A new chapter for chef lecturer

End of an era as McCurrach hangs up his whites after more than 40 years

Willie-McCurrach-OBE
Willie has taught chefs since 1978

HE has spent more than four decades in further education, teaching thousands of chefs and inspiring many more students to pursue careers in hospitality.

So it’s perhaps little wonder that Willie McCurrach OBE was in something of a reflective mood when SLTN caught up with him a fortnight ago.

He joked that his retirement has been a long time coming, having initially intended to leave in October 2017 only to be drafted straight back in, interviewed and hired for a temporary cover position.

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But having finally hung up his City of Glasgow College chef’s whites on April 30 this year after 41 years and 56 days, he said it “seems like yesterday” when he embarked on his career as a chef lecturer at what was then Glasgow College of Food Technology.

And that career was destined from an early age.

Willie was often in the kitchen as a youngster and recalls being taught how to make mayonnaise by his French grandmother when he was just nine or ten years old.

Despite his parents’ initial opposition to his chosen vocation, he went to college in Aberdeen and left with offers for three Edinburgh hotels: the North British (now The Balmoral) and The Caledonian – both of which were part of British Transport Hotels, and the Esso Motor Hotel.

Willie-McCurrach-Buckingham-Palace
Willie McCurrach was awarded the OBE at Buckingham Palace in 2018

“I realised I wanted to be a chef lecturer when I was at college in Aberdeen,” said Willie.

“I thought, ‘I like that job you’ve got’.

“My chef lecturer told me to get experience in the best places so that’s what I did.”

Accepting the place at the North British, Willie combined working with day release at Telford College before going on to join the team at Gleneagles, which was also part of British Transport Hotels at the time, in 1975.

Stints at Blairlogie House Hotel and the Bridge of Earn Hotel followed before Willie spotted a job advert for a chef lecturer at Glasgow College of Food Technology, taking up the post on March 6, 1978.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

He went on to teach thousands of chefs, counting the likes of Willie Pike and Gary Maclean among his former students.

He has also cooked for Nelson Mandela, the Queen and Pavarotti, flipped pancakes with Prince Charles, and counts a record for the largest clootie dumpling and an OBE, which he was awarded last year, among his accolades.

Change, he said, has been one constant in the industry down the years.

The college itself has evolved to form the City of Glasgow College. Spanning two campuses, it has some 32,000 students – 2000 of which are hospitality, events, food and tourism students who are taught across a range of new teaching rooms and facilities, including ten kitchens, four bakeries, a patisserie room, two restaurants and two cake decorating rooms.

“Things have really progressed in 40 years – equipment, technology, dish creation and management; but the basics haven’t changed,” said Willie.

“I’ve always been an advocate of the basics.

“Without the foundations you have nothing to build on; people still need to learn how to make the base products and mother sauces.

“Social media has also had a huge impact when it comes to food; and TV programmes – bakery and cake decorating courses have never been busier, and a big part of that is the Great British Bake Off.”

On the subject of encouraging more people to pursue careers in the hospitality industry, Willie remains an advocate of partnership working between employers and education providers.

And although he has retired from further education, he is continuing to work with hospitality industry charities HIT Scotland and Springboard, the food tourism board, and as an independent SLTN Awards judge.

“We need to continue to grow our own talent,” he said.

“The industry has had a bit of a dark image but there have been a lot of improvements.

“More places – although there could always be more – are offering straight shifts.

“And the Hospitality Health charity set up by Gordon (McIntyre, associate dean for hospitality and tourism at City of Glasgow College and Willie’s colleague and friend of more than 20 years) is doing great work.

“There will always be challenges in a kitchen – it’s hard work in a pressured environment but as long as you can kiss and make up at the end of service; it’s all about teamwork.

“It’s a great industry to be in and there are so many opportunities.”