'It literally is: I've been paid, I'm not coming back, I'll never see you again'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Excited to reopen the restaurant at Jesmond Dene house to the public on May17th, six weeks ago, chef Danny Parker notified his five returning chefs and nine new recruits that they were to start back at work on May 4th.

To his surprise, he said, two of his senior team - including one who has worked at the hotel for a decade, the other being his sous-chef - replied that they wouldn't be returning.

Sensing that they might have feared missing out on a month's pay, he said he would more happily have reached an agreement, let them serve their notice and used the time to find a replacement. 

"I don't work in an office," he said, "but in what other industry do people not work their notice?" 

Better to be kept in the loop than have an incomplete team to reopen with. 

"Obviously there's the clause in the contract that says they have to serve their notice - but they've been paid so what's going to happen if they don't work their notice? Nothing. We can't chase after them, they don't owe us anything." 

"It literally is, I've been paid, I'm not coming back, I'll never see you again."

It's not that the chef is begrudging of the decision to leave, he explained, but a failure to give notice when it is most difficult to find chefs. 

"Had I been on furlough and wanted to leave, I'd have probably done the same and worked my notice, because that's a lifeline to pay your bills and feed your family. No-one in their right mind would put that at risk and I completely agree with that." 

But, he said, "at the best of times it's hard to find two senior chefs, nevermind when every single restaurant up and down the country is searching for chefs."

"They were both very good chefs, I was looking forward to working with them again. I kept in touch with them during lockdown, so it was a bit of a kick in the teeth."

In his astonishment, the chef Tweeted about the incident, and was surprised by a flood of messages from other operators up and down the country with stories similar to his.

"I was quite annoyed at the time - and really shouldn't have done it to be honest - but everyone is replying up and down the country.

"One star restaurants, hotels, five red star hotels, one Michelin star restaurants in hotels, small fifty cover restaurants. The amount of people that replied 'it happened to me, it happened to me.' The number of DMs I've got from people saying 'I'm short four chefs, I'm supposed to open next week,' it's unreal."

Make or break

With employers still paying a fifth of payroll costs despite being closed, it's not like chefs have no reason to feel indebted - but put a position of choice, some have chosen the less honourable route. 

"It's certainly not cheap. I don't want to speak for other people, but if it was my business, I'd be really really hurt if I'd been paying their taxes and they knew they weren't coming back." 

"In my personal situation, it's just the honesty and the fact of not working your notice that I can't get my head around," he said, but "for the independents - it could put them out of business." 

It is worth asking whether the furlough scheme, which was rolled out in haste and arguably rescued big swathes of the industry, should have included a clause requiring that employees continue to work for their employer for a predetermined period. 

"So many people are having the same issue, so it can't be that all of these people are disrespectful," he said. 

"It can't be that two chefs in Newcastle and a hundred other chefs up and down the country are behaving in the exact same way on payday."

"There's got to be something about it." 

The skills void

The chef is sponsoring posts on a popular jobs website, and knows other reputable chefs who are spending even more, all to no avail.

"The power's in the chef's hands - they know that any one of my chefs can walk out of the door and get a job tomorrow. They'll probably get a job this afternoon."

"That's what's driving it - they don't have to have that loyalty because everyone's crying out for chefs, it's simply not enough anymore." 

The fact that there are many more vacant roles than there are applicants is even more of a problem than before, as is the fact that wages for chefs just joining the industry don't hold up against other entry-level positions, which arguably offer better work-life balance as well. 

"The amount of junior chefs who've left the industry and essentially get the same wage elsewhere and they're at home every night - the industry can't fight back against that," he said.

The debate goes on: until guests are willing to pay more for their food and honour their reservations, the industry will continue to operate with tight margins. And with tight margins, there is limited scope for higher wages and difficulties with retention only exacerbated by the pandemic. And then there's Brexit.

So while the issue of furloughed staff leaving without serving their notice is a pressing one, it is part of a wider conversation - and boils down to how much we value restaurants as a nation. 

It always comes down to the bottom line

The chef explained: "People don't want to pay more money for their dinner, and the only way that we can pay chefs more money is to charge the guest more money." 

While the VAT cuts have helped, businesses are going to have to pay those again soon, not to mention mounting debt, reopening costs and overheads.

"In the long term, the margins are too short to pay chefs more." 

"The guests have a lot to answer to if you ask me, because they're also the ones that no-show. That affects wastage, revenue and wages." 

"If every guest turned up - we could pay better wages."  

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall  – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 16 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 560,000 followers across Facebook, X, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 5th May 2021

'It literally is: I've been paid, I'm not coming back, I'll never see you again'