By Tim Bouget, Owner/Chef of ODE-dining and cafe-ODE, Sustainable Restaurants of the Year 2012-14.
Talk to any chef or restaurateur and it won’t take long for conversation to turn to our industry’s chronic skills shortage.
I don’t believe any restaurant in the UK hasn’t struggled to fill a post in the kitchen at some point over the last few years.
A lot has been written and said about the difficulties we all face in filling positions at the moment, but I really don’t think that we’re being sufficiently honest with ourselves when it comes to finding the root causes.
I was trained in the 80s and spent time in many of those brutal Michelin kitchens where you were told that it’s just the way it is if you want to make it in the trade… now thankfully you would think times have changed… surely!
But perhaps it is a legacy from that era, we as chefs, owners and restaurateurs have to set the standard today.
I’ve been reading what some big name celebrity chefs have had to say recently, bemoaning the fact that they can’t find suitably trained people to come and work in their kitchens and, to be honest, it’s annoying.
Recently we had a young chef join us. He was with us for a few months, a really nice lad who worked hard and qualified through an apprenticeship. He was ambitious and after spending some time in our fine dining restaurant and cafe he wanted to go and work at Michelin star level with the aim of improving his skills and experience.
This bright-eyed, keen and motivated young man has just returned to us a shadow of his former self. Weeks in poor staff accommodation, 16 hour working days, picking herbs, being bullied for a minimum wage has shattered his dreams of a career in hospitality.
Quite frankly, we need to look at ourselves. Top chefs can bleat all they like about skills shortages but if they don’t nurture and treat people with respect, don’t share their knowledge and continue to make their kitchens horrid places to work, then they have no one to blame but themselves.
Yes, a kitchen has to be organised, professional and work at the highest levels but above all it must be respectful. Yes, it can be high pressure and stressful at times. But that does not excuse poor practice, physical violence or bullying.
Let’s put this all into perspective. It’s food we’re talking about. It’s not life and death, we’re not training doctors and nurses in an operating theatre. It really doesn’t have to be like this.
It’s great that some chefs like Sat Bains are recognising the problem and addressing the work/life balance of their staff by take positive steps like introducing a four-day week. But we need to be doing this across the industry. Otherwise, how can you expect young people to choose hospitality as a career?
My work/life balance is completely out of kilter but I own the business. I can’t expect my staff to work the same way – they’re not paid for that.
We do our best to address this in our businesses. Our staff are expected to be committed and work hard. In return we treat them well and train them with respect. Thankfully they are proud and motivated, many stay with us or move on to build their career within our fantastic industry.
There’s been a lot of hot air about paying the new National Living Wage and there will of course be knock-on effects, but it’s called a Living Wage for a reason, people have to live! It will mean we have to pay more for our raw product and associated cost increase. It will also undoubtedly mean that we have to pass on those costs by charging higher prices for drinks or a plate of food. But neither this nor continuing the apprenticeship programme will attract more people into our industry on their own, for the reasons I’ve outlined above.
It’s up to us to convince our customers that if they want quality then they have to pay for it.
The SRA’s key sustainability area ‘Treating People Fairly’ is really helpful in laying out what it means to look after your staff. Before chefs start sounding off about the skills shortage they should make sure their own house is in order. So the next time it comes up in conversation, ask your industry colleague how they’re treating their staff.