Catering for the masses

The hospitality and catering department at Waltham Forest College
The hospitality and catering department at Waltham Forest College has become very well renowned – having once cooked for the Queen

Dr Jim Lewis on the borough’s contribution to the food industry

Waltham Forest College has an interesting and varied history. Established in 1938 as South West Essex Technical College and School of Art, it was originally one of four regional technical colleges in Essex.

At the official opening ceremony Dr H Lowery, the first principal, summed up the ethos of the college: “We want to make it the people’s university… We want to feel that this is their place, a great community centre.”

During the Second World War the college provided courses for military personnel, training them in various engineering subjects, alongside the traditional range of technical subjects that were necessary during time of war. In 1965, control of the college passed from Essex County Council to Waltham Forest Council and the following year the name changed to Waltham Forest Technical College and School of Art.

In the early 1990s, when Smithfield Market closed its butchery college, it took the chance to set up its own butchery school, The Smithfield Unit. It soon became a popular training establishment for the next generation of butchers and is now recognised as the place to go to for fully-qualified catering staff.

In 2002 the Queen and Prince Philip visited Waltham Forest as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations. The task of preparing a feast to impress the royal visitors was entrusted to students and staff of Waltham Forest College. It is fair to assume that no complaints from the royals were received!

This year I was taken on a guided tour of the college’s hospitality and catering facilities by department head Dawn Bennett and her colleague Tom Barden. They are highly impressive, with the latest technology being employed to a degree that would have made earlier graduates extremely envious. After the tour we had lunch at the Mallinson restaurant, which is open to the public. It allows the students to practice their skills in a real-time environment.

Waltham Forest College trains chefs, waiting staff, butchers, bakers, baristas and front-of-house restaurant staff, with a wide choice of apprenticeships offered. It is probably not surprising that graduates often end up being employed by famous restaurants and hotels, including The Ritz and Claridge’s.

While Britain’s industrial base is all but gone, replaced by service industries, it is refreshing to see Waltham Forest College has risen to the challenge of training generations of our young people, creating employment and ensuring they form the backbone of our leisure and tourism market.

This article is an edited extract from Dr Jim Lewis’s new book London’s Lea Valley: Home of Britain’s Growing Food and Drink Industry. To buy a copy:
Visit amazon.co.uk/Londons-Lea-Valley-Britains-Industry/dp/1912969076