A report published by the Centre of London think tanks claims that 20,000 chefs, that’s 10% of the industry’s workforce in London, is leaving the profession every year.
London prides itself on its burgeoning fine dining scene and indeed, there are few places where you can find such an eclectic mix of culinary influences and cultures living side by side, it’s what gives London its unique flavour.
The report highlights many challenges that need to be faced if the imminent staffing issues is to be addressed adequately. The first is culinary education. At present , according to the report, 16 of London’s 48 colleges of further education provided catering courses, but employers don’t consider them of high enough quality or providing graduates with the skills needed to enter the workforce.
“Despite being home to some of the best catering colleges in the country, London’s culinary education isn’t specialised and high-profile enough,” said research manager Nicolas Bosetti, who co-wrote the paper.
The report claims that chefs are forced to work with stagnating wages and often have to do long hours including unpaid overtime. It also claims that the London restaurant scene depends heavily on migrant workers with 85% of the workforce born abroad, compared to 50% in the rest of the UK. Nobody knows what the outcome of Brexit will be, but freedom of movement looks like its days are numbered, this is a disaster waiting the hit London’s restaurant scene, and there seems to be no plan in place to deal with it.
Yet London is not alone. Across the water in the US, restaurants are competing with each other to recruit from an ever-diminishing talent pool. The New York Times reports how restaurants in the city of Washington, which has recently experienced a boom in new fine dining establishments are finding it increasingly difficult to find staff to support it. Restaurants are forced to get creative and are offering to repay culinary school tuition fees, hiring former prisoners as kitchen assistants, and even repurposing chefs who have been fired by other restaurants.
The problem extends also to front of house where sometimes restaurant with excellent food offerings are falling down when it comes to service. Once again the problem can, at least in part be attributed to the clamp down in undocumented workers.
“Our industry is very much in need of a temporary visa program for the low-skilled, essential workers,” Shannon Meade, the National Restaurant Association’s director of labor and work force policy told the New York Times. “While visas are available for seasonal work, she added, “a year-round program would go a long way to addressing our hiring and retention issue.”
Right across the US, from Nashville to Napa Valley, news stories outline how restaurant industry staffing crises are reaching breaking point.
The writing has been on the wall for some time and there is a clear movement towards chef sustainability. Local staff need to be nurtured and given a clear path for professional and personal growth. Four day working weeks and conditions that guard staffs’ mental health and physical ell-being seem to be the starting point for restaurants with ambitions to survive in the mid to long term.
In France, the birthplace of modern cuisine, restaurant owners have taken the problem in hand by lobbying the government to regularise undocumented migrants to fill 100,000 positions that they have been unable to fill.
“We’re facing a huge shortage in our sector,” Roland Heguy, president of the hotel industry body UMIH, told AFP.
“Companies are finding no one, which is why we want to facilitate the integration of refugees in our businesses,” he said.
Meanwhile a rise in New York’s minimum wage this year from $13 to $15 per hour is leaving some restaurant owners claiming that they have to cut workers’ hours just to stay afloat. It seems like a perfect storm of contributing factors and, while the problem has been flagged for many years now, nothing seems to be being done about at a macro level.
We’re living in a golden age of fine dining and interest in gastronomy has never been higher, there needs to be more done to entice more people into the industry. There are certainly more attractive options out there for experienced and talented chefs, from food tech start-ups to cooking classes and solo supper clubs, slaving in a kitchen could fall further and further down the career ladder, with the inevitable consequences being fewer restaurants, higher costs associated with eating out and slipping standards.
The young and exceptionally talented will of course aim for the top and apply for positions in restaurants owned by the big name chefs, where they can learn from the best and move quickly towards owning their own establishment. However, human resources and staff well-being are something they will have to face themselves when the time comes.