So what is to blame for the apparent chef shortage?

The Staff Canteen

It's the 'hot' topic uniting chefs of all levels; from the Michelin-starred like René Redzepi to those producing pub-grub there is an ever growing concern over the shortage of chefs and the impact it is having on the industry. Discussions between peers have been prominent on social media, along with desperate pleas for staff, all of which have opened up debate. The Staff Canteen takes a look at what has to change.

Rene RedzepiSo what is to blame for this apparent chef shortage? Is it the culture of the kitchen, money or are people simply just lazy?

As the 'foodie' culture has brought a boom to the restaurant trade in recent years, several big names in the industry have had their say on the lack of staff - most recently Noma's René Redzepi. He made a brave move openly admitting he himself is guilty of bullying in the kitchen and how 'confronting the unpleasant legacies of our past' is the only way to move forward.

Writing for the Lucky Peach, René said: “I've been a bully for a large part of my career. I've yelled and pushed people. I've been a terrible boss at times."

He went on to say: “Maybe the old way has worked so far. But in the long run, it burns people out. There's a reason people are struggling to find cooks right now. Our industry is populated by young people. As they get older, they fall out of the trade because they can only take the abuse when they're young and strong. How many of your cooks are thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four years old? Maybe the head chef and the sous chef—that's it. We're on course to really mess things up if we don't start getting better at what we do."

Food for thought and a point of view which is supported by Sat Bains, the two Michelin star chef recently announced his restaurant would become a four day week operation. It provoked a huge response among the industry, one he and his wife Amanda were not expecting.

“We are just a little restaurant in Nottingham trying something different," explained Sat. “Everything evolves even cooking and it's not the kids coming in who have to change it's us. If they don't want to work the hours and in the environment I did when I started, why should they? We need to offer something aspirational and achievable."

Wise words from a chef who has been in the industry for 28 years, he's experienced the harsh reality of the kitchen environment and it appears he, René and several others are ready to make a stand.

“Some chefs weren't happy with our decision," explained Sat. “They worried where it would leave them but it was myself and Amanda who took the risk. We don't have backers and we don't have to justify ourselves to anyone.Sat Bains

“If something is not working then whose fault is that? If I don't have good chefs coming to me then it's me and I need to take ownership of my own flaws.

“We've got to be realistic and address these issues. I love this industry and I want kids to look at it like I did."

An important part of Sat's initiative, which he has been developing for the past 15 years, is that his team feel like a family. Simple things such as all sitting down together for meals and removing the hierarchy opens up the opportunity for all the staff to make valid contributions to the restaurant, menu and dishes; as Sat says '12 heads are better than one.'

It's these simple steps which René is equally keen to discuss, continuing in his article he says: “The smallest changes have also worked for us. Playing music in the kitchen, for instance. And real staff meals where you sit down to eat together. We had to change our opening time from six to seven to allow for a one-hour dinner break, but it was worth it. For too long I've been eating out of a plastic container while standing next to my section, and I don't want my cooks getting accustomed to the same thing.

“How can we rectify the screaming and shouting and physical abuse we've visited on our young cooks? How do we unmake the cultures of machismo and misogyny in our kitchens? Can we be better?

“Perhaps, the real question is this: Do we want to be better?"

A poignant question indeed. It's easy to say there is a staffing problem but making changes to ease this and rectify it that is possibly where the industry is falling down. And those changes need to happen sooner rather than later as Daniel Clifford, the chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House in Cambridge, told The Independent on Sunday,' the industry needs to act immediately or face rapid decline'.

Daniel Clifford - Midsummer House Restaurant“The chef crisis is getting to the point where practically every restaurant in the UK is short of staff," he said. “Every decent chef I know is looking for staff; they have taken to Twitter to literally beg for chefs to get in touch. This includes top chefs like Tom Kerridge and Simon Rogan. It's affecting everyone."

Is this a sad state of affairs? Top chefs sending out desperate tweets in order to staff their kitchens or a reflection of the social media 'mad' society we now live in?

“Advertising for chefs on twitter just cuts out the middle man," said Sat. “You can avoid agents which are a big expense for us – I'd rather pay that 15/20 percent to the candidate."

Twitter and indeed all social media can be a bone of contention, one chef well known for his controversial tweets is Gary Usher owner of Sticky Walnut and Burnt Truffle. Amidst the discussions of staff shortages he tweeted his disappointment at young chefs who want to know the salary before anything else. But is that not a fair question?

“I know wage is important but I'm saying it doesn't have to be the priority," explained Gary. “Everybody knows that cooking is such a hard job and the only way you can do cooking in my opinion is if you love it.

“I never asked a single chef what the wage was, I went for the job and that was it. When I got the job, I'd find out the wage then work out what to do with it.

“I took a £10,000 pay cut to go to Chez Bruce but I knew it would be a better opportunity."

He added: “I always got a good salary in the end because I turned up to work and proved myself as a person, a chef and somebody who was going to work hard – the wage was always the last thing.

I don't want to sound like a horrible person because I'm not, I look after my chefs because they mean everything to me. I just think there needs to be a different approach from some of them coming into new jobs."gary usher

Posing the question 'should salary comes first?' to Sat, he replied: “People want to know what the salary is, you have to be realistic. Our industry is more of a working environment now and they can pick and choose where they want to go. Why shouldn't they go for the better paid job?"

Gary explained: “What annoys me is when people ask about that before they ask what the job is. I'll put a job ad out and I'll get a direct message on twitter saying 'what's the salary mate?' When I was in my twenties there's no way I would have sent a chef that tweet. It wasn't on my mind but that's not to say it wasn't on other chefs minds.

“For me sending a DM asking about salary, it's just not what I'm looking for in a person. I want them to say 'hey chef, any chance I can pop down and meet you' that's what I'm looking for.

“I'm a humble person and it's a humble restaurant, I just want the chance to sit down with the person, meet them and tell them the salary here is pretty f***ing good."

Gary makes a fair point, does the informality of twitter have a lot to answer for and are there too many opportunities floating around on social media? Gone are the days when as a chef looking for a job your only option was to flick through the latest industry magazine.

Gary said: “We've got Aaron (Mulliss) from The Hand and Flowers cooking at Sticky on Sunday night and I was talking to him about the 'staff shortage' and he made the point, something I hadn't thought about, that it's not as bad as everyone is saying. I'm guilty of it too but he said it's all the tweets making it sound worse.

“I'm not saying it's not an issue, I'm looking for chefs myself at the moment but every single restaurant is on twitter advertising jobs. In terms of there being a shortage I don't really know what the answer is to solving that."

In danger of splitting hairs on the how's and why's of the industry's staff shortage it's important to add that despite a difference in opinion of what young chefs should be expected to do and for how much, everyone is in agreement that there needs to be a shift. Be it in working hours, pay or relationships within the kitchen.

As Sat explained: “I want people on the ladder with passion and the desire to grow. We believe the industry has to change or we are not going to attract the guys we want.

“It's about progression, offering people a career and a big majority of it comes down to education."

By Cara Pilkington


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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th August 2015

So what is to blame for the apparent chef shortage?