All brains but no hands: what’s a food revolution without qualified people?

Copenhagen Hospitality College
Copenhagen Hospitality College
When sitting down to a delicious meal in one of Copenhagen’s many new restaurants, you’d never even consider that we’re going through somewhat of a crisis. Yes, new menu options and ingredients are more abundant than ever before. And, yes, there are more and more cookbooks and cooking shows being produced. But where are all the formally trained service staff?

Written by Afton Halloran


On a rainy March day in Copenhagen, Afton Halloran sat down with Anne-Birgitte Agger, Director of the Copenhagen Hospitality College, to discuss the future of vocational training.


In just over a decade, Copenhagen has undergone a gastronomic revolution. Food-related economic activities have risen by 40%. From fine-dining to home cooked meals, Copenhageners have gained better access to higher quality raw ingredients and organic food. It’s now the new normal for parents to expect that their children will have the chance to taste delicious food at school. Food, quite simply, has mesmerized and captivated us all.


With that said, you might be excused for thinking that everything is running smoothly. While new food-related experiences are in high demand, the Copenhagen Hospitality College has seen 40% fewer students register for culinary arts, smørrebrød maker and caterer, nutritional assistant and waiter/waitress certifications over the past four years. Last year the college trained just 33 waiters.


How did we arrive at this point?


From the mid-20th century onwards, Denmark has focused primarily on becoming a knowledge-based economy. Parents, wanting the best for their children, wished for their kin to become richer and more successful than previous generations. A societal belief that higher education was the only way to prosperity meant that the average number of years spent in school has risen dramatically. Policies were also aimed at getting as many students through secondary schools and universities as possible.


But we can’t all live off our brains. In a society that upholds such a high value for knowledge, it’s no surprise that those working with their hands are often looked down upon. Training to become a chef or a waiter can often appear as the last possible option for those who cannot or do not want to attend university. As a result, it’s now a struggle to find qualified masters of the trade. At the same time, the lure of making money straight out of high school means that many people working in the hospitality sector have skipped the training all together and have gained their experience and skills on the job. Witnessing the major gap left in the labour market, political priorities have since changed. The Danish government now wants to see 25% of young people pass through vocational schools in 2020.


Despite the past 15 years of New Nordic Food, craftsmanship is a dying vocation. This story is by no means unique to Copenhagen. It is a phenomenon that is also being felt around the entire Nordic region.

Paradigm shift

While we haven’t hit the wall yet, we are charting a clear course in that direction if things don’t change.


Cultivating a societal paradigm shift starts from a young age. Children need to understand that working with their hands can be cool and fun, and that they can make a difference in society by preparing and serving food to others. At the same time, education systems need to change so that students have the option to test out vocational school without being forced into a dead end.


Acknowledging this, the Copenhagen Hospitality College has been working closely with schools and the Ministry of Education. Fresh ideas are needed to change the face of vocational training in the hospitality sector. Modernizing job titles and roles is one such possibility. Course content also needs to change to reflect modern needs such as sustainability within the hospitality sector.


Relatable role models are also needed. While TV streaming services, magazines and other forms mass-media have been keen to focus on the restaurant world, most personalities are male and represent the fine-dining elite. Where are the hard-working women, caterers or front of house staff? They are there, but still not yet in the spotlight.


A paradigm shift will also take place when we truly reevaluate how we measure happiness. Wealth — as we have recently come to understand — is just a small part of it. An increasing number of people worldwide are searching for jobs that give meaning to their lives. And many are now finding out that sitting in front of a computer for the rest of their lives without engaging in manual work is not quite their definition of meaningful.


Over the past 15 years, we have built a strong foundation for our regional food culture. We are better at understanding the true price of quality, better at celebrating food and better at supporting small-scale producers. At the same time, food literacy (food-related skills and knowledge) is still extremely low. This is where human-centered, and not technology-centric, food systems will have a valuable role to play.


So, here’s to the next 15 years of New Nordic Food! It’s now time to uplift the talented and passionate people who stand behind our meals!


This story is a part of a series about the future of New Nordic Food. Follow Afton Halloran, sustainable food systems expert, as she listens to different voices from around the Nordic region.