Vic Keegan’s Lost London 226: Escoffier’s Dream

The most famous chef of the time wanted a specialist school for catering professionals in London. He has one.

More than 100 years ago, a small group of luminaries in the hospitality industry, including Auguste Escoffier, the most famous chef of his time, and hotelier Cesar Ritz, worried about the lack of qualified young people in London to work in catering establishments.

Sound familiar? They decided to do something about it. With the help of money from the heiress Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had a particular interest in the field, they joined forces to develop a professional cooking school. What would we give today to have an institution with such a distinguished heritage?

In fact, we have. The Escoffier School still exists and although revered by those who know it – notably for its associated restaurant – it remains one of London’s hidden gems. It stands on the corner of Vincent Square and Rochester Row under the WK Westminster Kingsway College banner. He is a neighbor of Saint-Etienne church and a primary school, both also built by Burdett Couttswho inherited a large fortune which she devoted, on the advice of Charles Dickens, to philanthropy.

But first, a little background. The Vincent Square site was originally established by the Baroness in 1894 as an institute for teaching technical skills to local children, including former pupils of her nearby primary school. At first, evening classes were held for practical skills such as construction, plumbing, car building and other trades before offering a wider range of engineering courses.

In 1904 the technical institute merged with the flourishing Westminster School of Art, which moved to Vincent Square from Tufton Street near Westminster Abbey, where it was part of the Royal Architectural Museum. The Hospitality and Catering Section was started in 1910 and has blossomed into today’s Westminster Catering College, the first such institution in the country. It must be said that its “brand” is somewhat hidden behind that of its parent institution, Westminster Kingsway College. But underneath, it’s a hive of culinary activity.

It’s obvious as soon as you enter the building. To your right is a bar area leading to a large, well-appointed brasserie where students cook and serve delicious meals during school terms. In front of you is – you guessed it – the Salle Escoffier, where third-year students will offer you a tasty menu that is significantly cheaper than elsewhere. And as you enter, you’ll be sure to notice a carved plaque of the great man himself.

In this building, you can learn to be anything from chef to chef, aided by an incredible number of behind-the-scenes kitchens, including one devoted to chocolate making. Its alumni include celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Ainsley Harriott as well as a slew of restaurants across the country. This is Escoffier’s dream come true.

All previous episodes of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be purchased here. Follow Vic on Twitter.

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