March 2021

Fine dining chef, Gordon Ramsay-style trouble-shooter, unintentional lecturer – Kali brings masses to the table as first female head of Birmingham College of Food

By Melanie Hall

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Read time: approx 7 mins

If you DeLorean-ed back to 1986 and asked University College Birmingham trainee chef Kali Davidson where she’d be in 35 years, she’d never have dreamed she’d be the first woman to run her former training ground’s renowned college of food.

Kali, one of six siblings from a “large and very loud” Punjabi family, was 18 when she defied her parents’ wish for her to pursue a career in finance, accounting or the like and enrolled on a professional cookery diploma at Birmingham College of Food.

“My mum and dad were from a really rural part of the Punjab, never had those chances, and desperately wanted me and my siblings to take an academic route,” said Kali, who was making samosas and helping her dad cater for family and friends’ weddings from the age of eight and who didn’t actually taste British food until she started high school. It was macaroni cheese and steamed pudding and she loved it.

“I got my A-levels, but was adamant I was going to go on this catering course. They eventually realised I wasn’t going to change my mind.”

Fuelled by a deep love for cooking, the Edgbaston-born and bred young trainee – the only Asian student on her course and with English as her second language – shone brightly and won best student of the year.

Even better for a brassic teen, she won a £100 prize, and was then snapped up as a fledgling commis chef by French restaurant Le Biarritz.

Since then, her career has been nothing short of a bouquet garni: Chef de partie at Aston University, where she led the Youth Opportunities Programme staff training, back into fine dining at The Mill in Alvechurch, then onto Compass Catering, where she managed the contract catering for two West Midlands Ambulance Service sites.

It was working for Compass that Kali garnered a reputation as a bit of a Gordon Ramsay. “I was given the role of ‘trouble-shooter’, quite unique back then,” she said.

“I had to go into catering outlets for companies like HSBC that were struggling with staff issues, gross profit and general kitchen practices, my job being to standardise recipes and train staff to the company’s high standards. I was a cross between Gordon Ramsay and Nanny McPhee – I wouldn’t leave the place until it was running effectively.”

"I have been very, very fortunate in my career and I can’t wait to really get stuck into my new role"

Kali Davidson Head of Birmingham College of Food

Birmingham to Barbados and beyond

To her own surprise, Kali made a return to Birmingham College of Food in 2000, this time as a NVQ level lecturer in pastry and kitchen larder skills.

“I never thought I’d be a teacher or lecturer, I fell into it completely by chance,” she said. “I was doing the Youth Opportunities Programme at Aston, similar to apprenticeships, and ended up doing a lot of the training. I was asked if I might like to come and teach at Birmingham College of Food, which was funny as that’s where I started out. I thought, why not? Turned out I absolutely loved it.”

Over the years, Kali got to teach out in Barbados, organise work placements in Denmark for Erasmus students, as well as presenting and demonstrating the university’s master’s courses out in Mumbai to attract international students.

In pictures: Kali in Mumbai

Other highlights were working in the bustling Cap and Gown pub restaurant (now the Rooftop Café) at the top of the University’s Summer Row campus, and as cost centre manager of the café on the fifth floor.

Not one to stay in her comfort zone, Kali also achieved a Bachelor of Philosophy degree and master’s degree in education at the University of Birmingham alongside her teaching role, using her knowledge to run summer schools for schoolchildren with special needs.

“My college made me”

For 10 years, Kali has taught contemporary patisserie skills to students on the University’s bakery, food and hospitality degrees, as well as Level 3 students, who make the plated desserts for the award-winning Restaurant at Birmingham College of Food.

She has also earned a glowing reputation as a tutor, mentor and course manager, a labour of love she plans to continue alongside her department head role.

But how have things changed since she was a student herself? “When I was at college, it was very old school, it was the same everywhere,” she said. “You just didn’t talk to your lecturers, it was all very formal. I don’t want students to feel like that.

“The main thing for me is bringing people along and identifying strengths. I can’t bear it when I hear a student say their teacher told them they would be nothing. I want them to say, 'my college made me'.

“One of our graduates and a great chef, Adam Smith, did an online talk for students last week and said exactly this. I could’ve burst with pride.

“It’s also about mucking in on the shop floor. If there are functions, I’m happy to be in the kitchen. I’ll do the pass with the front of house students, make the pancakes.”

Kali is the first Asian, female head of a UK college of food. However, she said she was not interested in ticking boxes.

“I got here through my drive and passion, skills, proactivity, organisation, knowledge and credibility, and I have a fantastic team to lead.

“I like change, learn from my mistakes, and I want to be the kind of head that is fair and engaged with staff. Not managing in the background.

“I have been very, very fortunate in my career and I can’t wait to really get stuck into my new role.”

You can read more about Kali's vision and plans for the Birmingham College of Food here.

University College Birmingham is a world-renowned provider of specialist training courses for the food and hospitality industries, offering industry-standard kitchen and restaurant facilities to support development and extensive industry placements with prestigious partners around the world.

Find out more about our range of courses within the Birmingham College of Food here.

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