Sophie Robins, Change Designer, on why the Future Plates initiative is betting on young and trainee chefs to transform the food sector.

It’s been a tough year. For everyone, and especially for young people. Against a backdrop of global climate strikes, the shutdown of schools and universities during COVID-19 lockdown, and an outcry over the downgrading of A-level grades in the UK this year, it’s never been more clear than the world’s future rests on today’s younger generations. 

They have an array of urgent and interlinked global challenges to tackle: climate change, biodiversity loss, social inequality, and environmental degradation. It is a heavy burden, and one which we have a duty and responsibility to equip them for, in every way possible.

That’s been the crux of Forum for the Future’s Future Plates initiative, which aims to rebalance public consumption of protein - ‘less but better’ meat, with more plant-based sources - as part of the Protein Challenge 2040 collaboration to ensure a future in which everyone can enjoy equitable access to nutritious, healthy, affordable sources of protein without costing the planet.

Chefs, by the nature of their jobs, are at the forefront of innovation every day. They test, taste and improve recipes; they make ingredients and sourcing decisions that shape the global food supply chain; they invent dishes and menus that influence consumers’ choices, both in restaurants and at the dinner table. Chefs have a major role to play in creating a future-fit food industry, and the desire to change is there: a recent Food Made Good survey found that, despite battling for survival post-lockdown, 98% of operators want to focus on environmental and social sustainability on re-opening.

So how can we equip the next generation of chefs with the skills and knowledge that they need to be part of the solution, not the problem?

Together with the University of West London’s passionate team of culinary arts lecturers, in 2019 we created eight sustainability-led lessons that we piloted over two semesters from September 2019 to May 2020. From biodiversity on land and sea, to skills and techniques to recreate flavours and textures of traditional dishes using less meat, to seasonality and food waste, these lessons help bring to life real issues that chefs face every day, and impart knowledge that help culinary students - tomorrow’s chefs and food business managers - to make better decisions for people and planet.

These lessons, together with other teaching resources and tips, are all brought together in a teaching Handbook, with free-to-use content that is designed to be adaptable and easily integrated into almost any mainstream culinary arts curriculum, as well as on the job training. Together with an Insights Report collating learnings and recommendations gleaned from the pilot, as well as stakeholder and expert engagement over the past 3 years, it can be downloaded free from the Forum website

Tarik Ramjaun, a Lecturer in Culinary Arts and Professional Cookery at UWL who helped to run the pilot programme, said of his experience: “There was a real sense of achievement in getting students to think about the challenges that they will have to face as culinary professionals, and empowering them to believe that they have the knowledge to address the issues, rather than leave them on the back burner, simmering away for someone else to sort out.”

The scale of the challenges we face demand an equal level of ambition and creativity. These are qualities that our younger generations possess in abundance. It simply makes sense to invest time, effort and energy to inspire and equip them for the future we want to see, and unleash their resilience and energy onto the world.

The teaching Handbook and Insights Report are only a starting point for a broad skills transition across the entire food industry for a sustainable food future. It’s our hope that it will inspire other culinary institutes to begin the journey by incorporating sustainability lessons into their courses; and for food businesses, to integrate sustainability skills and knowledge in on-the-job training and employee expectations. For those who have already done so, we would love you to share your experiences so we can learn together. And importantly we need to continue a conversation about the role that chefs play now, and in the future, in fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals

Download the Future Plates chefs’ training teaching Handbook and Insights report here. If you’re a culinary institute keen to trial these lessons in your course, or have some feedback, we’d love to hear from you. And if you’re a food business or organisation, drop us a note to find out how you can be part of a wider collaboration for change in the Protein Challenge 2040.