To foodies, they are the new rock gods. Chefs, with their tattoos and flashing knife blades, have TV commissioning editors keen to sign them, and queues outside their no-reservations restaurants, with buzz fed by Twitter plaudits. But all that isn't enough to lure enough chefs into the industry, according to some of Britain's top restaurateurs, who are struggling to fill gaps in their kitchens.
An unprecedented restaurant boom is piling the pressure on restaurant owners to solve a staffing squeeze that runs from front-of-house waiters and commis right up to general managers and experienced sous chefs.
The prospect of hard work, unsociable hours and low pay are all putting people off entering the profession, experts warn. And this is despite graduates facing one of the toughest job markets in years. A trend for more casual dining is exacerbating the problem because fewer people are being trained on the job.
Even London's top chefs, such as Bruno Loubet, are on the hunt for new talent. The acclaimed French gastronome is looking for a chef de partie to head one of the sections in his new and much-garlanded Grain Store restaurant at King's Cross. Tens of new jobs are added hourly to websites such as Gumtree. And industry insiders admit that anything goes when it comes to poaching staff, from scouting rivals for potential candidates to stalking targets via Facebook. At the closing day of a prestigious London restaurant, diners who were in the profession themselves were asking staff whether they were available (a kind of culinary ambulance-chasing, if you will).
Ben McCormack, who edits the online guide Square Meal, said the situation was so bad that new restaurants may find it hard to open. "If the industry can't, or isn't allowed to, attract enough high-quality staff [in the case of kitchens battling tough immigration laws], the boom will run out of steam," he warned.
Recent research from People 1st, a government-backed body that promotes training for the hospitality sector, found that there weren't enough students training to be chefs to fill the jobs. Worse still, funding cuts meant colleges were dropping full-time diplomas in professional cookery.
The problem is not confined to London, with top chefs in Bristol and Bath facing the same battle for staff. Chris Staines, who runs the Allium Brasserie at Bath's Abbey Hotel, said he had not received a single application for a chef de partie position. "People are struggling to find work, but I can guarantee that if they walked to their nearest restaurant they'd probably get a job on the spot," he said.
Neil Rankin, who is among those looking for staff to join his new venture, Smokehouse, in north London, said the industry needs a "shift in attitude", because working 16-hour days for as little as £4 an hour is unacceptable. "There are too many restaurants and too few people wanting to work there to continue undervaluing and underpaying staff. Restaurants have to start behaving like modern companies with career focus and incentives rather than treating staff as an expendable commodity," he said.
There are some signs of change, however. Alexis Gauthier, who runs Gauthier Soho, said he had taken advice from the French grandfather of fine dining, Albert Roux, and started offering his staff perks over and above their salary, including enrolling them in a private pension and providing private healthcare. "They get those if they stay more than one month. It's making a big difference," he said.
Elsewhere, Richard Gladwin, who opened the Shed in Notting Hill with his brother, Oliver, said he had reduced the number of hours he expected his chefs to work each week. "We've gone from an old-school eight-hour shift to seven, which means we have taken a hit and had to employ one more person."
He said it took him more than six months to find a sous chef, the second most important job in a kitchen. He claimed applicants lacked even essential skills such as chopping and filleting fish. "One chef's meat prep for fillet steak was picking something out of a packet. But we need people to butcher entire cows," he said.
The irony is that demand for do-it-yourself foodie classes, from butchery to smoking fish, has never been greater. New cookery schools are opening all the time. "We could sell butchery classes every Monday evening to every person who comes into the restaurant. But in reality, you can't start with butchery if you can't do the vegetables," Mr Gladwin said.
Not everyone was full of gloom. Adam Hyman, a restaurant consultant, predicted that the foodie renaissance would help to kick-start the industry. "Younger people are going into [the profession]. It's great fun," he said.Reuse content