Friday, 18 July 2014

Why we should act now to sustain our industry's future

In an ideal world this blog would provide advice about recruiting good staff but let’s face it, staffing is the biggest single issue facing our industry today. Having spent the last 30 years recruiting, training and promoting a number of excellent chefs, I’ve realised that these days you have to ‘grow your own’.  When I was young, training to be a chef involved an apprenticeship at a 5 star hotel in Mayfair, this would involve every facet of working in a big kitchen.  We’d gain experience working in hot and cold buffet, a la carte, banqueting, baking and patisserie.  We might not have excelled at everything but this provided us with solid experience which made us good all round chefs with skills that we would hone as our career progressed.  

As was reflected in the recent National Restaurant Awards, the trend for casual dining has had a huge impact on the UK restaurant scene.  However, my concern is that this is also impacting the skills available. Whilst passion, entrepreneurial skills and the ability to cook a couple of dishes very well might be enough for a successful street food business, the skills required to run a busy service in a large five star hotel are another thing altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome the street food culture, it’s exciting and has brought new energy into our industry and I believe that it complements rather than detracts from the traditional restaurant scene. That said, with street food being hip right now, I worry that young people are choosing to follow a fashion rather than to train towards having a craft. What we could end up with is a generation of chefs with skills that are not transferable outside of the niche field that they work.

I also believe that many young chefs are looking for opportunities to be successful quickly, rather than to train to be the best they can be. They arrive with big ambitions but the first crisis blows them out of the window. When you leave college, you need the experience of working in a commercial environment, but young chefs are not always made aware of what this means. The first job in a professional kitchen takes a couple of months to adjust to, long days on your feet in a hot, noisy environment impacts the body and mind and the beginning is always tough.  However, once through that stage and with a good sound base in your training it opens doors and its also an investment in your future.

In my day, apprentices worked under masters who were highly trained, long standing chefs.  I was trained under Master Chefs in both Germany and Switzerland, it was tough and a steep learning curve but it was the best training I could have wished for straight out of college.  This has been happening since Medieval times and it’s a great system.

Unfortunately these days chefs with old fashioned work ethics and the necessary skills are difficult to come by.  It’s great to celebrate the dynamic culinary scene that we have, but if we want to build the UK’s reputation for great cooking we need to be seriously thinking about the future of training.

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