinary Arts Academy at West Suffolk college are determined to maintain their excellent standards and industry contacts so that students who progress from the Academy have the best possible chance of obtaining quality positions within the industry, leading to successful careers.

This is just one example of how colleges across our Hospitality Accreditation network have adapted throughout Covid-19. Congratulations to them and all colleges on the innovative, flexible and resilient approach they’ve taken throughout the year!

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