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Paul Kitching talks with a stoicism that can only come from having seen it all. The restaurant industry has, and will continue to change irrevocably in the coming years and that’s okay, according to the award-wining chef. In fact, closing his restaurant 21212 in Edinburgh for three days a week, just seemed like the natural thing to do.
The hugely talented Kitching has enjoyed his share of accolades over the years, his restaurant, which he runs with his partner Katie O’Brien, has held a Michelin star since 2010. It’s one of only four Michelin star restaurants in Edinburgh and is known for the consistent brilliance of Kitching’s cooking.
As we all know, that doesn’t happen by accident. It takes serious dedication and hours of graft to get to a place where your kitchen is producing that kind of food on a regular basis, so it is surprising that Kitching does it in just four-days-a week, remaining closed for the other three.
“When I first started as a chef,” he says, “if you couldn’t handle a 90-hour week you were just a big baby. That’s just the way it was back then, and to be honest we just lapped it up.”
“I remember the intense atmosphere in the kitchen, it was an intimidating place with all the ‘ouí Chef’… I just loved all the cleaning, getting the kitchen ship shape, I found that really pleasing.”
Back then the kitchen was run like a military operation, the chef was king and the foot soldiers obeyed unswervingly.“We used to hang on the chef’s every single word,” says Kitching. “We would be asking him ‘then what happened Chef?’, his stories were just brilliant for us. These days I think you have about 10 or 15 seconds with a young chef before you are interrupted, or his attention goes elsewhere. The phone comes out to fact check what you’re talking about…”
Although it doesn’t deter him from sharing his stories anyway.
“I still tell them stories, sitting down after service, but I suspect I’m talking to myself half the time.”
So why is there such a difference in the way we learn in the kitchen these days? Kitching thinks it's more about a broader change in how we tap into information than anything to do specifically with the kitchen.
“You see we just didn’t have access to the internet. Maybe we had a book with pictures of Escoffier or Marco Pierre White, but there was nowhere else to learn except in the kitchen... If you wanted a new recipe you had to get on a train to London and knock on a Michelin star chef's door and ask him.
“Young chefs these days, they’re far more theoretical in the way they learn. They don’t turn up with a bag of 50 knives. They’ll get the basics from you, but then, they’ll take that away and they’ll research online, attack the subject from every different angle and then come back to you with it.
“They’re very much more into how a dish looks, its visual aspects and that’s down to social media, a lot of them won’t even taste that much, whereas we were putting spoons into everything, I still do.”
You would believe that the back-breaking work of prep in the kitchen is what builds a chef’s character, gives them the intimate knowledge and feeling for the food – the ‘wax-on, wax-off’, of cooking, but that doesn’t seem to bother Kitching at all.
“Today, young chefs just aren’t really into the down and dirty aspects of the kitchen. You can’t say to them ‘here’s 50 bulbs of garlic now peel them’ or give them kilos and kilos of mussels to clean. We used to sit down on an upturned bucket at the back of the restaurant for hours on end, but they really want to get into the creative aspects straight away. We share out all the dirty work. We sit down together, roll up our sleeves and get stuck in”.
So, the move to a four day week just seemed like a natural thing to do.
“Working four days is something that just made sense to me,” he says. “Firstly, we can afford to close an extra day, because we have good, loyal customers, but I just don’t think there’d be any point in keeping this generation of chefs chained to the kitchen for any longer than that.”
There’s an upside to having the restaurant closed for those three days. It gives Kitching the chance to do what he loves.
“I get my kitchen back, I get my knives back,” he says. “I have three days of quiet where I can listen to my music, experiment and just talk to myself. I still do 90-hour weeks, but that’s because I love it.”
But he definitely sees the benefit of a better work-life balance for his staff, there's increased productivity and it's beneficial for their mental health.
“The way we used to work is you’d finish up after a weekend and probably hit the town. You’d spend most of the next day in bed recovering, maybe get up late and go out for a bite to eat, the next day, by the time you get your laundry done and whatever else, you have to go back to work. And that’s how months pass and months turn into years. What if your girlfriend is a nurse and doing shift work, how could you possibly build a relationship if you’re doing 90-hour weeks? This way, you can and it’s just the times we live in.”
If this is the way the restaurant industry is going, then who have to wonder if Kitching and vocational chefs are a dying breed?
“I don’t know if I’m training chefs to be honest,” he says. “Probably, about five per cent of the people who come through our kitchen will end up working as chefs. The rest will use the skills they learn and bring them into other fields. They’ll probably work in food tech or agri-tech or something, which is fine. Chefs’ knowledge will be needed there in the future.”
If that is the case, who will cook for us in the future?
“The future of restaurants will probably be much more tech-based. We’ll be looking at replication or 3D printing of food, it’s all changing very, very quickly.”