Teamwork makes the dream work

The crisis in recruiting chefs post lockdown has been widely reported, but North Kent College catering department, which has a campus in Tonbridge, is determined to retain and inspire its students – courtesy of giving them the opportunity to work with some of the area’s best chefs. Eileen Leahy finds out more about this collaborative scheme…

Over the past couple of years the restaurant trade has seen a huge exodus of staff due to the pandemic – with the majority of vacancies seeking chefs.

Earlier this summer Tunbridge Wells saw the closure of Vittle & Swig and Rendez-Vous, as well as the temporary shutting of vegan restaurant The Plant Base, due to the staffing crisis.

Job vacancies for chef roles topped more than 100 in one single week earlier this year.

But one local college is determined to stem the flow of deserting chefs from the hospitality sector by being involved in a number of incentives which aim to inspire the current crop of catering students.

‘We firmly believe in the development of the next generation of staff. Hospitality is a fantastic industry that can teach, develop and nurture so many great key life skills’

Earlier this summer, North Kent College, which has a thriving campus in Tonbridge, invited some of its Level 2 Professional Chef and Level 3 Front of House students to attend a special workshop to keep their enthusiasm levels topped up, and to encourage pupils to go on to work in the industry.

The event was co-organised with The Chef’s Forum, a nationwide organisation headed up by top chefs who want to inspire the next generation.

Members include the likes of TV stars James Martin, Ed Baines and Galton Blackiston, alongside a crop of talented stars from some of the country’s most respected kitchens, including The Dorchester in London, The French in Manchester and The Elephant’s Head in Lamberhurst.

The North Kent College day was hosted at The George & Dragon pub and dining rooms in Speldhurst, and saw Matt Devlin, co-founder of The Small Holding in Kilndown, attend alongside Matt Broadbent, head chef at The Curlew – one of the other restaurants run by Matthew and his brother chef Will Devlin, who also have the Birchwood café at Flimwell Park.


“The idea was for our students to work with a number of renowned local chefs and hospitality experts,” explained Duncan Weetman, Head of Curriculum – Hospitality, Catering and Culinary Academy at North Kent College.

“Matthew Devlin attended in order to speak to front of house students about expectations in fine dining and wine service.

“The event also celebrated 10 years of The Chefs’ Forum, which runs similar workshops in Manchester, Wales and the Cotswolds,” he added.


The North Kent College lunch at The George & Dragon also saw students prepping and cooking a specially selected four-course menu by The Curlew’s Matt Broadbent, Scott Goss from The Beacon, Bobby Brown of host venue The George & Dragon, and Graham Green, chef patron of Chives Caterers.

The meal included a leek and potato starter by Scott, a fish dish by Will, pulled pork bao buns with Asian slaw from Bobby, and, to finish, a chargrilled pineapple with rum glaze alongside a lemon posset cup with an Australian Anzac biscuit and apricot purée created by Graham.

It was up to the college’s catering students to create and successfully execute each dish, which was then served and enjoyed by the coterie of top chefs.

Bobby Brown was very impressed with the college’s students, who he said all ‘pitched in’ cooking and serving the various courses. He also commented: “It’s great to see everyone back together after a tough couple of years.

“The students did a fantastic job working in the kitchen and cooking the lunch for our industry guests. We were blessed with gorgeous weather and it’s been wonderful to see such support for the next generation of chefs.”

Duncan Weetman added: “Our students were so excited to be involved. It was brilliant from start to finish. Not only did they get to cook alongside true professionals, but they worked with amazing ingredients and stunning plates.

“A big thank you to the whole team at The Chefs’ Forum. The work they do makes teaching our students so much easier.”


Matthew Devlin was equally pleased with how the day went, telling the Times:

“It was fantastic to be invited by North Kent College Tonbridge to spend a day with their students.

“It was great to learn how they are taught and to pass on some of our skills. I loved seeing their enthusiasm to learn, and for us – as a company – to understand how they would like to develop within the industry. It was all very useful.

“We firmly believe in the development of the next generation of hospitality staff. It is a fantastic industry that can teach, develop and nurture so many great key life skills.”

Matthew then said: “We hope that this is the start of a great relationship with North Kent College, where we can assist in the development of the students and pass on our skills so there is an understanding of the day-to-day processes in a restaurant and what will be expected of them when they finish their qualifications and are looking for a job in the industry.”

Matthew’s colleague, Matt Broadbent, who is head chef at the Devlins’ restaurant The Curlew in Bodiam, also said he found the experience enriching – especially as he is a former student of the college:

“Having left over 10 years ago, it was a great experience to be back from the other side of the stoves – so to speak – and it definitely gave me a brand new perspective.

“I think it is super important to have a close working relationship with North Kent College and its students so the workplace can really back up what North Kent is teaching – and vice versa.

“Being on the younger side, I also hope gives a new insight into the fact that the industry is forever changing and there are so many avenues to go down.”

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