Emma Underwood on tackling the UK chef shortage: are we fighting a losing battle?

The Staff Canteen

“When I applied for Claridges, I joined a long queue outside the kitchen door”, explained Martyn Nail, executive chef of Claridges.

He was introducing a talk held at the hotel last week which was presenting and discussing Centre of London’s findings into the levels of retention of chefs.

According to Martyn, technology changes rendered this practice of queuing into a large bank of CVs, always on file, ready to Martyn Nailperuse when someone left their kitchen to find their next chef. Then this bank diminished.

Now, recruitment is a slog of placing adverts, sifting through unsuitable CVs, only for interviews and trials not to turn up. A pattern that I’m sure is familiar throughout the country.

When that elusive chef is finally located, employed and inducted into the team, retention becomes an issue.

According to statistics, in 2017, the UK lost 10% of its chefs. This amounts to 20,000 choosing to leave the kitchen in one year.

Clearly there are significant issues in both attraction and retention of chefs in the UK. The talk last week was based on evidence gathered from a study of London, but this is very much an issue nationwide.

The difficulties in attraction were attributed to a number of reasons. Firstly, the fact that in many cases pay is low and working hours are long and unsociable, it is very difficult to entice teenagers leaving school into giving up their weekends to toil away in a kitchen.

Then there is the fact that many see working in kitchens as being servile, and restaurant work as a stopgap on the way to achieving a ‘proper career’.

Furthermore, the route into a career as a chef is often difficult. The study discussed last week lamented that apprenticeships and college education for chefs are inadequate, with the former being a prohibitive expense for the employer, and the latter similarly expensive for the trainee, especially if it is pursued later in life.

Many employers further view college education as being unrealistic, an ill preparation for the realities of working in a kitchen.

But training on the job is just as impractical. The accessibility of the job role was also questioned, as the title of ‘chef’ can be seen as being elitist. It is a title that carries connotations of fine dining, rather than simply someone that just produces food. The fact is that this is a job that can be readily taught to a multitude of people, given the means to do so.

Issues with retention were also discussed, with poor working environment, anti-social hours and low pay determined to be the cause. The study identified that kitchens in London are rife with harassment, abuse and general disregard for wellbeing, as nine out of ten chefs that responded to a recent questionnaire conducted by CODE saying they had ‘experienced or witnessed abuse in their careers’.

There is a constant pressure to succeed, leading to severe damage of self-esteem when standards are not met. Overtime is common, with many seeing a working week of 50-60 hours as normal, but wages do not come close to true compensation for the effort and time that many chefs put into their jobs. Indeed, it is common for restaurant business models to rely on its staff working excessively long hours.

With business rates and rent in London being as high as they are, it will always be extremely difficult to pay chefs fairly. An awful lot needs to change before this situation can begin to improve. 

Emma Underwood blog image

Emma Underwood

About Emma Underwood

Emma Underwood is the General Manager of Robin Gill's latest venture, Darby's restaurant. The former restaurant manager of Stem in Mayfair previously worked at Where the Light Gets In in Stockport and at Gary Usher's Burnt Truffle in Heswall.

Emma started working with Gary in 2012, when she joined the Sticky Walnut team as a waitress before becoming the general manager at sister restaurant, Burnt Truffle. 

Emma is also part of the TMRW project, alongside food writer Anna Sulan Masing.

TMRW is a platform to help  people starting out in their career to grow, learn and connect with each other. It hosts the Chefs of Tomorrow Dinners, front of house initiative The Switch, and a series of talks and panel discussions.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th April 2019

Emma Underwood on tackling the UK chef shortage: are we fighting a losing battle?