It is a question that has been banded about the hospitality industry for a few years now and in recent months has gained attention in the mainstream media as a shortage of skills begins to change our eating habits.
In order to understand the reasons for the shortage of good chefs, it is important to face up to the fact that for too long the industry has treated chefs poorly. Chefs have been paid low salaries and expected to work 70-80 hours per week as standard. Historically there has been a long-standing macho culture in kitchens that often wears the eye wateringly long hours and unpaid overtime as a badge of honour. This culture has helped to suppress any modernisation of working practices and restaurant owners have taken full advantage in maintaining the status quo.
It’s fair to say that in today’s society it would be unheard of in any other sector to offer a salary of £18k on a 45-hour contract and expect the candidate to work 30 odd hours of unpaid overtime per week. This practice kills the opportunity for any kind of fulfilling family or social life. A lot of chefs are now unwilling to sacrifice their work life balance for such low salaries and are now engaging with agencies like Bookachef who offer much higher wages and full flexibility on working patterns.
We are also seeing an alarming reduction in young chefs that are coming into the market. 51% of catering colleges have seen enrolments drop, in an industry that, by 2020, will need a predicted 11,000 new chefs. There is also the uncertainty over where chefs from EU countries will stand after the Brexit negotiations. Currently 18% of chefs in the UK are from another EU country. There are big questions over the right to remain of these chefs post Brexit and how easy it will be for more chefs from the EU to come into the market.
Many young chefs that do choose a career as a chef do not stay in the sector long enough to complete their training. The media portrayal of celebrity chefs and glitzy cooking competitions does little to prepare our young aspiring chefs to the incredibly hard grind that working in a busy restaurant kitchen really is.
There is a big fear in the industry that the direction of travel in the shortage of skilled chefs will only accelerate. Owners are asking chefs to work even longer and harder to make up for staff shortages and operate with reduced numbers to pick up the slack from squeezed margins due to increased costs. This will lead to more chefs reaching burn out and frustrations are sure to continue to boil over.
We are starting to see the effect of all of this is the changing face of the restaurant industry. Many high-end operations are electing to close down completely on one or two days a week to try and give some much needed down time to chefs. We are also starting to see a trend of deskilling new restaurant concepts. High value steak restaurants are popping up across the country. We are also seeing concepts that are pitched with easy to cook menus which are easier to staff. Concepts such as Steak & Lobster or Steak Frites along with burger chains like Byron, which can operate with a relatively de-skilled workforce, are becoming more prevalent in the high street.
If a restaurateur is looking to open a new venture that is looking to provide high end and creative food with a high degree of chef skill required, and the owners believe that it will not be possible to recruit a team with the appropriate skill, then the concept of the restaurant must change. This is now the reality with the shortage of skilled chefs in the industry.