Chef René Redzepi is currently on three-month paid leave from his restaurant Noma - a new benefit open to the kitchen staff at the restaurant once they’ve stayed with the company for a certain amount of time.
The restaurant industry is in crisis. There simply aren’t enough young people entering the industry and when they do, they are very often scared off by the long, unsociable hours, for little pay and tough working conditions. On top of that, there are increasingly more options for very talented chefs, they can strike out on their own with food trucks or pop-ups and the booming food tech sector is waiting in the wings to hoover up chef talent in the near future.
So how do you hire and retain talented kitchen staff these days?
Some chefs like Sean Brock are looking at a completely revised working model for kitchens. One that puts the rest back in restaurants. Corporate culture in every other sector is unrecognisable to even ten years ago. ‘Smart working’ and ‘agile’ work environments promote better work-life balance. Finland is planning a pivot to a four-day working week and if it succeeds, the rest of the world may follow.
Yet the restaurant kitchen is still caught in the Brigade system that served gastronomy for so many years. Young talents get their mettle tested, if you can stand the heat, you can look forward to decades of missed birthdays, weary coffee-fuelled mornings with service hanging over you, burns and backache.
It’s a problem that’s facing the whole industry, from the lowest grill to the very top restaurant in the world. Noma, in Copenhagen, currently number 2 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and many people’s favourite to clinch top spot this year has come up with an interesting solution.
At the beginning of this year, owner-chef René Redzepi announced on Instagram that he was stepping away from the restaurant in order to take a three-month break. He is in fact, on paid sabbatical, a new initiative in the restaurant for staff who have spent a certain amount of time with Noma.
In a post, he wrote: “So about one year ago, me and the general manager of noma @annikadlh [Annika de Las Heras] were drinking coffee, discussing how to be better for our team. We were throwing ideas around, and one really resonated with us.”
“The idea was simply to give staff members a three month paid leave after they’ve spent a certain amount of years with us. We work hard, we want to be among the best, and getting to that mountain top is so much easier (and more fun) if we’re also among the best at taking care of ourselves. We thought it was the best idea in the world, And so simple, take an extended period off, to do nothing, and get paid for it.”
“Anyway, as we are figuring out how to implement it into our organization, I thought to myself damn, I’ve been working almost 18 years on this project. Maybe I should be the first one to test out this new approach, just to see if it actually works (ha ha).”
So the best chef in the world is taking a break from the kitchen, hopefully, to rest and re-energise to come back to the kitchen stronger than ever. It’s instructive that he has chosen to spend the time travelling with his family, making memories, rather than throwing himself into some other creative endeavour.
A paid sabbatical makes a lot of sense. Especially for a job, like in the kitchen, which at times can get repetitive. You might always be learning in the kitchen, but sometimes that learning happens in spurts, rather than incremental gains. Those periods of inertia can seem to drag for young, talented, creative chefs and they can quickly start to dream of other projects.
It also works like a carrot for staff who have been with a restaurant a long time but are only ever a tap on the shoulder away from another chef to trying something different.
But perhaps more importantly, and what seems to have been Noma’s motivation, is the human factor. Giving your staff benefits like these makes them happier people and happy people make better chefs. Cooking is, as so many chefs say, an act of love, and what better way to ensure the quality of your kitchen, than to show the chefs some love?