Interview with Jose Souto – Author, Chef, Lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College @wildfoodboy

Why does Westminster Kingsway College choose to teach students about American products? 

At Westminster College we are training young students to go out into the hospitality industry as professional chefs. Our students are the next generation of chefs, from Michelin star to TV celebrities like Jamie Oliver.

As well as teaching technical skills, a large part of our job is giving them the grounding they need to understand the importance of provenance of food from around the world.

When it comes to explaining about foods from the USA, I think we are just scratching the surface. These days, provenance is everything. It is huge part of our teaching, to make sure that students understand the backstory.

I think the market for US foods in untapped. We teach a lot, but we are just scratching the surface.

Take grapefruits from Florida for example. These big bold fruits are grown in the rich Florida sunlight, a beautiful environment – you can almost taste the sunshine!

People don’t understand the background of products from the USA, the sustainability, what farmers are doing to adapt to climate and market change.

It is important for chefs to understand all of this and feel comfortable to talk about it, learning about the origin gives us the arsenal to do this with confidence.

What are your favorite ingredients to cook with from the U.S.?

Certainly, one of my favorites is Alaska salmon. This is the most sustainable wild salmon in the world. Easy to cook, delicious to eat. I cannot tell you how much we need to impress on chefs the difference between wild and farmed salmon, they are poles apart.

I have a huge passion for seafood from Alaska. I was lucky enough to go, to see the seafood industry in action, I have lived it, touched it, even pulled fish out of the water! It means I can talk with confidence, I have firsthand experience and knowledge which gives me a genuine passion for the place and the product which I can pass on to my students.

I am also a huge fan of US beef, beautifully raised on ranches, naturally grass fed- they are great quality beef.

I also love all the fruits that come from California, nuts, prunes, not forgetting the wines, they are all beautiful products born from the sunshine!

Origin is a huge story for chefs, they need to be ready to be questioned about origin, sustainability, quality of our sourcing. Our students may be the next chefs on TV, telling people where foods come from and the benefits, they need to be able to understand the background and backstory.

Working with the US government helps us showcase the best products from the USA.

Are there products from the U.S. that you would like to teach students about that to date you have been unable to obtain, and why?

Every year at USA week we have a new product added to the menu, this year it is American pistachios.

There are plenty of products we don’t work with or even know about. The USA is a massive country and I really believe their products are untapped in the UK. Of course, we only see what is exported, there are wide varieties of wines for example, many of which don’t come to the UK, same can be said for the craft beers. We are keen to learn as much as we can!

What are the benefits of showcasing products to students at Westminster Kingsway? 

When our students graduate, they will go to work and within one or two years will be writing their own menus and will have buying power. At Westminster Kingsway we really push ourselves to ensure our students understand food origin. That is a fundamental difference between our college and others. It isn’t just about the food on the plate. We push ourselves to work with the team at the US Embassy to showcase the culture, the produce, the wine and beers, all facets of food origin so students understand the full picture of what they are creating. 

I have been lucky enough to visit the US but the students or their customers may never go. If we can help them to understand the benefit of the food on their plate and the provenance of products from around the world, that is unique.

The approach is certainly unique to Westminster Kingsway, and we are very proud of it.

Do you find the students have preconceived ideas about U.S. foods? How do their perceptions change over time?

Yes! The students who start with us are young, so when we say we are doing a USA Week, at the beginning they screw faces up think hot dogs and hamburgers. At their age they think that’s what US culture is all about. BBQ is also part of that culture, pulled beef/slow cook pork, they see on TV the cooks using BBQ it is a brilliant way of cooking and we incorporate it into what we do.

Beyond that, once you start to explain about the different regions of the USA, the cultural influences and nuances the students do their own research and see there is pot of gold over there.

How important is sustainable agriculture when teaching students about products?

Massive. At Kingsway we were pioneers, we started talking about sustainability over 10 years ago creating a statement of sustainability and ethical buying. It is still a focal part of our teaching and integrated into everything we do.

How important is it to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the various trade association groups?

The American producers we work with give us a lot of material to help us educate our students. We have 300-400 full time students and the same again as part time, sending as much information to our teams and lecturers is a great help.

Chefs are visual learners, so anything that is tailored for us in the UK will stand producers in good stead. Details about production, origin, sustainability, how to cook, it is all valuable. As a chef you are always learning, we never stop learning new things no matter how long we are in the business. It is a pleasure to work with the providers and keep that flow of information coming to our students.