Jim Hall, Lumley Castle: The key to staff retention is to employ 'the grassroots'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Jim Hall, head chef at Lumley Castle Hotel in Durham, has shared a kitchen with his core team for almost a decade

"I'm quite fortunate in the sense," he said, though it seems that luck has little to do with it. Jim leads in the way that was taught to him by his brother when he was a young chef, striving to give his team plenty to stick around for.

Noting that in the last decade or so there has been a big shortage of chef de parties in the industry, the chef works closely with local colleges - most often with Durham - helping with training, doing demonstrations, and bringing students in to do work experience and apprenticeships, eventually giving them jobs if they want them.

"I get young people in from the beginning," he explained. "The grassroots I call them. I train them myself, put them through their NVQs, so that they can see constant growth, progression and scope to get better. I find that is the best way to retain staff."

"I don't really recruit at the top end of the kitchen, I always recruit commis chefs," he continued, always exposing them to the rank above their own, so that they are ready when the time comes for them to move up the pecking order.

"If you're a commis in my kitchen, you're working like a demi-chef. If you're a demi you're working like a CDP, so when we inevitably lose the guy at the top, when the sous-chef goes on to take on his first head chef role somewhere, everyone's already been exposed to that next level above."

"Straight away, the whole kitchen gets a promotion, they all get a pay rise and I go straight to college and bring in another commis from college."

Ultimately, he explained, it's crucial to make everyone in the kitchen feel fulfilled, and like they have a future in that space. 

"You've got to give back to the guys below you, otherwise your job is never going to get any easier. If you can't delegate or trust your team to take on a level of responsibility, you're never going to get any further yourself as a team."

The importance of creating bonds

Adamant that his new recruits are welcomed as part of the team, Jim puts a lot of effort into helping them find their place. 

"It's quite daunting when you walk into a room of 12 people you don't know, and you have to work with them for 12 hours a day," he said, and "not everyone likes football or boxing, so you need to find something in common with everybody so they know that they're not just at work, but that they're working with friends."

Jim's chefs have been known to follow him from previous roles, and, he told us, upon questioning as to why, they replied: "They said it's my honesty and my direct approach, my willingness to constantly teach them and show them things over and over again if they don't quite grasp them."

He believes that the atmosphere in the kitchen plays a role, as the generation entering the world of professional cooking now know not to put up with the ways of old.

"I have a very fair but firm temperament in the kitchen. We're not a shouty sweary kitchen. Those days are definitely long gone," he said.

Invest the time 

It is commonly assumed that retention is difficult because margins are tight and organisations are run on a shoestring, putting pressure on operators that is then passed down to their teams. 

But as Jim sees it, the cost to the business can be kept to a minimum as long as you invest the time, effort and thought you need into your teams. 

"I've been through kitchens where people just got chucked on a section and told to get on with it," he said. "There's been no spec sheet, no SOPs, no recipes, no cook-offs, so the guys don't know how you interpret something."

"Everytime we do a new menu, I do cook-offs with the guys - I'll cook it off once for them, then they'll cook it off for me, and then they'll cook it off for me and the GM."

"It costs me about £3,000 all in all, then I'm on the section everyday with the guys showing them, one of my chefs will cook-off one dish every day, talk me through it, how it's made, the ingredients, the provenance, the idea behind it." 

"It just keeps the guys constantly training and developing."

The restaurant > hotel problem

Jim sees an increasing number of chefs within the industry who have turned their backs on hotel work in favour of restaurants because they would rather solely cook fine-dining food, but as he sees it, they are missing a trick.

"They don't want to work in hotels because they don't want to do banqueting, they don't want to do bar food," he said.

"But if you can't make a good sandwich, I'm not going to put you in the restaurant, because if you can't do your basics at the lower end of the spectrum, I'm not going to trust you doing something more technical using ingredients that cost more money."

For this reason, his chefs rotate roles in the kitchen every three months.

"They can all do pastry, they can all do larder, they can all do sauce, they can all do banqueting," he explained.

"That gives us strength, because everyone is cross-trained in the kitchen. They might not like doing a particular area for a time, but it stands them well in the long run, because when you get to quite senior levels in the kitchen you need to know how to do every aspect of it."

"There are no individuals in the kitchen, it's all very much a team. If everybody mucks in we can all do the same job as each other."

And there you have it. The secret to a longlasting, prosperous team is simple on the surface, but requires that the person in charge dedicate themself to their team over their own glory.

"I take more pride in watching my chefs succeed than seeing myself succeed," Jim said. 

Speaking of his current sous-chef, he added: "There's nothing better than seeing a young commis chef come through, watching them go from kitchen porter, very shy, very quiet, to now my sous-chef, absolutely bossing it every single day. Watching that guy grow on his journey is the most satisfying part of my job."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 17th March 2022

Jim Hall, Lumley Castle: The key to staff retention is to employ 'the grassroots'