Young chefs just can't stand the heat

Long hours, low pay and bullying bosses are driving the next generation of Jamie Olivers out of the kitchen

It is all turning a bit sour. Jamie Oliver - like the host of celebrity television chefs who preceded him - may have inspired a generation of aspiring young cooks but the reality of sweatshop working conditions in the kitchen has finally dawned on them.

A new study shows young cooks are quitting the profession at an alarming rate: authoritarian regimes, 12-hour working days, compulsory weekend work and paltry pay have all led to an exodus of chefs. According to the report, there are now more than 15,000 vacancies for chefs, equivalent to 6.5 per cent of the total workforce.

The study by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University says that the image portrayed by celebrity chefs - such as super-trendy Oliver - was considerably at odds with the real kitchen world.

"Personality, entertainment and location became increasingly important as the environment of food became popular. On television, the image of pleasure and excitement was depicted, without the hard work of the kitchen.

"All of this has encouraged young people to enter what they perceive to be a glamorous industry in which they will become famous," states the report, which appears this week in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.

Dr John Pratten, its author, says: "A lot of youngsters see themselves as the next celebrity chef. The reality is that most of them will leave the trade before they are 20.

"They want to be a great head chef or even to run their own establishment, but this research shows that very few will remain long enough to fulfil this ambition."

Antony Worrall Thompson, the restaurateur and TV chef whose brand value was estimated at £48m in a recent survey, called his profession "backward" for its long, unsociable hours, poor pay and the often hostile treatment of junior staff.

"It is a tricky business," he said. "To be a chef you have got to have the spirit and passion of a nurse and the physical attributes of a miner.

"We are backward. We haven't even come into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, with the long hours and poor wages. Everything they say is right, but there is not much you can do about it if the public want cheap prices for food."

Worrall Thompson adds: "Then of course we have the prima donnas making headlines with their aggression, which puts off a lot of people who think we are all tarred with the same brush. They think all kitchens are aggressive, which they are not nowadays.

"There are kitchens which are very authoritarian and over-the-top in discipline, but people are not tolerating it any more. My kitchen porter is one of my most important members of staff. I look after staff and I expect them to look after each other."

The new study reckons as many as half of catering students now never work professionally in a restaurant kitchen - once they have completed their courses and discover what the work is really like.

The research included a detailed survey of 10 restaurants in The Good Food Guide. In one of the restaurants, the 23-year-old head chef was the oldest employee, and most kitchen staff were under 30, with only one over 40.

"That surprised us, and leads to the obvious question about the disappearance of older staff. Where and why do they go?" says Dr Pratten, principal lecturer at the university, whose research shows that young people are leaving for a variety of reasons associated with working conditions.

"Kitchens are notorious for discipline, and there is a tradition of culinary authoritarianism. One of the horrors of young people going into a kitchen for the first time is to find a domineering chef. The chef will say he has got to be domineering because everything has to be perfect," he said.

"Chefs behave like that because that was the way they were brought up. It has largely disappeared in the other trades. Kitchens and the army are about the only places left where you find that kind of discipline."

Another problem is working conditions. Some kitchens are very cramped with little or no access to fresh air. Working hours in restaurants and hotels are also anti-social, with split shifts and late finishes. The study says that the reality of working - typically, from 6am to 10am for breakfast, or 11am to 3pm for lunch and then returning for a 6pm to midnight evening service - is hard. And then there are the wages.

The long working day and inadequate rewards were the reason why David O'Leary, aged 24, from Cheshire, quit his job as a chef at a hotel: "I stopped being a chef because of the hours. You don't get paid overtime and I was working from six in the morning to 12, then back on at three to work through to 10. They are very long hours for poor wages, he says.

"Now I work nine to five in a bakery for more money. People should not have to work the hours they do to be a chef. There are a lot of people unhappy about wages and conditions in the kitchens."

As the report says: "The evidence suggests that many enthusiastic young people are leaving the industry, and the industry as a whole must address these issues.

"More and more young people are attracted to the industry, but it seems that after a few years, most have deserted the kitchens. We have to stop this exodus."

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