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The battle for the kitchen crew

By Daniel Woolfson

- Last updated on GMT

The battle for the kitchen crew

Related tags: Chefs, People, Chef

Filling their boots? Daniel Woolfson talks to some of the top figures in the pub industry to discover the lay of the land regarding chef recruitment.

The problem

Despite the encouraging growth currently being experienced by the eating-out sector, operators are finding it particularly difficult to get boots on the ground in the kitchen.

Research by VisitEngland recently unveiled some alarming figures — across the country, almost half of job vacancies for chefs proved difficult to fill due to a lack of skilled applicants. Furthermore, of all skill shortage vacancies for skilled trades, chefs accounted for more than a fifth.

To add to this, charity People 1st recently reported a sharp decline in the number of students taking on full-time chef training programmes, with 51% of colleges saying they had seen a fall in interest.

The fact that by 2022, the hospitality industry is expected to need a surplus of 11,000 chefs only adds to worries.

There is no industry-wide consensus as to why this is happening, although the issue is commonly attributed to kitchen work’s contentious public image, a lack of defined career prospects, low wages across the sector or the unglamorous working hours faced by many chefs in the line of duty.

But despite these problems there is hope — it’s not all doom and gloom. The eating-out sector is blossoming like never before thanks to the growth of contemporary British ‘foodie’ culture and the recovery of the economy.

And on the ground, countless food-led operators are doing their bit to combat the shortage, working tirelessly to recruit talented young cooks and get people enthusiastic about the kitchen again.

Shift in attitude

James Moyle-Rosser, executive chef of six-site gastropub group Whiting & Hammond, says many potential employees start out with the wrong attitude towards the profession.

“I look for chefs with the right attitude rather than the right skill set,” he says. “You can teach them the skills.

“The days of people being willing to work for little money, putting in tough hours and getting a hard time for doing it don’t seem very appealing any longer — that’s why [pubs and restaurants] have to evolve and realise those days are gone.”

He believes that to attract and keep chefs nowadays, you need to ensure they can enjoy a healthy balance between work and their everyday lives. “We make sure our chefs take their days off and that they enjoy their work. You can’t chuck pans at them any more,” he laughs. “Although it never did me any harm.”

Whiting & Hammond’s company policy currently dictates that every site has at least two apprentices.

“We wish more operators would do the same,” says Rosser.

“If we have an apprentice in our kitchen for one or two years then when they leave at least they’re going back into the industry.”

Creative appeal

He claims the best way to keep chefs motivated is to give them independence and encourage creativity. “I want our chefs to come up with their own ideas,” he says. “I like them to have power over the menus — I just oversee them.

“For instance, rather than dictate what to do I’ll take them to our development kitchen, give them a load of seasonal produce and brainstorm ideas — I want them to be inspired.

“As a chef, you need to have ownership over your menu. It’s why you get up every morning, why you come in early or why you stay late — because you want to be doing it and it’s exciting.”

However, while recruitment agencies can be a godsend when hiring, Rosser says that the shortage has led to some questionable practices.

“Not all agencies do this,” he says. “But some put chefs into positions and then call them back six months later with other offers and move them.

“I understand they’ve got to earn their keep and make commission, but it’s irritating because you pay your fee and get your chefs, and then you hear they’ve had a phone call from the recruitment agency and they’re moving somewhere else.”

Rosser adds, however, that “there are some really good agencies that don’t do this and wouldn’t dream of it.”

Public image limited

Keith Knowles, chairman of Perceptions Group — an industry body doing its best to improve the public image of working as a pub chef — says people’s perceptions of the job need a serious update.

“I think there is an image problem,” he says. “We can’t hide the fact that working in a kitchen is hard work — it’s physically demanding and the speed of service in many pubs is incredibly quick.

“People want high-quality food and they want it on their table within 15 minutes.

“Think about that as a pressure when you’ve got hundreds of covers going — logistically it’s very challenging.

“And let’s be fair again,” he adds, “the wages are pretty poor.

Understandably these things put people off.

“But getting the right product to your customer and getting the team trained to deliver, that is a fine art and it shouldn’t be underestimated how incredibly rewarding it is.
Putting on a perfect service is nothing short of elating.”

Perceptions Group recently launched #PubChefPassion, an industry campaign aimed at changing the sector’s public image, enlisting help from the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) to further the cause.

To coincide with the campaign, Perceptions Group launched a new website, www.pubandbarcareers.com, to help close the gap between operators and potential employees and provide a clear explanation of the potential career paths available.

Knowles believes potential chefs need to understand that, as with any other career, being a pub chef offers structured progression with massive potential pay-off.

“This is the attraction,” he says. “Look at people like Tom Kerridge, people who epitomise the fact that if you really graft and learn your trade and you come out the other end as a trained chef then you will be geared up to do very many things and be in possession of a lot of invaluable skills.

“People need to know that there is actually a very clear career path, which can take them from being a commis chef or a kitchen porter to being the owner of their own business, and that’s exactly what we should be telling them.”

Money, money, money

With the average pub chef earning between £6 and £7 per hour and the average head chef making roughly £24,700 per year (according to PayScale), recruits can be difficult to attract, especially when there are plenty of jobs on the market offering considerably less strenuous hours for similar salaries.

And despite George Osborne’s recent announcement that the Government will introduce a living wage of £7.20 per hour (for over-25s), commentators, including JD Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin,
have suggested that this could “affect pubs with far greater force than supermarkets” by increasing labour costs.

Martin told the Daily Telegraph​: “The recent Government announcement regarding the ‘living wage’ adds considerable uncertainty to future financial projections in the pub industry”.

Perceptions Group’s Knowles believes there is a case for raising wages across the board. But, he says: “There is also a case against the exorbitant charges placed on businesses by the Government.

“It’s a balance between what people are being told to pay and what can we afford to pay. Do we want to be the champions of low pay? No we don’t. And fundamentally [the Government] has a part to play in low-tier wages. But there are outrageous costs on businesses and the Government is becoming less accountable in my view.

“Ideally, I would like to see a greater engagement with training, recruitment and development of people — not just in the pub industry but in hospitality in general,” he says. “I’d like to see a fairer tax regime, with our taxes going back into businesses for bespoke and accredited training programmes.”

Living wage

Andrew Fishwick, owner of Top 50 Gastropubs Newcomer of the Year 2015, the Truscott Arms, Maida Vale, west London, pays all employees a minimum of £10 per hour, which he recently raised from £9.50.

Despite an initial period of strain, paying this amount has led to high morale among employees and a low staff turnover rate.

“Paying that amount may sound like a lovely, fluffy, liberal thing to do, but for me it’s a hard-nosed business decision,” says Fishwick. “Recruiting and training is a vast expense, costing roughly £6,000 to do so for every position in the organisation.

“As well as the manager’s time spent sifting through CVs and conducting interviews, there’s the potential loss to your business while training that person, because most people will not arrive up to speed. It can take up to six months to get a chef properly up to speed for us.

“We feel the £10 we pay is a good way of countering those costs,” he says. “For instance, 24% of our staff who are with us now were here on our opening night two years ago. We think that is pretty good.”

Fishwick believes that if it wasn’t for other costs, many more operators would be happy to pay similar amounts. “Unfortunately, salary to sale ratio is a big marker in our
industry,” he says. “It’s easy to fixate on it as a marker of how the business is doing.

“But while it is a key performance indicator it’s not the bigger picture. All businesses say their people are their biggest assets and, in hospitality, I think some need to start practising what they preach.”

He says: “For instance, we have two chefs who’ve recently had kids and they need to have money they can actually raise them on and a good work life balance so they can actually see their kids.”

Investing in people

For Fishwick, the best way to attract chefs is to be clear about what their career path could look like and what you will do as an employer to facilitate that. For the Truscott Arms’ staff, this includes building their knowledge and passion for the job with trips to see farms, suppliers and to other restaurants to experience the customers’ perspective.

“We need to be proud of the work that goes on in this industry and proud of the care that some of us take in our people,” he says. “It’s always been hard to find chefs so you have to shout about what you can provide them.”

Emphasise the benefits

“The onus is on us as to how we present being a chef,” says Joseph Evans, finance director at Oakman Inns & Restaurants, which owns 14 sites across Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.

But, he says: “There does seem to be a percentage of parents who are talking their kids out of joining the hospitality industry and telling them to go and be a lawyer or a
doctor instead.

“In reality, working in hospitality can be great fun and you can end up running a business with a million-pound turnover at a pretty young age in some cases. Being able to make great food is a fantastic skill.

“In Europe you’d have the perception that a great pizzaiolo would be making great money — and they do. They’re venerated and respected in that culture and, unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the same respect in this country for the sector yet.”

Evans says he believes the next step should be going into schools and getting young people excited about cooking early. “For people that don’t necessarily want to go to university, there needs to be government support to get them trained,” he says.

“We need to celebrate the successful people and shout about how good they are. We’re offering people memories and great experiences – why wouldn’t you want to be a part of this industry?”

Youth perspective

For Charles “Gordon” Stott, 23-year old head chef and landlord of Basingstoke gastropub the Sun Inn, what he thought would be a temporary job turned into a fruitful career.

Stott began working in pub kitchens after leaving an unsatisfying carpentry apprenticeship soon discovering he had a knack for cooking.

He went on to join the Sun Inn as sous chef in 2010 at age 20. Less than two years later he was made head chef and landlord and is currently one of the youngest professionals in the industry to hold that title.

“[The job] has a lot of bad publicity – there seem to be a lot of people in the industry too focused on getting bums on seats instead of the food. We care about what we do and where we get our produce – I think when you say you work in a pub they think of a chain serving microwaved food.”

“I’m quite lucky to have a local college so I end up hiring a lot of people from there who want to move on to bigger things,” he says. “Working in a professional kitchen is a big step for some people and it’s great to be able to give them that opportunity.”

Related topics: Chefs

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