'If people see agencies as a support partner, we could be very useful to some parts of the industry as it reopens'

The Staff Canteen

What is going to happen to the temp chef market post Covid-19?

As the events season is coming and going with most of the population still in lockdown, a sizeable proportion of the temporary chef market will be sitting on the sidelines while restaurants begin to reopen.

But if, as per some estimates, 20 to 40 percent of the country's restaurants don't recover from the crisis, will there suddenly be an excess of chefs on the market? What position will this leave temp chefs in?

We sought to answer some of these questions by inviting the following guests to a live panel discussion: Founder and co-owner of temp chef agency Evolve, Ed Vokes, Clare Downes, director and co-owner, as well as their employee, chef Darren Hampton, Alex McKean, who works with Evolve but is technically self-employed, and Luke Smith, executive chef at contract catering company, BaxterStorey, one of Evolve's clients. 

Watch the full discussion here.

What happened to temp chefs when lockdown struck?

Evolve, which specialises in events, the 5 star hotel industry and contract catering, has, just like the rest of the industry, has been significantly affected by Covid.

While they furloughed every person they could, the only support they were able give to everyone else was active communication throughout. 

Darren Hampton has worked with Evolve for 15 years, and said he hadn't expected to be eligible for furlough. 

"It took a massive weight off my shoulders, realising that at least I've got money coming in.

But with the absence of "the whole of summer events, which is usually one after the other after the other," he said, "it's just killed the whole year for me."

Alex McKean, however, isn't on Evolve's payroll, he's self-employed, which means that he is entitled to the self-employed scheme - in the form of deferred payouts, the first one having been made in June, and the second due in September.

In the absence of hotel and events work, but with a DBS in his back pocket, Alex has offered his chef skills to hospitals and care homes, but even they have kept taking people on board to a bare minimum to reduce the spread.

"I've picked up one or two shifts here and there, but apart from that, there just isn't that much out there for me at the moment." 

Luke Smith, whose business usually takes on interim chefs, has also ground to a halt. 

"The clients that we're contracted into are all working from home - so the building is currently closed.

As the team returns, he explained, they would be working in cohorts, week on/week off so that if an outbreak occurs in one of the teams, it can be isolated. 

How will temp chefs get back to work? 

For Ed, the issue of how to ensure his 1,000 chefs can work again will be a matter of perception on the part of clients. 

"If they see them as a support partner, we could be very useful, certainly to some parts of the industry." 

"People can use use us, have the staff that they pay slightly further down the line - which can help massively with cashflow." 

"That gets our guys out working, gets them busy, gets them earning. I think that for me is the most important thing." 

But faced with the loss of between 20 to 40 percent of restaurants across the UK, should interim chefs be concerned that the market will be overcrowded?

With interim chefs, you know what you're getting

While there might suddenly be thousands of unemployed chefs seeking work, our panellists aren't too worried.

The industry is one great big network, and knowing where to find skillful, trustworthy chefs is part of it, Alex said.

 "There is going to be an influx, but clients know that they get a certain calibre of chefs that turn up." 

"When we go out, we're representing the business, not only ourselves, so there's already confidence there." 

An international exodus 

What's more, Darren remarked, many of the UK's chefs come from abroad, and the pandemic has led many to return to their home countries - meaning there is more likely to be a shortage than an excess of chefs. 

He said: "A lot of the internationals - people from Spain, Italy, France, most of them have gone - so are they going to come back straight away or are we going to be short of chefs?" 

"When we do Ascot, the client always asks for a certain group to do certain jobs - so touchwood, it should all be okay." 

Another hurdle in the way of a seamless return to normal could be excessive safety measures on clients part - as bringing an unknown on board could be seen as a risk.  

Everyone involved is already putting due dilligence in place

However, for Luke, procurement will have procedures in place to mitigate risk.  

"Within each contract, we'll have our own induction with them, just to see where they've been and if they've been in contact with anybody". 

Clare added that as a company, Evolve  already has a Covid-19 response plan in place, and has started talking to clients about their individual needs.

"We are going to be flexible - it's important that we mirror what our clients are doing. If they're testing once a month, we would mirror that." 

Will wages take a hit?

Assuming work doesn't pick up straight away and that the workforce isn't drastically reduced by the lack of foreign chefs, there could be an excess of chefs on the market, which could lead to salaries taking a hit.

Clare stressed that she hoped this wouldn't be the case. 

"At the end of the day, coronavirus or not, we're still in a really skilled industry. Chefs are highly skilled people, they're still doing the same job as they were before." 

"I would hope that wages would reflect that the guys do a great job and they should get paid in line with that." 

Not such dire straights

With a return of football, rugby, Cheltenham, and the races  - and potentially a good Christmas too - confidence could return and provide a much-needed boost to the temp market. 

"They might not have the grandeur and scale of previous years but I'd like to think - and our clients would like to think - that they will happen in one form or another," Ed said. 

For Luke, the hospitality has the resilience it needs, and is driven by enough passionate people to bounce back.

He said: "It's a chance for us to remaster how we work - how many opportunities do we get to mould the industry that we have? It's just evolving - it's going to have to evolve, the way we cook, the way we serve, the way food is packaged. Until there's a cure, it's a new world." 

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th June 2020

'If people see agencies as a support partner, we could be very useful to some parts of the industry as it reopens'