Ishwariya Rajamohan

Ishwariya Rajamohan

Other 15th May 2018



Every conversation about the staff shortages in our industry invariably leads to the hot button topic about young people and how they’re failing us: either by not conforming to our expectations or by avoiding kitchen careers altogether. And it’s not just in Hospitality. Corporations big and small are searching for ways to retain and engage younger employees.

It could be that our judgements are clouded by the stereotypes we’re being fed: millennials are lazy, entitled, chasing higher salaries and instant celebrity before their passion, they’re not willing to put in the hours or stay put long enough to learn the craft. But are we listening to the voices of junior chefs to hear why they think their peers quit or resist working in Hospitality?

Listening without prejudice

Bella Laity, a Cape Town brasserie chef believes that we’re not doing enough to encourage ‘green’ chefs. She feels fortunate to have honed her skills in the company of a supportive team and Head Chef, but not everyone is as tolerant of those that are still learning. That extends into the online world too - young chefs building their skills sometimes face being put down on social media. This has led her to collaborate with other chefs around the world to create A Kitchen Story - a private Facebook group that’s a safe space for them to share their work.

She goes on to mention how the low pay is a greater concern for them today than it probably was for her seniors. It’s simply that living costs are higher. This was also echoed by Giang Luu, a cook in Washington. That financial reality is forcing many of his peers to scale down their learning goals, work in better-paying, less creative kitchens and develop their talents at home using online tutorials.

It took a long journey before he found the kitchen that currently supports both his ambition to learn as well as his survival needs. Along the way he found that skills are still closely guarded by some chefs and the teaching on the job can often be impersonal. He also struggled to find the right mentor: someone who could model being both talented and respectful of other people.

Both Bella and Giang agree with what we also believe: that the media and culinary schools need to portray the ‘cheflife’ more realistically to avoid young people approaching the industry with false expectations.

What’s the deeper truth here?

Being young doesn’t mean that they don’t have any wisdom to offer us. If our young employees seem less hardworking than we were, they’re holding a mirror to what we really know about our poor work-life balance but choose to ignore. If they’re walking away from bad treatment in kitchens, good for them: they grew up better connected, and at least they’re taking a stand for collective responsibility.

If young chefs are impatient to learn, it’s because they grew up in the age of the internet, with easy access to information. That could simply be a cue for us to review the way we share knowledge in our industry. We can still inspire them to take the time to polish the craft, but that means being patient and giving them the space to do just that.

What if we weave the stories they want to hear from us into our instruction - why we’re cooking the sugar to a particular temperature, what we foraged on our last hiking trip, what career paths brought us here, how we build relationships with our produce suppliers, how we handle cooking for difficult customers - would they stay on to learn from us at all costs instead of watching videos?

This is not a time to polarise chefs based on experience, but for all of us to join forces in the kitchen, united by our passion for cooking. And many of us are doing just that - investing time and energy into supporting the younger generation of chefs. The guru-apprentice model that we’ve been leaning on has endured for centuries. But it might need a refresh to suit 21st century living. Above all, we need to ensure that it truly honours everyone in the kitchen.