Join the pub brigade

Mass Mobilisation: meet the managed pub groups taking on the chef shortage

By Daniel Woolfson

- Last updated on GMT

Get involved with the debate on twitter using #jointhepubbrigade
Get involved with the debate on twitter using #jointhepubbrigade

Related tags: Chefs, Chef

Finding and retaining chefs for an independent or leased pub can be hard enough, but imagine trying to find and recruit enough chefs to maintain and drive kitchens at — in some cases — hundreds of sites. Daniel Woolfson reports.

The challenges faced by large managed groups due to the chef shortage vary considerably from those faced by individual operators and smaller groups — largely due to the scope of their operations.

And there is arguably a certain stigma surrounding working for a managed pub group that has yet to be dispelled.

However, the people in charge of these operations are refusing to surrender and are implementing progressive and innovative measures to fill chef vacancies, nurturing talent and creating structured careers for kitchen employees to keep them engaged and ready for battle.

Local is king

For Nick Smith, resourcing and talent officer for new builds and refurbished sites at Marston’s, which operates more than 500 managed sites across the UK, the most important thing when looking for chefs for a new managed house is to discover what talent is available in the local community.

“We have between 23 and 30 new pubs we build a year,” he says. “When we want to recruit chefs we go out into the local area and visit local colleges to find out what the students and alumni are currently doing, to get in touch with potential candidates.

“For every new site we build, we visit a local senior school — it’s all about getting the name of Marston’s and the local pub and the brand out to the students to actually show that hospitality is a career of choice, not something you get threatened with if you don’t do well in school.”

But, he says, “Unfortunately that still goes on and we’re really trying to change that attitude.

“We have a really good pay structure for our chefs,” he adds. “It is competitive and we also offer a really strong head chef bonus, which allows them to earn a whole lot more money by focusing on tangible things like customer service.

“Our chefs can absolutely influence our sales growth so we focus on them to drive the business forward and enable themselves to be rewarded.”

Structured but rewarding

“[Chefs] need to be aware that [working in a Marston’s kitchen] is very structured but also very rewarding,” says Smith, “We have an amazing array of pubs over different brands and many of our chefs actually cross over, going from one to the other to gain different strings for their bow.”

Marston’s employs kitchen trainers, usually people who’ve already worked as head chefs within their pubs, to work on the development of chefs. The company also implements a three-level chef development programme, equivalent to professional cooking qualifications for its chefs.

“While chefs can go to catering college, they wouldn’t necessarily get the skills to be able to deal with the high volume that we get through our pubs,” says Jane Breddy, new build and capital expenditure training manager at Marston’s.

“People can learn on paper how to be a chef but actually when you hit the reality of coming to a big company that does the volume of food we do, it can certainly be quite a baptism of fire for many inexperienced chefs — it’s one of our biggest challenges.”


For some managed pub companies, the stigma that surrounds the style of food being offered can be a barrier when it comes to recruiting chefs, given current consumer demand for fresh, seasonal food and artisanal-style dining.

“I absolutely recognise that there is a stigma,” says Breddy. “But I think that is unfair.

“Is everything cooked fresh, in-house all of the time? No it’s not — so those people who’ve been through classical training in colleges will probably hit a pubco and think it’s a completely different world.

“But it’s not all of this ‘throw it in the microwave’ food that it may have been 10 or 15 years ago. There is an awful lot of fresh product across our venues — a lot of chefs are surprised at how much fresh food we do in-house.”

For Breddy, the skill sets possessed by her chefs is equally as important as classical skills. “There is a lot more ‘people management’ involved, working with the brigades in our kitchens — particularly in our new-build pubs those brigades are massive, with up to 12 chefs on shift at one time.

“Then there’s process-driven kitchen management — the stock, the rotas, this all comes with being a really busy food pub. It’s just as big a skill to be able to deal with that volume and be more of a manager and a motivator and a trainer, and that, for me, is just as important."

And, she says, those skills are highly transferable.

Big aspirations

Fuller’s currently operates 189 food-led managed pubs — a considerable undertaking. Pubs across the company’s portfolio combine a contemporary, craft-beer pub-style aesthetic, with menus dedicated to classic gastropub British cooking using fresh and seasonal ingredients under the watchful eye of Paul Dickinson, head of food for managed inns.

But it didn’t come easy. Fuller’s has had to adapt and innovate to get where it is now.

“I want Fuller’s to become as well known for food as it is for beer,” says Dickinson. “This year I’ve brought in a chef recruitment manager to really focus on creating Fuller’s as a come-to place for chefs.”

Despite the size of the managed portfolio at Fuller’s, Dickinson says he makes sure all his chefs are personally developed and encouraged to be creative.

“We like to take our chefs to see where the product comes from,” he says. “Like our salmon, black pudding and sausages for instance. So when [the chefs] are cooking it, they understand where it comes from, how to execute the dish perfectly and realise that it’s not just something off the shelf.

“That inspires chefs. It’s all good and well when you’re given a manual and told to go and cook something, but for people who want to develop, you have to manage that passion and desire to be creative.”

Boot camp

Since joining the group, Dickinson has been responsible for the creation of a three-level chef scholarship programme. The first two qualifications (levels one and two) encompassing “what you’d learn and achieve at college - level one is about understanding products, processes and basic skills, and level two focuses on compound cooking and pulling elements together.”

The third stage, which generally comes about two years after finishing level two for chefs in the programme, is about “the journey towards being a head chef,” Dickinson says.

“It’s about compliance, behaviour and managing lots of people. Then [if you were in the programme], you’d go on to do stages in four to eight pubs, based around your current skill set and what you can learn from visiting sites such as the Parcel Yard in King’s Cross, London, or the Wykeham Arms (Fuller’s’ double AA rosette-winning Winchester pub).

“It’s about meeting different individuals so you can learn their story and have an insight into what it takes to become a head chef,” says Dickinson.

“It’s not just about cooking — it’s about managing and being an entrepreneur.”

Finally, scholars from Fuller’s go head-to-head at a competition held at the Wessex Salon Culinaire, in Brockenhurst, Hampshire.

“They’re given a brief — this year’s was to use Hampshire farmed trout and Cornish orchard cider — with 40 minutes to prepare, cook and serve two dishes before their entries are judged by the Craft Guild of Chefs.

“They really get put under pressure and, at the end, we have a full graduation ceremony. What it does is give [the chefs] a journey and teaches them what happens next,” says Dickinson.

He says he’s currently working on an initiative which is set to roll out in the near future called the Fuller’s Chef Guild — a personal development programme for chefs at all stages of their careers.

“Everyone gets developed, no matter where you sit,” he says. “For instance, a head chef could be really good at management and compliance but he may need more time to work on cooking and flair — that would be the focus of his development plan.

“Going forward, I want us to have 189 head chefs and sous chefs whose strengths and weaknesses we know, and the opportunities for them to move. It’ll be great.”

Job hoppers

“The main challenge we face is the shortage of applicants who have proven commitment to previous employers,” says Amanda Pickford, training and recruitment manager at McMullen, which runs 80 managed sites across the UK.

“There is a lot of job hopping on CVs and, at McMullen, we’re looking for people who are committed and want a longer-term career in the industry — and with us as a company.

“We get plenty of applicants but the difficulty is trying to find the ones who want to progress and who, in a head chef role, want to develop their team.”

McMullen takes a multifaceted approach to recruitment, which includes traditional advertising, linking with local colleges and utilising head hunters and agencies.

“There is a definite war for talent in the marketplace,” she says. “When recruiting, we aim to explain how working for an independent family company, where you will be known and have influence, has great benefits.”

Pickford believes the roots of the industry-wide struggle to recruit and retain chefs lie partially in the recent growth of the casual dining market.

“[The market] has exploded,” she says. “So there are more businesses looking for chefs — this is exciting for the eating-out sector but tough for pub operators.”

Perception issue

“I think we still have a perception issue in that many people believe pub cooking is not a skilled role, as we’re not a restaurant,” she says. “Nothing could be further from the truth — our chefs are using fresh ingredients and serving more than 50,000 main meals a week, which requires both practical catering skills but also strong interpersonal skills such as organisation, communication and, most importantly, being calm under pressure.”

Getting personal

For Pickford, personal development is a must for operators who want to retain good staff. “We’re fortunate to have our own training and development centre. We teach our chefs everything from basic cooking skills to how to lead and develop a team.

“We also have a partnership with HIT Training to provide qualifications in the workplace so that chefs who did not go to catering college can still obtain their qualifications while working for us.

“We think that rewarding and recognising the good performance of our kitchen teams is key to retaining them within the company — four times a year we run what we call the ‘Chef’s Top Table’ where we invite 12 chefs to dinner cooked by Lee Brooks, our catering development manager.

“We also have the annual go-karting event to which every kitchen team member is invited just to have a day out of the kitchens, meeting other chefs and enjoying themselves.”

McMullen runs competitions for chefs with specific skills, such as Fish Chef of the Year, Chef of the Year and Kitchen Manager of the Year, with finalists winning a trip away.

“In the past, we’ve taken them on a fishing trip to Brixham and food discovery tips to Barcelona,” says Pickford.

Changing attitudes

“My main challenge is just quantity,” says Aaron Hewitt, south-west area chef at Greene King chain Hungry Horse. “I look after 100 businesses and most of those have a team of around six or seven chefs.”

Hewitt attributes the apparent shortage of chefs to changing attitudes towards the work/life balance.

“People really seem to be striving towards a 9 to 5 life at the moment,” he says, “whereas working in a kitchen is a lifestyle choice. The more unsociable hours do tend to scare off the younger generation a bit.”

Does he think that being a pub chef has a negative image? No.

“I have a slightly different angle,” he says. “I’m 30 now and I’ve been [working in pub kitchens] since I was 15. I started off as a pot washer in a pub and worked my way up to regional chef over 15 years with Greene King.

“I don’t think I’m seen as ‘just a pub chef’ when it has been a rewarding career with a future in it.”

Face off

Hewitt primarily uses a Hungry Horse jobs page on Facebook, which he created. He also uses a recruitment website, which he says allows him to sit down and go through CVs more thoroughly.

“That’s where you do find the right people,” he says. “You can narrow the search down to anybody who wants to work in a kitchen or has had specific experience, as a kitchen manager for instance. Then you’re not sending your questions to the wrong people.

“Both are fruitful,” he says. “In the past week, I’ve had 5,000 people view the Facebook page. We’re averaging one or two people messaging us a day whereas [using the website] it depends on how much time I’ve got to spend on it. But there is a risk of that becoming a job in itself.”

Hewitt says that when it comes to interviewing potential chefs, he doesn’t look at what people have done previously as an indicator of their potential.

“I’m a great believer that if you’re the right person, you can learn to be a great chef. I’ve trained lots and lots of chefs who had no intention of ever working in a kitchen, but they’ve gone on to be kitchen managers. It’s 100% about attitude.

“If you’ve got somebody willing to learn and listen, as well as a bit of drive, you can teach them the rest. And that’s down to them.”

Meet the recruiters

McMullen & Sons

Metropolitan Pub Co


Greene King

Joseph Holt

JW Lees


Hydes Brewery


Admiral Taverns

Related topics: Chefs

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