Paul Foster, Lee Westcott: ‘If you want to be amazing, you have to be obsessed, you have to go above and you have to do more than everyone else’

The  Staff Canteen

In the past five years, recruitment and retention in hospitality have changed dramatically

The days of boasting 90 hour weeks and wearing one's exhaustion as a badge of honour are (almost) revolute, rightly seen as glorifying the exploitation of a tenth of the UK's workforce. But amid all the talk of improving work-life balance in the hospitality industry, the pursuit of excellence is a difficult subject to breach. 

In the most recent episode of The Nightcap podcast, host Paul Foster, chef-owner of one Michelin-starred Salt, was joined by chef Lee Westcott.

Lee Westcott formerly worked as head chef at Pensons in Worcester, helping it achieve a Michelin star just seven months after opening before leaving at the end of 2020

COVid Changes

Covid has triggered a lot of changes for the hospitality industry - for better and for worse.

Lee said: "It has changed mindsets. It’s changed my mindset for sure. I think we’ve all reflected a lot during Covid," he said.

"We’ve had time to reflect on what we want out of our professional life, our personal life, how that balance works out during your working hours – because obviously, chefs work a lot of hours."

This break from work might have just been the cause for so many younger professionals leaving the industry, as it revealed to them the negatives of the working life of chefs. Because, as Paul said, "they experience all this time off and they’d seen their partners and their families' 9-5, getting even better by not doing the rat race in the day."

Neither blame anyone for leaving the industry, nor would they attempt to glorify the work ethic of when they started off - a time when having a 90 hour work week, Paul said, "was the only way to achieve, there wasn’t another option."

A Limit to the changes?

As they see it, the improvement in work-life balance that we are seeing after Covid is necessary - but how far the changes might go is another matter. Surely, they posited, there must be a limit to how few weekly hours chefs could work before restaurants wouldn't be able to survive. 

Lee said: "There’s got to be a point where it’s not sustainable. If it ever went to 37 hours, a lot of restaurants just wouldn’t survive, because the cash margins are tiny and your staff percentage is, say 30 percent. You’ve got to start employing more staff to do the same amount of [customers] because everyone is doing less hours."

"I want to reduce the hours, but how can really successful 1,2,3 star restaurants survive if everyone’s only doing 37 hours?"

For Paul, the country's greatest chefs don't emerge from working 37 hour weeks. He said: "if you want to be amazing – to stand out in any industry – you have to be obsessed, you have to go above and you have to do more than everyone else."

That doesn't mean you need to sacrifice your work-life balance, he added, but that you need to put as much effort as you can into it. Even if you are not working 90 hours in a kitchen, he said, you've "still got to put extra in, you’ve still got to learn." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th May 2022

Paul Foster, Lee Westcott: ‘If you want to be amazing, you have to be obsessed, you have to go above and you have to do more than everyone else’