The Chef Shortage: An open letter to all chefs by a chef de partie

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th January 2016
We've heard the opinion of some of the top UK chefs on the 'chef shortage' debate but what about those in the kitchen who are lower down the food chain and feel the effects of those long hours and low wages? ryan thorntonWe received this open letter from York chef, Ryan Thornton, currently working as a chef de partie for a small local Yorkshire brewery, cooking homemade British pub classics using locally sourced seasonal produce. He says 'I am posing these questions simply out of curiosity, a willingness to learn and adapt with the current trends, participating in making the world taste that little bit better, a desire to continue with the daily 12-hour dance, balancing flavours, spinning plates, and working relentlessly in one’s own culinary vision with grace under pressure'.  Read the full letter below and let us know what you think by commenting here or on our Facebook/Twitter: Dear Chef, I’m a 24 year old chef from a small town in Yorkshire. I have worked in the hospitality industry since I was 16, and made the move into kitchens at the age of 18 while studying at university. I have worked in pubs, gastro pubs, bistros, neo-bistros, steakhouses, hotels and restaurants, in the UK, France and Australia. During my travels, I have consistently come across head chefs complaining about the lack of chefs nowadays, and questioning the quality of chefs in the industry. I have shared this concern for many years. From in depth research it appears that most training options are not so affordable for the average person, especially not after having already pursued a non-vocational degree that most people will still be paying for twenty years from now, which is bound to result in either less people getting into the culinary arts, despite the career’s many obvious advantages in high wages, sociable working hours, ample holidays, and long term health benefits; or it will result in many people "corrupting” the industry with half-arsed attempts at cooking up home-style recipes in commercial kitchens, charging through the nose for the result that is no doubt overcooked, under seasoned, and fresh from a time portal to the 1980s in the back of the freezer, hideously reheated in individual little portioned plastic containers in the microwave.quote chef letter So what is left of the industry for those of us who do still want to cook to the best of our abilities regardless of training options? Well, this is where a culinary elitism emerges. Between the high-end independently owned restaurant and the chain restaurants that overpopulate our high streets up and down the UK, we are divided on price and quality. The quality of the high-end restaurant is unquestionably better, but I think it is often the case that despite the great many food programs on television these days showing us the possibilities, we are unprepared for the time and effort required to produce this kind of cuisine ourselves, and find ourselves visiting these chain restaurants, fully unaware of what actually goes on behind those closed kitchen doors. No doubt a lot of people are accustomed to food being a certain way, having cooked for a lot of Brits abroad I know that British people have often preferred to have their steak well done, all their meat some shade of grey, the vegetables cooked way beyond al dente; and immediately upon a plate arriving at the table will reach for the salt and pepper to mask the blandness of the food without even first tasting it. And of course, the price reflects the quality. If a restaurant makes their own stocks, sauces, pastries, not to mention buying in from local butchers and respecting seasonality and locally sourced ingredient availability year round, versus a chain restaurant that rolls out one menu for up to 50 restaurants across the country, offering the same meals cooked in exactly the same way to a very fixed specification, and reheated for the exact same amount of time before being piled high on a plate; how can we discuss the difference in price being unreasonable when the resulting meals are worlds apart? quote chef letter 2That’s not to say that people don’t necessarily know any better. How can we? Not with so many food programmes being constantly streamed on our televisions. We know more about food than any generation before us. We appreciate the advantages of organic vegetables, we know more than ever about the conditions that our meat comes from, how sustainably caught our fish is, and are fully aware of many extreme methods used worldwide to obtain eggs, among other things, not to mention foie gras, though that’s a different issue entirely. We are more knowledgeable about food now, but is that necessarily a good thing? Knowledge doesn’t make us better cooks, it certainly shouldn’t mean we know more than the chef in the restaurant kitchen, however it has put us in the position of knowing how to complain and now restaurants are not allowed to offend anyone, and must cater to all dietary requirements, however self-imposed, because we are not allowed to say no. People are scared of saying no to their customers. I am wholly in agreement that the customer is always right, because they are paying the bill at the end of the evening and without that we would all be out of a job, however it has gone too far the other way now. Besides which, the knowledge hasn’t made us better cooks. We all buy these cookbooks and look at them and scarcely ever cook using them. I’m certain this is because most recipes, however simple, require ingredients we have never used before, and probably never will again, leaving us stuck with an entire container of five spice, a bag of quinoa, three days remaining to drink our almond milk, and with vivid delusions of grandeur that leave us failing in an attempt to knock together a deconstructed Knickerbocker Glory complete with miniature panna cotta for a family meal, purely in order to use up the leftover and irritatingly costly gelatine.polish-chefs-england1 So why is training no longer an option? Well, those of us who get in early and start a career as a chef by going to college while still residing in our comfort zone, living at home, and taking an apprenticeship for half the week on half of national minimum wage, may just be the lucky few who are the exception. For those of us who arrive late to the game, we are unfortunately destined to either work our fingers to the bone to be able to afford to take on a course at Cordon Bleu or Tante Claire or the like, or learn purely by experience. And learning by experience sounds simple enough on paper, but it’s a seriously long game to play, and with so many establishments boasting fresh homemade food, we would be foolish to think otherwise. However, I am here to tell you that unfortunately the places that do make their food entirely from scratch, with fresh ingredients and locally sourced products, tailored to meet the requirements of a menu lovingly designed by a chef at the helm in the kitchen, leading a team to death or glory, day in day out; those places are few and far between. So how can a chef gain the right experience if he wishes to reach the top? Elitism shows its hand again here, as many chefs may have years and years of experience in kitchens cooking, but when faced with an AA Rosette kitchen or even a Michelin-starred kitchen, their feet won’t touch the ground. There is a huge rift between the leagues here, on both sides of the pass. I have heard tales of chefs knocking relentlessly on kitchen back doors insisting they be allowed to enter a kitchen of prestige and tradition, in order to learn and progress. I’ve also heard of chefs who scratch a living in London or Paris, working three jobs to be able to afford a few squalid square metres of mattress in a dingy little flat just to further their passion. But if we, in this country, intend to turn around the state of our kitchens, insisting on a living wage, and more reasonable working hours as many kitchens seem to be boasting recently, then it needs to begin at base level. quote chef letter 3We must not complain about the availability or quality of chefs in the current industry if we are not willing to give them opportunities and train them. I appreciate that a lot of food television has given many young apprentice chefs a false sense of security in the kitchen. I have worked with many young pastry apprentices who assumed it would be less Hell’s Kitchen and more Great British Bake Off and so would fold as rapidly and quickly as one of their half-arsed soufflés they once saw Jamie Oliver do on the TV. People romanticise our job now, we used to just be chefs, then we passed through the age of rockstar status, and even saw the rise (and fall) of many celebrity chefs, and now it’s heavily romanticised to the point that those who can cook at home think they can cook in a kitchen and are shocked to find it’s not the same thing. I’ve had people ask me when I’m going to get myself a “real career”, as though it’s just prancing around dusting plates with icing sugar, snorting cocaine and bedding naive waitresses. This is not our industry. It is changing. Bistronomy seems to be the current scene, and despite its distinct lack of emphasis on classic sauces, pastry technique and even chef whites, we must move with the times, even though I fear that this generation of chefs studying under the new regime in these kitchens may receive the shock of a lifetime if centuries of tradition were to come back into fashion, and suddenly no-one remembers how to make a simple roux, puff pastry, or even knows the name Escoffier at all. It may sound extreme, but I’ve already worked under chefs that are exactly all of these horrors. Chefs are artists and hipsters now, standing at the pass in their open kitchens with their tattooed arms uncovered by their pastel coloured t-shirts, the only thing highlighting their position being the denim apron hanging round their neck just below a beard and man-bun. But for how long will this trend hold out? We may have found ourselves riffing so inventively and unrelentingly into a trance-like gastronomic bebop style, that to trace back to our original roots would take nothing short of a revolution on both sides of the pass. So the question on my lips is this: Can a self-taught chef survive if the tide changes and all theyquote chef letter 4 know is how to microwave a portion of fish pie before seemingly artistically piping mashed potato on to the top? Or if all he knows is candied bacon bark, low’n’slow pulled pork, or if he knows no better than a basic pesto, avocado hummus, and “eggs any way” on gluten free toast (because the customer knows best)? I am posing these questions simply out of curiosity, a willingness to learn and adapt with the current trends, participating in making the world taste that little bit better, a desire to continue with the daily 12-hour dance, balancing flavours, spinning plates, and working relentlessly in one’s own culinary vision with grace under pressure. Any advice on the subject would be greatly appreciated. Yours, Chef de Partie  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th January 2016

The Chef Shortage: An open letter to all chefs by a chef de partie