Where have all the chefs gone?

Atalian Servest’s Chef Director Chris Ince, who has been in the catering sector since the early 90s, shares his thoughts on where chefs have gone and how we might retain staff.

Catering is facing fiercer competition for new recruits than ever before. Despite the new NVQ system in colleges, significant numbers of young people are choosing other trades and professions. The reasons for this are varied, but as a sector we can turn the corner.

High demand, low supply

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Food and cooking is everywhere you care to look. Food has had its own dedicated TV channels and prime time cooking competitions for more than a decade now. It is sold back to us as part of a desirable and glamorous lifestyle. Add to that the omni presence of certain chefs and food personalities on our screens, billboards and airwaves, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s ‘boom time’ in our industry, with everyone hard at work, producing brilliant food with only enough time left in an exhausting day to get another tattoo done in a split shift. 

Think again.

Customer expectations have never been higher, whether this is in the restaurant world or in contract catering. There’s no doubt about it, this general focus on good food is a really great thing. As a chef, there’s nothing better than an engaged customer.

However, this also comes at a time when the catering ‘subsidy’ in the contract world is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Customer budgets are limited and catering companies must be lean to survive. In order to meet this challenge, we need smaller pools of better trained and highly motivated people – and that’s where the fight begins. 

Competition is fierce for emerging talent. Despite what the adverts will have you believe, cooking for a living is tough and gratification is not instant. Yes, cooking is a passion but it needs to be worked at. Practise and repetition are the key. It takes time and patience to develop a craft and it’s unrealistic to expect this to happen quickly. Sometimes when reality hits, we lose budding chefs to other careers – ones that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago; and that, in the short term at least, appear more appealing in terms of pay and conditions.

Faced with the pressure of delivering a great service and looking to fill that CDP role that’s been vacant for six months, most operators will use agency labour at some point. This is a real lottery. 

In the best case, a professional will walk through the door and deliver some great work for the length of time you need them. However, I’ve also seen bus drivers, builders and nurses arrive, completely inexperienced but willing to chance their arm in the kitchen for a week as the hourly rate is a bit better than their current role. This clearly does nothing for service standard or morale.

But this is not all gloom and doom by any stretch of the imagination, more of a call to all of us to get our houses in order. In my business we are making huge progress in our efforts to attract the best people. Pay, conditions, work life balance, benefits – yes, they all play a part but just as important is career development, mentoring and training during time on the job itself. Not many people want to be doing the same thing five or ten years after they started, and so improving skills and keeping motivation high needs our fullest attention. Internal chef schools, workshops, masterclasses, internal competitions, nutritional training all keep the skills alive. Participation in wider industry events keeps us well connected with our peers and enables us to grow our network. This is all vital.

Working in conjunction with the catering colleges will help, too. Colleges want to place students in positions to gain experience just as much as employers want to have them, so it’s definitely a link that needs to be strengthened.

Above all, we need to be advocates for our industry. I can confidently say that despite the changing commercial climate, standards of food, innovation, hygiene and training are higher now than ever before. Yes, we are leaner but I am more passionate about food and service than I have ever been. I work with some outstanding professionals and although we all like a moan from time to time, it’s without doubt the best industry in the world and one I would recommend to anyone. Others may have a different view, but they’d be wrong!

It doesn’t come naturally, but we need to talk ourselves up a little bit and leave people we engage with in no doubt as to the world of opportunity out here for a good chef.

By Chris Ince

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