Rant – where have all the chefs gone?

Where have all the bloody chefs gone? I’m now in a position where I have 2 operations – each with a team of 5 full time chefs – Head, sous, cdps. I had been advertising and looking for a head chef for over a year – good money, good conditions, great opportunity to progress and learn. The pickings were meagre – the amount of cv ‘fluffage’ is staggering, how someone thinks they can fictionalise their cv and not get found out once they get into the kitchen is beyond me. OK, everyone enhances their resume to some extent – but not that far. It’s like me applying for a software developer job, copying and pasting crap onto my cv and then getting the job. I’d get found out as soon as I asked where the on button was.

But what is more worrying is the lack of skills of cdp level chefs coming through, not to mention the lack of passion. It feels like training colleges are placing too much emphasis on the paperwork aspect (inc health & safety). Perhaps it’s because too many kids are opting for catering for the obligatory stay-in-education-until-you’re-18 rule, consequently using up all the creative air and lecturer time that the kids who are genuinely interested in the industry should be getting.

The culture of chain outfits is also to blame – chefs coming through having spent a year or so in one of these places have bugger all skills – minimal knife skills because of the dumbing down process. I know how difficult and frustrating it is to get chefs to turn up on time, in uniform and with a can-do attitude. Let alone give a monkey’s about the food they’re producing. So to try to make the process simpler and less fuck-up-able is very tempting. Even more so if the bottom line is your main concern. If I was any kind of businessman I’d be buying in portion bags and reducing the skill level as much as I could in the kitchen. But I’m not in it for that. I and many other chefs run food businesses because they love doing it and are proud of the operations they run. To have customers rave about your food or staff actually enjoy working for you is an amazing experience.

Michelin and those at the top of their game are great drum beaters but without the book deals, tv, appearances that go with it even they find it very hard to consistently earn enough money for it to be worth it. Especially as it’s such a personality led environment and after 20 or 30 years of it even the most resilient chef will be questioning him or herself.

There needs to be a reason why kids get into cooking and the industry. To teach a youngster and see the look on their face when they master a technique or come out the other side of a crazy busy service is a buzz. That needs to be a major goal and a strong reason for people to come into the industry. I’m more than happy to speak at colleges & schools and to give my time to get in a training kitchen with young chefs. Not just to train and show chef skills but to try and get across the passion, enjoyment and life experience that the industry can give. I’ve worked all over the world cooking and have had a bloody great time.There is a worrying lack of talent coming through and speaking to colleagues it’s not just me that’s feeling it either.

But I think that all these factors aren’t the root cause, they’re just a by-product of the industry as a whole. It’s a massively important industry to the country and it feels like this isn’t recognised anywhere near enough. We took The Brewery Tap on in 2009, pretty much at the start of the recession and despite that, it’s managed to grow year on year. This bucks the trend but it’s not through having a big pit of money to throw at it – every time the VAT bill came in we struggled and wondered how we were going to find the cash. Getting hit with unexpected bills constantly – floods, electrics, gas legislation, robberies really takes it toll and many’s the time I’ve trawled the recruitment ads thinking I’m done with running a business.

Money. Unfortunately it’s very hard to make enough money in this industry. The number of catering businesses constantly falling by the way is clear evidence of that. Money divides the industry into 2 camps – those that use it as their chief motivator (generally at the expense of other aspects such as skills, quality, creativity, advancement) and those that don’t.

I don’t know that there’s a solution. But what is clear is that it’s not a level bain marie. I really believe the VAT issue needs to be addressed to even things up a bit. A reduced rate for ‘out-of-home’ meals would help. Duty on alcohol adjusted perhaps so that there’s not such a disparity between off-license prices in supermarkets and retaurants. Blah blah. Rant over.

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