Wanted: The next generation of chefs
Millions are unemployed, yet restaurateurs say they find it almost impossible to recruit good staff. Emily Jupp finds out why.
Every evening our TVs showcase the varied delights of a culinary career: the cuddly Great British Bake-Off, the wholesome, back-to-nature romance of River Cottage, the pressure cooker atmosphere of MasterChef and the manic vitriol of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares – each is like a thrilling advertisement for a different facet of a job in restaurant work and yet chefs are finding it harder than ever to recruit new staff into the profession.
Mark Colley, the owner of Michelin-starred The Curlew, in Bodiam, East Sussex, has been looking for an assistant restaurant manager for 18 months and the lack of interest in the role "has been staggering", he says. "When you consider there's a TV programme every night about working with food, you would expect more people to be interested in a catering job".
But the TV shows which have made people see cookery as a potential career might also be a hindrance to the profession, by giving viewers false expectations of a glamorous work life which doesn't match the reality.
David Perkins runs The Academy, in Nottingham, a scheme that promotes employment opportunities for 16- to 18-year-olds through catering. He says a culinary career is often seen as a "last chance saloon" for those who have failed elsewhere, so chefs and managers see a lot of unmotivated – and therefore unemployable – candidates.
"People coming into the industry are misinformed. They think it's all about presentation. TV shows are encouraging people to come into the industry, which is great, but they come with the wrong expectations," he says.
David Gardiner, the Chefs Academy manager at Ashburton Cookery School agrees. He recalls his first job, aged 16, in a kitchen: "It was something I ended up doing because I didn't know what to do. I had just a couple of 'O' levels so people weren't exactly falling over themselves to offer me a job. I was offered an apprenticeship and I took it because I wanted to earn a bit of money and get my parents off my back." Luckily, he found he loved it and it stirred up the "passion" for food that so many employers demand in their staff.
According to the most recent employment data from the Office of National Statistics, there are 2.67 million unemployed people in the UK and the food sector has grown, with an increase of 7.3 per cent in accommodation and food services jobs since this time last year. It seems surprising, considering the high level of unemployment, that there aren't more people clamouring to take up positions in a relatively accessible job with a clear and rapid career path.
Rachel Jackson, a senior recruitment consultant with Mise en Place, a catering and hospitality recruitment agency, says cookery shows might have led to misconceptions. "Sometimes the candidate may have a sense of entitlement and they don't see they need to improve themselves. They need to show commitment and look to improve their skill set in order to be taken seriously."
The Fifteen Apprenticeship Programme is Jamie Oliver's training scheme for kids with few prospects, who are given the kind of hands-on experience that Jackson says employers require. They have a vigorous filtering process to find young people who, with a little pastoral care, will discover a love of cooking. Tromie Dodd, who runs the programme, says the kids are attracted by the Jamie Oliver brand, but don't necessarily expect to work hard. "They often come from just staying up late on their PlayStations to suddenly working a full six-day week and sometimes the reality isn't what they expected and they drop out." Those that finish the course, though, are snapped up by top restaurants like the Coq d'Argent and The Dorchester. "We never struggle to place them each year," says Dodd.
Jackson says it's not just a problem with the candidates, but that employers aren't offering enough to entice them. "The only way one of my girls can get by is by living with her parents – she's on £13,500 a year."
There is an up side to people entering the field with high expectations – if they are dedicated, they can rise to the top very fast. "It's not like other jobs where it goes at a certain speed. We recognise talent and passion above all else, so you can move your career along quickly," says Colley. Chefs such as 27-year-old Stevie Parle, who owns the Dock Kitchen near Ladbroke Grove, London, progressed very quickly after starting work in a professional kitchen aged 16. Luke Thomas also quickly moved up the ladder. He is the youngest head chef in the UK, aged just 18. He did several work placements in top restaurants around the world before landing the head chef role at Luke's Dining Room at Sanctum On The Green, in Berkshire, but his success comes at a price: "It's an amazing industry to go into, but it's really hard. You get to the point sometimes of exhaustion, but you can't stop because the minute you take your eye off the ball you can be overtaken and you have to be so dedicated to it," he said.
With top talent being cherry-picked, it leaves a void in the more monotonous jobs at the lower end of the kitchen hierarchy. Gardiner tries to impress this reality of restaurant work onto his students: "We tell the real-life experiences as we teach them, so if we're cooking one quail in the class, we say, 'Well, this might be quite interesting, but in a restaurant it's more labour intensive and bathing 50 quails isn't so much fun'." This level of monotony is one of the least appealing aspects of the job and it's something trainees often aren't prepared for. "People can get stuck in a kitchen podding peas for days on end and they wont see the different elements of cooking," explains Gardiner. The monotony, combined with the low wages and difficult hours, has led to a high turnover of junior staff.
For his part, Thomas relishes the hard work. "I am happy to clean the cellar or sweep the floor," he says. But he's had problems finding staff that feel the same. "I haven't been able to get a pastry chef for love nor money," he says. "It's an area that takes years to perfect and so they've become so rare."
As a result of this skills shortage, Thomas has been forced to limit the menu. "Perhaps that's why a lot of restaurants are stripping down the menus – they don't have enough staff."
Even if you've been dedicated, passionate and can take the difficult hours, there comes a time when most people leave restaurant work, says Gardiner.
"I have rarely worked with people over 40. That's when they are at the height of their powers, but many chefs get to the age they want a family and realise that the job isn't worth the sacrifice of not seeing their kids on Christmas Day."
Matching up to the excitement of cookery shows will continue to be a struggle for restaurants looking to attract top-notch staff, but there will also be "a few gems", says Perkins, like Thomas and Gardiner, who don't care how hard the job can be. The problem is, despite the TV hype, the gems are still very rare.
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