Our television screens may be teeming with celebrity chefs, but Britain's restaurants are struggling to fill their kitchens.
While the likes of Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Gary Rhodes and Rick Stein demonstrate their greatest culinary hits nightly for the salivation of millions of viewers, there are a staggering 39,000 vacancies for chefs and cooks in Britain's 430,000 restaurants.
The recruitment crisis is so acute it prompted Anton Mosimann, himself no stranger to couch gourmands, to host a round-the-lunch-table summit at one of his London restaurants yesterday.
Over tuna carpaccio, wild mushroom risotto and breast of Norfolk duckling, Mark Allison, a lecturer from Neath College in Port Talbot, whose students last year won the coveted Toque d'Or award for their culinary expertise, blamed the proliferation of celebrity chefs for creating the impression that catering courses are a road to instant stardom.
"Today, the students want everything now, this minute, and if they don't achieve things immediately, they might change to something else, like computing, where they think they will gain instant success," he said.
Mr Mosimann cautioned youngsters to show patience, and said they would succeed if they stuck at it. "If they go into a fast-food chain for quick rewards instead of training, they are likely still to be there in five years," he said. "But if they train at some of the top restaurants, it will be more rewarding in the long run."
The phenomenon of the celebrity chef has, he concedes, broken down some barriers to a career in catering. "I had a bank manager in here whose son has decided to become a chef," said Mr Mosimann. "He was very proud. A few years ago that wouldn't have happened."
But Roger Narbett, who runs a "gastropub" at the Bell and Cross in Clent, Worcestershire, and is a chef to the England football team, believes the rapid growth of the hospitality industry is causing the acute staff shortages.
Figures show that the 430,000 restaurants in the UK employ only 26 per cent of those in the hospitality industry. "Restaurants in some big cities are opening at the rate of two or three a week," Mr Narbett added. Chefs also blamed the disappearance of home economics and domestic science lessons from the school curriculum for helping to cause the shortage and said catering was no longer being advised as a career option.
Neath College is pioneering a Saturday school for chefs in an attempt to encourage those aged 14 and 15. Up to nine schools in the area send four or five youngsters each. Mr Allison said: "It has 100 per cent attendance from pupils who may not attend all the time when they're at school."
He wanted the Government to put up more money for catering courses because hospitality was becoming one of Britain's biggest growth industries in the 21st century. "The trouble is that catering courses are expensive. If you're doing O and A-levels, you have to pay only for pens and the paper, and the books are there for the whole year, but there's nothing you can do with the food once it's been used in a lesson."
One college that competed in the Toque d'Or, a competition for colleges sponsored by Nestlé, which has been running for 14 years and can lead to a senior post in a London college for the winners, has closed its catering course because of financial pressure.
Gareth Edwards, operations manager of Springboard UK, a careers advisory organisation for the hospitality industry, said: "There can be good salaries. A top chef can earn up to £70,000 a year, plus perks."
Nico Ladenis: proprietor of Chez Nico, Park Lane, London
The 68-year-old grand maitre of Anglo-French cuisine criticised celebrity chefs whose reputation as firebrands has superseded that of their food for putting off new recruits.
"The situation is dire," he said. "The result is going to be a decline in standards, and the eventual losers will be the customers.
"But it would help a lot if some of the wilder chefs who have used that to set up their reputations started behaving in a more civilised manner."
Michel Roux: head chef at Le Gavroche, Mayfair, London
The son of Michel Roux senior, one of the famed Roux brothers, Michelin-starred Michel junior believes more needs to be done to encourage youngsters into the industry. "At the top, there is no shortage of chefs but, for example, with trained waiters, there is a shortfall, even in France. I would imagine it is to do with the hours and the conditions. We should be trying to change that, to make it more attractive to a younger generation."
Atul Kochhar: head chef at Tamarind, Westminster, London
The first Michelin-starred Indian chef in Britain, Atul helped to set up a culinary institute at Thames Valley University to train chefs. He also trains 20 a year in his restaurant. He said: "Finding trained staff for a specialist cuisine, such as Indian food, can be even more demanding. Restaurants are not a nine till five career. It takes commitment, and you are effectively a performer. To encourage people, you have to enthuse and inspire them."
Shane Osborn: head chef, Pied A Terre, Bloomsbury, London
Osborn is tipped as one of the next stars of British cuisine. The young Australian won his first Michelin star last year. "The top end of the industry will always be crowded but the middle has the problems," he said. "You don't have to sacrifice your life for a career in cuisine. In our restaurant we work a four-day week and that is the case in many places. People like Gordon Ramsay are good. He shows it as an exciting, very social industry."Reuse content