Knights, now group executive chef for London-based pub company Young’s, is discussing the shortage of chefs that he says has blighted the UK hospitality industry for some years now.
“I’m only 32,” he says. “But when I was training, it was all about peeling 10 sacks of potatoes and 10 sacks of carrots at the weekend and washing plates until midnight.”
Young’s and its subsidiary gastropub group Geronimo Inns has recently launched its own in-house Chef Academy, designed to develop skills and provide practical qualifications for the company’s army of chefs.
“These days people are pulling the average Joe off the street, giving him a spec book, putting him into the kitchen of a Wagamama or a Frankie and Benny’s, telling him to stick it in the microwave or in a pasta boiler, onto the plate and away you go — there’s no craft,” he claims.
For Knights, the rise of casual-dining brands in the UK has been a double-edged sword for the hospitality industry — specifically for businesses such as Young’s, which place particular emphasis on cooking with fresh ingredients.
“We’re a nation of casual-dining restaurants,” he says. “Everything’s branded and everything has a format. We’re taking a lot of guys, who may be really interested in learning the trade, giving them a booklet and letting them think they’re a chef because they’ve followed a recipe that says ‘put eight slices of pepperoni on a pre-made pizza base’.”
Knights is keen to assert that he harbours no resentment towards the majority of casual dining brands, admitting that he greatly admires many of them.
Unfortunately, he says, the explosion of the casual-dining sector has arguably made chef recruitment “a bit of a nightmare” for slightly more traditional, chef-led fresh food businesses.
While recruitment at all levels is a challenge, Knights says that he has found it particularly difficult to recruit at chef de partie and commis chef levels.
“It gets worrying because you need to have that pool at the bottom,” he adds. “Where are you going to be in the years to come once your current head chefs and sous chefs have all developed and moved on?”
And it’s not just a lack of candidates for these positions that has been problematic. Many of those candidates who apply for roles have been increasingly demanding when it comes to salary, despite, in many cases, lacking the prerequisite skills for the job, he adds.
A lack of response from potential candidates is similarly frustrating. “It’s a huge challenge just getting them in to talk to me and cook for me, and getting them into the pub the following week.
“I think it’s because by the time you’ve arranged an interview they’ve already been offered £5,000 a year extra by another company down the road. It’s hard!”
The answer for Knights has been to put the issue into Young’s own hands. Enter the Chef Academy.
“What we saw was an opportunity,” he says. “We wanted to get chefs into our business, as well as take chefs that we already had and train them up to our standard and get them qualifications at the same time.
“It’s all about giving the chefs within our business the training and the skills they need — to fill a gap in our industry, to effectively do their job.”
Chefs enrolled in Young’s chef academy can undertake accreditation at intermediate (NVQ level 2 in professional cookery) and advanced (NVQ level 3 in hospitality management) levels.
“There was a lot of preparation work — some of which we’re still doing, even though the academy has been running for around six months,” says Knights. “There’s so much stuff you have to do to ensure it fits all sort of Ofsted checks.”
The academy itself doesn’t have a site. Masterclasses take place at Young’s development kitchen and assessments are undertaken in the chefs’ places of work, supervised by the company’s area executive chefs.
Modules focus on specific skills and ingredients, and need to be signed off before the students can add them to their portfolios.
Knights describes how a module on shellfish would work: “I would invite the guys to the development kitchen for the day before making our way through the lesson plan. With shellfish, we had some fun identifying different shellfish with maps of the British Isles.
“Then we talk about storage and quality points before going into the kitchen and doing some prep. I would physically show them how to cook and pick down some lobsters, shuck some oysters and scallops before they do it themselves — a real hands-on experience.”
Following this, the rest of the day is centred round recipe creation, cooking and finishing methods.
“Their head chef at their pub should be mentoring them — if they don’t have an appropriate head chef in place then one of the divisional executive chefs will turn up to do this — they will get a whole heap of shellfish or poultry and demonstrate the skills they’ve learned and detail anything extra to get signed off.”
When asked if he considers the Chef Academy an intense course, he’s quick to answer: “Absolutely. But I certainly said in one of my key initiatives a couple of years ago that I would help the pubs with chef recruitment, and we have come on in leaps and bounds.
“Hopefully, the Chef Academy will be the start of the solution to the problem.”
Knights has also introduced a slew of initiatives to help retain chefs and keep them engaged.
“We’ve created quarterly chef forums. Two of them are related to our development kitchen where we will get the chefs in, showcase some new products and create some recipes,” he says.
“Recently we had all 130 chefs down there over a couple of weeks, showcased all the new cheese and charcuterie and gave them a game masterclass. We plucked the birds, skinned the rabbits and came up with some beautiful seasonal specials.”
The other two quarterly forums involve taking chefs out on day trips, visiting suppliers and learning about produce and sourcing.
“We like to get the farm-to-fork feel for our produce,” says Knight. “Last summer, we took a whole bunch [of chefs] day-boat fishing, we took them on simulated game shoots and foraging on the Norfolk broads.”
Call of duty
Additionally, Knights has introduced a ‘Compliments to the Chef’ scheme, whereby his area managers nominate one chef in their division who has gone above and beyond “the call of duty”.
“Last time, we took the nominated chefs out for a masterclass with well-known chef Mark Sargeant.
“We got them a signed copy of his cookbook and spent three or four hours in the kitchen with him and learnt about his career from being on the pots and pans at [Gordon Ramsay’s three Michelin-starred restaurant] Royal Hospital Road to being a restaurateur himself.
“For the next round, we’re taking them to the charcuterie house in Islington, north London, and then for a slap-up meal at the recently opened Young’s site Canonbury to give them a pat on the back.”
Knights firmly believes that while chefs are a notoriously transient pool of employees — partially due to a disparity in the kinds of salaries offered across the hospitality industry — engagement and education are the best ways of keeping them in the business.
“Everybody comes to work to earn their crust. But keeping them engaged and interested are my priorities. Then you keep them enthused and they do a better job.”