Education should not only help in building skills and knowledge - it should more than anything else inspire. And for that, it needs the right people. Gary Hunter from the Westminster Kingsway college is one of them. Get to know him.
You have been a pastry chef before going into education. Why this change of career?
It was a natural, almost unconscious decision to progress into education. I wanted to motivate and educate a new generation of UK based Pastry Chefs and set them off on their career to promote this worthy profession. At the same time, I could also continue my own learning and progression in this area, so it wasn’t as if I’d turned my back on the pastry industry and simply stopped producing entremets, desserts and pastries. In fact it helped me to engage with the industry in a wider aspect than I’d previously been able to achieve before.
Do you miss pastry work now?
In my current role, we have two pastry kitchens, one bakery, one chocolate laboratory and one science laboratory to indulge my pastry fantasies! Yes, I miss it when I have to focus on the wider education framework at the college but my role now is so much more diverse and rewarding in a different way.
There are two restaurants at the college - are they open for the public or only available for the students?
We have two restaurants open to the public five days per week and three evenings per week. Our Vincent Brasserie can seat up to 160 and is a busy, bustling place to dine in. Our menus change on a weekly basis and this is where our 1st Year students get their chance to practice their service skills in a real working restaurant.
Our Escoffier Restaurant seats up to 40 and has a more classical and refined offer that is produced by our final year Professional Chef Diploma students. It reflects our trained contemporary skills and ideas that change every week with two seven-course menus (a vegetarian menu and a meat and fish-based menu).
Both restaurants have won awards and continue to be visited by food critics, alumni and industry friends on a regular basis, but we have built up a solid customer base for both outlets which increases year on year. They are successful restaurants and we are very proud of them.
Westminster Kingsway College is an important institution for the hospitality industry. What were your main goals when you arrived there?
As a teacher in patisserie, chocolate, bakery and confectionery my aim was to add to the great team who were already teaching at the college. I’ve seen and have worked with some exceptionally talented Pastry Chefs at the Westminster Kingsway, and continue to see this today as well. However, when I moved into managing the department it was my goal to increase the student numbers who wanted to train as a Pastry Chef and to ensure that we were more relevant to the industry and approach education with a wider view to incorporate skills training that no other college or cookery school was doing, hence the development of our own chocolate lab.
Have you reached them? Do you have any new goals now?
We always review our targets every year. And then set new targets both on a short and long-term basis. We have achieved most of what we have set ourselves. Funding is an inherent issue in further and higher education and this sometimes slows down our progress, but it doesn’t stop it. We find alternative ways to make sure that we realise our targets. We’ve just gone through a three-year refurbishment programme at our Victoria Centre. We now have a stunning building and setting to teach, educate and train in. So that we can cement our place in being the hub for training and development. Our new goal for this year is to consistently develop the whole teaching team in teaching and learning techniques and also to give them first-hand experiences of world food trends, new ingredients and updating of industry skills. If I cannot invest in the team then they are not going to be able to deliver the important knowledge and skills to students demanded by our industry.
As an educator, what are for you the main things that hospitality students have to learn and know?
They need to be ‘job ready’ for the hospitality industry. Students must have a can-do attitude, be approachable and be open to learning. We will give them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in this industry, but our ultimate aim is that when they start their first job they can make positive contributions and impact immediately to the team they are working with.
How is your course collaborating with the industry? How do students get insight into it?
All our students undertake work externships each year. This is one of the most important aspects of our curriculum so that our students can be part of the industry from an early starting point. We ensure that our placements are tailored to each student, depending on their career aims and whether we think that a specific employer is a good match for them.
We have some great alumni from Westminster Kingsway who are now running some of the top kitchens and restaurants in London, so finding employers who are both incredibly supportive and open to helping our students is quite straightforward for us.
Your students have also been working at the El Celler de Can Roca pop-up in London. How was this experience?
I can’t thank the Roca brothers enough for approaching me to offer this wonderful experience exclusively to our students. The team we selected loved the experience and just being in the kitchen with the chefs of El Celler de Can Roca created so much inspiration, but more importantly it was a great insight into their culinary philosophy. And that’s the beauty of being a student at Westminster, we offer so many fantastic opportunities and experiences to our students.
What about you and chocolate? How did that relationship start?
As a kid growing up in the Norwich area, we had the Mackintosh Chocolate factory right in the middle of the city. The smells of the chocolate wafting across Norwich were intoxicating, much like nowadays at Banbury with the Barry Callebaut factory.
As a student chef at Norwich City College, I remember our Pastry Chef Lecturer, Jimmy Mair, tempering couverture and making these fantastic entremets, chocolates, centrepieces and petit fours. And it was really down to him that I developed my love of working with chocolate.
And how do you personally enjoy chocolate?
It varies really. I love to see innovation in chocolate making, so a bonbon or a praline will give me great pleasure. But seeing cakes, entremets and desserts produced from chocolate inspires me too. Essentially a small square of chocolate, from a single-origin bean, that’s well-made with complex flavours that endure on the palate will always do it for me.
Do you still practice the art of pastry and chocolate?
Absolutely! It’s a valuable art to me. It’s cathartic, visual and stimulating. Marie-Antoine Carême once quoted that “The Fine Arts are five in number: Painting, Music, Poetry, Sculpture, and Architecture — whereof the principal branch is Confectionery.” I love and live with art. and confectionery is an extension of this.
Is there big interest for pastry work between the young generation or do most of them want to become head chefs?
We are now seeing more young chefs and students wanting to become pastry chefs. There is a really healthy interest in this profession because of the recent TV exposure and because we have some brilliant home-grown pastry chefs who are incredibly successful in their own right.
If somebody desires to become a pastry chef, where do you suggest should he start and how should he continue?
I think that they should get a good, classical training at a college and marry this with an industry mentor. A mentor is someone who can give advice and the benefit of their experience and I think that this is an often overlooked aspect in training and education. With the right influence in the pastry industry any chef can go right to the top.
You are also a Cacao Barry Ambassador. How does this role complement your other work and what does it mean to you?
It means a great deal to me. I was one of the original UK Ambassadors and I still have the group photograph up in my office today. It opens up doors to the world of pastry and chocolate, and I mean that literally with the amount of good friends I have across the globe who are always ready with a smile, some advice and infectious enthusiasm for chocolate. I have worked alongside some of the most creative and talented pastry chefs and chocolatiers in the world and they never cease to amaze me.
If I can turn these experiences into real lessons and opportunities for our students, then this is the ultimate impact that I bring to my day-to-day job.
Your personal advice for the young pastry chefs who may read this?
Keep an open mind and learn from every experience – good or bad. And always strive to ensure that you are better, in every way, than you were yesterday.