The supply of cooks is drying up just as the demand for them has reached a post-war high. Foody Britain is booming with customers displaying an ever-increasing appetite for the rich variety of cuisine on offer from the Pacific Rim to Peru.
Restaurateurs and recruitment agencies have launched a range of new initiatives to counter the problem, including a pilot scheme to retrain unemployed inner-city teenagers, starting new apprentice schemes and cooking schools, and recruitment drives on the Continent, Australia and in the United States.
The opening of large-scale "eating emporiums" like Sir Terence Conran's Mezzo, Bluebird and Quaglino's, and ventures by others, such as the People's Palace and the Oxo Tower in London, has also had the effect of sucking staff dry from the already shallow pool. The Bluebird, for instance, needs 120 chefs, while the Mezzo has a complement of 100.
Recruitment agency Portfolio International, of south-west London, is working in conjunction with the Lennox Lewis College in Hackney, east London, which is funded by the WBC world heavyweight boxing champion, for the "Opportunities on a Plate" project to train and place local young men and women in the kitchens of establishments in London's West End.
It is being backed by leading chefs and restaurant groups including Stephen Bull, the Pelican Group, Smollensky's, Catering and Allied and One Whitehall Place.
Gordon Ramsay, the two Michelin star-winning chef at Aubergine, is considering opening up his own catering school. He also believes the apprentice system should be widely expanded because many of the existing college courses do not adequately prepare students to meet the arduous task of surviving and succeeding in commercial kitchens.
A student coming in straight from catering school, he said, can get as little as pounds 130 a week. He added: "We have a situation where the pay is low, it is going to take up to 10 years before they qualify as experienced chefs and thus it is essential they get a thorough training at the beginning. My partner and I at Aubergine are seriously considering opening up a school."
Jeffrey Dymond will start his two years' apprenticeship, after having been unemployed for four years, during which time he was only offered jobs washing-up. "I was told the news two days ago. It's a start for me. They have given me a great help to get were I wanted to be, as a chef," he said.
For his part, Mr Ramsay began working as a teenager at Wroxton House Hotel, outside Stratford-upon-Avon, earning pounds 50 a week. He later went on to work for Guy Savoy in Paris, where his wage of pounds 90 a week was pounds 10 less than his room rent, the deficit being made up by a bank loan. A stint with three Michelin star-winner Guy Robechon followed before his return to fame in London.
Fellow two Michelin star-holder Michel Roux, of La Gavroche, was 16 when he started his four-year apprenticeship in Paris in 1976, working for Alain Chapel. His pay was then pounds 20 a month. He said: "I do pay my junior staff more than pounds 130 a month. However, if something like the minimum wage comes in, then a lot of establishments will face major difficulties. This is undoubtedly very hard work. You put in incredibly long hours, and you go home very late at night smelling of food. But it is a screening process, and ones who are dedicated get to the top."
Stephen Bull, owner of three acclaimed London restaurants, added: "In a way, the restaurant trade has become a victim of its own success. Business is booming, and as a result demand for chefs is rising. When you get the huge Conran complexes coming in, it obviously adds to the problem. Allied with that there is a sizeable drop-out rate from catering schools. A lot of students seem to be getting on them without really thinking out the long-term."
Sir Terence Conran is the patron of the Butler's Wharf Apprentice School adjacent to his complex of restaurants. The school's other backers include the Cafe Rouge and Chez Gerard.
More than 650 students are due to pass out this year, and some of them will get employment in Sir Terence's restaurants. But the group still needs to search abroad to find chefs.
Conran restaurants' PR manager, Victoria Parnis said: "The fact is that chefs are held in far higher regard in places like Australia and the US than they are over here.
"Over there it is treated as a serious profession, and we need to instil that concept in this country. Until that is achieved, we are going to have problems."
MARCO PIERRE WHITE
Recently floated his company on Stock Exchange at pounds 30m. Restaurants include Criterion and Mirabelle; pounds 350,000 a year
ANTHONY WORRALL THOMPSON
Associated with Menage a Trois, 190 Queensgate, Dell'ugo and about to open Woz in west London; pounds 250,000-300,000 a year
BBC TV chef - last series was on food of southern Africa; pounds 6,000 per demonstration. Rival Loyd Grossman charges pounds 3,500Reuse content