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Through our sponsorship of the National Chef of the Year and Young National Chef of the Year competitions, at Lockhart Catering we’ve witnessed ‘up close’ just how much culinary talent there is here in the UK. If you caught our recent post about the 2016 winners, you’ll know that we were blown away by the skills demonstrated by all the entrants, including the younger chefs that were competing.

But, as we head towards the end of 2015 it’s hard to ignore the mounting research and anecdotal evidence that is consistently pointing to a shortage of skills within the industry, and the belief that skilled and/or qualified chefs are overall in shorter supply. Today’s post takes a look at the problem, and ponders what kind of solutions can be cooked up to address it, with valuable insight from National Chef of the Year 2015 Russell Bateman.

The evidence for a UK chef shortage

With so many celebrity chefs gracing our TV screens every day, it’s difficult for the public to imagine that there is in fact a vast chasm between the number of skilled chefs in the UK and the actual demand. At one end of the spectrum there are the camera-friendly head chefs commanding huge salaries, while at the other there are the junior kitchen staff who are barely scraping by.


Back in March, VisitEngland revealed the growing impact of chef shortages on the hospitality industry by sharing research that showed nearly half (47 per cent) of chef vacancies were proving tricky to fill, and that chefs accounted for over a fifth (21 per cent) of all skill shortage vacancies for skilled trades. Then in August, the founder of the British Curry Awards warned that 90 per cent of curry restaurants are “under the threat of a chef skills shortage” due to strict visa criteria preventing Asian chefs from coming to live in the UK, but the shortage isn’t restricted to a particular type of cuisine.


This article in the Independent focuses on the training scheme developed by Daniel Clifford and other high-end restaurants to train the next generation of chefs in the face of severe difficulty in finding and placing suitable staff. By September the Guardian was musing about whether the “staffing crisis could change what we eat” by encouraging the opening of ‘scalable restaurants’ that didn’t over rely on the skills of staff. But when you look under the surface, what is really to blame for the shortage of chefs?


The issues impacting the industry

It has long been considered that the chef profession is one chosen due to the sheer love of food and entertaining. Young people entering the industry are expected to pay their dues in what is often an abrasive environment, working long hours in salaried jobs with few benefits.

It’s also believe that those who do make it to ‘the top’ are required to continue to work those long hours, albeit for more pay. Chefs supposedly have little work-life balance – those that are parents miss out on important milestones, and with wages so low for individuals in the lower rungs, the cost of childcare is often untenable.

Russell Bateman 1

This reputation is one that Russell Bateman believes is only harming the industry, and yet only represents a miniscule fraction of chef jobs in the UK.

“The more we talk about kitchens being really hard places to work, the more we’re going to scare people away. There are three 3-star Michelin restaurants in this country, and I believe twenty-two 2-star restaurants, so cooking at that level is a very small part of our industry. Those are the only types of restaurants where you might hear of people working awful hours or having to meet standards that most people can’t handle.

“Yet we’re talking about an industry-wide issue. It’s nothing to do with Gordon Ramsay being on telly, or the reputation of certain restaurants, and so to blame it on that is just a bit of a cop-out. The reality is that not enough is being done to engage children at a young age and bring them into this industry.”

“And why are we relying upon other countries to supply us with industry professionals? I’m not French, yet I’ve worked in Classical French restaurants. Cooking is a craft, which means it can be taught and learned.”

Russell Bateman 2

That’s something that Russell himself has taken personal responsibility for, by reaching out to young talent through his involvement with the Rotary Club of Great Britain’s Young Chef competition, in which 13-15 year old students battle it out in regional heats. As a judge in the Watford District regional competition, Russell is able to contact local schoolteachers and arrange visits to speak to their students, conduct cookery demonstrations and give them a valuable insight into what the world of the chef profession is truly about.

And his involvement doesn’t end there, as not only do the winners of the regional heat win a meal with their family at Russell’s restaurant, but they will also be given two days of work experience in his kitchen. His proactive, hands-on approach to nurturing future chef talent is clearly effective; several of his young apprentices have gone on to become chefs, and then of course there’s Danny Hoang, the newly-minted Young National Chef of the Year 2016 who cut his teeth, so to speak, at Collette’s under Russell’s watchful eye.

But nevertheless, with an apparent lack of chefs with both training and experience, some in the industry are reporting that young chefs entering the profession are being forced to run before they are ready to walk and are moving ‘up the rungs’ too quickly. Russell, whose own kitchen at Collette’s at The Grove has had a 0% turnover in the past two years, believes the answer is to bring in young chefs and offer them training and mentorship so not only do they have the experience and skills that they need to succeed, but will stay loyal to your kitchen as they build their career.

Russell Bateman 3

“I’m a massive advocate for promotion within a business. I never bring anyone in at any level other than chef commis, and then I use them as ‘blank canvases’, train them up and take them up through the ranks with me. That training, time and engagement provides loyalty, and they see that they can progress and have a future.”

So how can you start solving the chef skills shortage in your kitchen? Offer mentoring and skills development


Many restaurants are now going directly to the source of fresh catering blood to ensure they have a steady stream of new chefs, by either setting up their own training schemes like Daniel Clifford, or building links with colleges to ensure that students have the real-life kitchen experience they need.

Mentoring, apprenticeships, and time and money invested in the next generation of talent are essential and as Russell himself believes, it’s up to those at the top of the chef industry to provide guidance on the skills that are actually required, and also go directly into schools to engage children with the hospitality industry and capture their interest at a young age. This is especially the case in socially deprived areas of the UK where many children may not see academia as an option, yet would thrive upon the chef profession which enables them to work with their hands, and in a team with like-minded people.

However, Russell also believes that the UK Government should be shouldering some of the blame for the shortage: “[By] removing food science and home economics as A-Level options, they aren’t helping us either. They’re basically saying that it’s not worth a qualification.

“Everyone recognises that there is a shortage of skills in the hospitality industry and a huge unemployment issue, yet nobody is putting the two together. I find it very strange. Let’s all do something about it while the children are young, so we can capture their imaginations and engage with them while they are still in that formative period and choosing their options and career path.”

Facilitate a better work-life balance


Being a chef is often viewed as a ‘transient profession’, because individuals can be lured out of the industry by better pay and what they perceive to better work-life balance. Some restaurants are experimenting with amended opening hours and staffing patterns in order to give staff more time to unwind, and thus to boost staff retention, yet unfortunately there’s only one real solution to this issue: more chefs. “It’s true, we do work unsociable hours” agrees Russell. “When people are going out to restaurants, we are in them. But if there were more people that we could recruit and fill our kitchens with, you’d be able to provide that better work-life balance.”

Increase the recognition of your staff


Better working conditions and hours can help staff feel more motivated and appreciated, but many in the industry say that what really needs to improve is the recognition that being a chef is a difficult and skilled profession through the medium of better pay. As salaried staff often find themselves on what equates to a low hourly wage, eateries may want to consider increasing the price of their food to help boost the wages of staff. Some restaurants are also introducing profit share schemes for staff, which recognise them as a valued part of the business rather than another cog in the wheel.

Yet if you ask Russell, who never brings anyone into his kitchen at Collette’s at any level other than commis chef and strictly only promotes from within, the real answer is to capture the hearts (and appetites) of the young generation.

Have you found it hard to find kitchen staff in recent times? What problems do you encounter when hiring staff, and how do you think the industry should be addressing the skills shortage? We’d love to hear your views, whether you’re a chef or employer!


Lockhart Catering on 2 November 2015 9:57 AM

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