They'll cook but they won't wait

No one wants to serve anymore, writes Ros Wynne-Jones
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The Independent Online
Restaurants have enjoyed a boom in the 1990s. Fashionable chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Gary Rhodes are superstars. For ambitious young people, it's the business to be in, right?

Wrong. The opportunities are there - but young Britons do not want to pick them up. Or rather, they don't want to be seen picking up plates, glasses, knives and forks, which is traditionally the way in. Nobody, it seems, wants to play the waiting game.

Catering colleges are suffering a shortage of students willing to learn the basics - waiting at table, serving behind the bar or managing the business.

"In London particularly no male waiter ever seems to be British," complained Baroness Parkes in the House of Lords last week. "It's time we changed attitudes to work in this country."

Last week the Hospitality Training Foundation announced that within 18 months Britain faces a waiters' crisis. Also last week more than 250 representatives of the catering industry met to discuss the problem.

Deterred by long unsocial hours and poor pay, up to 30 per cent of those who do begincourses drop out. A recent survey by Oxford Brookes University found that four years after college, 50 per cent of catering graduates had left the industry.

"We are facing an acute skills shortage," said David Harbourne, chief executive of the Hospitality Training Foundation. "We have to find ways of hanging on to these people."

Baroness Parkes said: "We've got to get away from this stupid pre-war attitude that waiting tables is in some way demeaning. On the continent, you see waiters take a pride in their work: it's considered a profession. In this country, people hark back to the days of domestic service and it's seen as a stigma."

Melanie Reed, 18, a catering student from Didcot, Oxfordshire, is taking a course at the Oxford College of Further Education with the aim of becoming a chef. "I hate the waitress side of it," she said. "It's nerve-wracking. If anything goes wrong - like the food is cold - you get it in the neck, not the chef. Also some people think you're low class and below them."

At a recent convention at St Cross College, Oxford, where the students were providing silver service waiting, Melanie became so nervous that she tipped a glass of wine in someone's lap and then accidentally fired a cauliflower floret at a diner. The occasion, alas, was the Chefs' Guild annual dinner. "They were quite nice about it really," said Melanie, who has since improved and is happy to wait on tables for as long as it takes for her to get her break - as a chef.

What really deters people from working in catering, according to Mr Harbourne, is public perception.

He said: "Most parents would rather their son or daughter became a trainee bank clerk than a trainee bar worker, because it's seen as a nice middle-class, white-collar profession. But by the age of 23, if they had gone to the bank, they would be unlikely to be running their own branch and their job might be threatened by automation. If they had gone to work in a bar, they could easily be the manager, with free accommodation and very good pay."

David Oswald, principal lecturer at Oxford College of Further Education's catering department, agrees. "The industry can be its own worst enemy," he said. "It is full of young people doing Saturday jobs or working their way through college. It's not getting the professional recognition it deserves. A waiter is not a servant."