Chef Shortage: A Private Chef's Perspective

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th February 2016
The chef shortage has been a growing concern in the culinary industry, with restaurants amending opening hours and shortening days in an attempt to tackle the problem locally. But what do the private chefs have to say about it? And is it part of the reason for the shortage? We spoke to MasterChef the professionals finalists and private chefs, Josephine O’Hare and Mark Heirs, chef Sean Wilkinson and more, to discuss where they felt the issue lied. josephine o'hareYou may recognise Josephine O’Hare, a private chef in London, from last year's Masterchef: The Professionals. She made the switch from working in restaurants to working as a private chef while at University. She said: “It was easier for me to work privately on a freelance basis around my university schedule. Committing to regular shift work in a restaurant was trickier. “The hours that a chef has to work in a restaurant are incredibly demanding and I imagine that this is a factor (in the chef shortage). I know a kitchen environment can be rather brutal.” Mark Heirs, also featured as a quarter finalist of the first series of BBC’s Masterchef The Professionals in 2008. He cut his culinary teeth in the kitchens of One Devonshire Garden, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck before becoming head chef at his family-owned Callendar Arms, Falkirk until 2013. He now travels the world as a private chef. He said: “In my experience the hours and conditions in our industry aren't very attractive. I've seen lots of chefs leave this industry over the last few years for better money and working conditions in other careers away from cheffing.

>>> Read more about the Chef Shortage here

“I don't think we will ever completely solve this problem but with top tier restaurants like Le Gavroche, Sat Bains and Hibiscus changing their working week to give staff a better work life balance, I hope the rest of our industry will follow suit.” Freelance chef Sean Wilkinson has a proven track record of working in top level hotels and restaurants both in the UK and overseas including both traditional and fine dining. He had a different view of what he thinks is playing a large part.sean “I personally think it's probably to do with their education and the curriculum that they're running currently," he explained. "The catering industry gets kind of glorified somewhat so every 16 year-old wants to come out of school and have 3-Michelin stars by time they're 20. But as soon as they realise how much work is involved in that, I think they drop out really quickly.” He added: “I think there needs to be a better education about chefs and a better campaign of some sort to bring younger people into the sector. Catering has always been seen as a last option resort really from schools. But I think the youths see it as a last resort if you’re not too clever or you don't really know where you want to go in life, they decide 'I know I'll be a chef' without realising the commitment it takes.” So is there a sense of naivety regarding the nature of the job to begin with? Are budding chefs aware of the commitment and hard work required to become a successful chef? In recent discussions, the working conditions have been repeatedly highlighted as a key factor for the shortage, and for the private chefs it was no different. Many of the chefs pointed out the unsociable hours being one of the reasons they themselves left the industry to pursue private chef work. Josephine said: “Working privately suits me as I love the irregularity and freedom of freelance work. Others might prefer the stability of a steady job, salary, work environment etc. One isn’t necessarily ‘better’ than the other. It’s as different as chalk and cheese! The biggest difference, in my opinion, is working solo verses working within a brigade. Private work can be lonely! But then you have full creative control and independence. “ private chef quote 2Sean explained it was his family that led him to make the shift. He said: “I was doing 80/90 hours a week and I would have missed the important parts of life for them growing up. But now it allows me to be flexible.” Private work being an 'enjoyable, creative environment' seemed to be the general consensus among the three chefs. Sean continued: “I absolutely love it. I get to meet different people every day. I get to see all different homes, all types of different scenarios. It really keeps you on your toes, whereas in industry, you know you’re going to do 50 booking, it's going to be that menu for three months, and then it's seasonal so it will change to something else. Whereas, I essentially have a different menu that I’m working on, every single day. I was working Christmas day for some footballers. I worked for the head of Twitter on New Year’s Eve. You just get to see some amazing things and I'm not going to look back.” And the situation was similar for Mark who said: “I was working an average of 90 hours a week, occasionally up to 110 hours. I had no life other than working, and working this amount of hours doesn’t just affect your social life but your health too. I had always fancied making the change so when the family restaurant was sold, I decided to try something different. “The private chef sector is a world away from mainstream hospitality industry, private chefs are very fortunate in that we can pick and choose where and when we work, it doesn't mean we don't work as hard as say a chef in a restaurant it just means we can manage our time better and for the first time in my career I have quite a good work life balance. “ Long hours and poor conditions seem to remain at the forefront of the issue, and it was no different for Roger Watson. He currently holds the position of private chef to an Ultra High Net Worth individual in London. mark heirs He said: “When I left London I was doing 40 hours a week, cooking for a family of 3 Monday to Friday. Before that I worked 9 years on bad money doing 90 hours a week and being verbally abused. Why would I have stayed in the restaurant business? For what?” And it’s this that poses the question of whether the private sector is part of the reason for the shortage. Are people seeking out the private route as a better alternative to industry? Mark said: “I think more and more chefs are leaving behind restaurants and venturing out on their own. The money can be very good providing you get the right jobs and with companies like La Belle Assiette, the private chef sector has never been easier to break into.” So it might be that the transition to the private sector to seek ‘a better working life’ might well be a key factor to the industry chef shortage and the numbers making the change could continue to grow. Sean highlights that neither industry nor the private sector is necessarily better than other, it just depends on which a person is better suited to. He said: “It’s not as stable as having a more settled job. I think people really need to be in the industry a long time before they can do this kind of work.” By Renee Bailey

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th February 2016

Chef Shortage: A Private Chef's Perspective