Can Hospitality’s Chef Shortage Crisis Ever Be Fixed?
Brexit and Covid have exacerbated a chef shortage problem that has been building for years. But some restaurants are trying to attract and keep staff by changing the culture of the industry.
When Danny first entered professional kitchens he did so as a star-struck fanboy. He had devoured Marco Pierre White’s White Heat (“such a romantic book”) and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. “I really bought into the glory of it. There’s a Bourdain line about the poetry of the way chefs moved at the grill. He was addicted to that. I loved it as well. I adored the cut and thrust of the kitchen. All I wanted was to be a really good jobbing chef.”
Danny (not his real name) spent the next decade throwing himself into 70- and 80-hour weeks of hard graft in high-end restaurants. “Standing at a stove doing 120 covers in a night is insane,” he says. “It was full on. Pans thrown. Screaming, shouting. I think people misunderstand that. The juniors expect it. Like soldiering, it’s part of the deal.” In that environment, he says, “you learn how to work fast, work cleanly”.
No one questioned the hours, stress or physical toll. Nor the drink and drugs which, for some, though not Danny, filled the hours between shifts: “It was frothy, rather than depressing. Everyone believed in what they were doing, from the commis to head chef. This is hard work, but we’re rock’n’roll stars.”
Yet, last year, he quit the industry. Something had snapped.
Four years earlier, his marriage ended. Kitchen life had alienated him from his family: “They get the worst of you. You’re buzzing on adrenaline but go home and fall apart. You’re never there: summer, weekends, birthdays. Quality family time is so watered down.”
Professionally, he was doing well. After years earning £18,000 to £24,000, he could now pull £40,000-ish in head chef roles with a better work-life balance. But he was also middle-aged, single, increasingly tired and mentally spent in a way he had never envisaged: “I did underestimate just the sheer accumulation of hours and what that does to you. I was a head chef and couldn’t make it work. I was really down. And angry at the profession. If it hadn’t been for my current girlfriend making me whole again, I’d be in trouble.”
During the first lockdown, the couple decided Danny, now in his 40s, needed to stop cooking. Like many burnt-out chefs, he walked away: “Where do head chefs go? There’s a big scrapyard of us.” He now does a little private cheffing but is otherwise a stay-at-home partner to his girlfriend and her children.
“You don’t have to live like this,” he says. “There should be another way.”
What that other way might be – how restaurants nourish and retain skilled staff – is an urgent question this summer in the middle of what many are calling a chef shortage recruitment crisis. The Office for National Statistics reported that from April to June 2021, hospitality had the largest ratio of vacancies of any British industry; this is equivalent to 188,000 jobs, the trade body, UKHospitality, calculated. There are anomalies (Pizza Express has filled the 1,000 posts it advertised in April) but, nationally, chefs and senior waiting staff are in high demand. Even top-end restaurants are struggling to find staff. One restaurateur, who owns sites in the north of England, described the difficulties of hiring enough staff for front-of-house as “a shitstorm”.
The general manager at the newly opened Pem restaurant within Hilton’s Conrad London St James hotel, Emma Underwood, has found the recruitment process “unreal. Like nothing I’ve encountered.” Instead of posts eliciting a flurry of CVs, Underwood was forced to tap contacts and sleuth online for available chefs. Colleagues nicknamed her “the chef-whisperer”.
Underwood is not alone in being proactive. Restaurant group D&D London has been running week-long “summer schools”, paid at national minimum wage or national living wage, depending on age, to encourage job seekers into hospitality. From July’s cohort of 37, D&D offered jobs to 22.
Everyone is scrambling to secure recruits for the future, from micro ventures, such as the Simon Rogan Academy, a “cutting edge” apprenticeship scheme for 14 chefs launching in September, to projects such the government-led Hospitality Sector Council created last month, with a significant focus on jobs and training.
Immediate reasons for this chef shortage are hotly debated. Blame is apportioned to everything from the labour-intensive, pandemic-driven growth in table service to a skewed jobs market. In May, 590,000 hospitality employees were still nervously sitting tight on furlough.
In reality, Covid-19 and Brexit have combined to expose an issue that has been festering for years. An industry with notorious levels of personnel churn, a chef shortage and deficit of skilled staff and a poor reputation on hours and pay, hospitality was struggling to recruit long before the pandemic, relying on EU workers (50% of staff in London, reportedly), to plug the gaps.
Last year, anecdotal evidence suggests, many EU staff went home and under the new visa and points-based system (mininum salary requirement £25,600) it is difficult to replace them. UKHospitality is pushing to have a “chef shortage occupation list” but, says Underwood, quarantine is a problem, too: “Everyone I speak to wants to come back but it’s unviable. How can they afford it?”
Similarly, over the pandemic period, as the ONS puts it drily, there is “evidence of … employees finding alternative areas of employment”. Unknown numbers of hospitality workers took stock over lockdown and, like Danny, left the industry. In the year to March 2021, the ONS found 355,000 people had dropped off hospitality’s payroll – and not all the chef shortage were redundancies.
In March, former London restaurant manager Sam Orbaum decided that, after three years, he was done with regular restaurant shifts. Previously, he sailed through weeks of long hours but the freedom of furlough prompted the 30-year-old to question that lifestyle and, particularly, the “strain” of stop-start Covid-era reopenings. A lot of the pressure, insists Orbaum, was “self-inflicted. The team [at my employer] were always very, very supportive.” Rather than owners or managers cracking the whip, he observed a tendency among young, ambitious staff to “take on burdens voluntarily”.
Nonetheless, Orbaum is now back in his native Leeds, co-running Pickers, a wine-delivery service launched in lockdown, and working in a remote office role for a London restaurant group. It is a more “wholesome existence”. He has not ruled out going back into restaurants full-time and when they reopened in April, he could not suppress a pang of jealousy: “It’s a mixture of feeling left out and relief I wasn’t doing it.”
Dave Turnbull, Unite’s lead officer for hospitality, says the industry, broadly, is in “complete denial” about how disillusioned staff are. A June 2020 Unite survey found 52% of chefs regard the job negatively. Only 22% would recommend it to school-leavers.
Chefs’ wages have risen quickly in recent years and in June the jobs marketplace, Indeed Flex, found the labour chef shortage had boosted hourly hospitality pay by up to 9%. But low pay, long hours and poor management remain problems in an industry dogged by reported accusations of, for instance, owners clawing back service charge revenues, bullying kitchen cultures and sexual harassment.
Turnbull argues that to recruit sustainably, the sector requires deep-rooted cultural change. “A lot of workers get their first experience of work in the industry and never want to come back.”
Underwood’s experience could not be more different. In previous roles at sometimes maverick indie businesses (at Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In the staff do yoga together every Wednesday), and now working for Hilton, the 34-year-old has never felt exploited: “It’s not the industry I know and it’s not the future of our industry.”
At the Pem, she is on a “very competitive” salary, and staff enjoy a progressive employment package, including, for instance, an extra day of holiday for every year worked, meals in a dedicated staff canteen, and free uniforms and laundry. Employees are contracted for a 39-hour week, with overtime paid above that. Chefs, it is envisaged, will work up to 48 hours a week.
In that setting, enthuses Underwood, those with a passion for service (a concept many British people struggle with) can enjoy a “truly fulfilling career being properly cared for. I treat my team as if they’re my children. Most of my friends sleep, eat, breathe hospitality: the adrenaline, the energy, the day-to-day inspiration of it. Being on the floor or in the kitchen, there’s no greater joy. People are calling [this period] the great reset. This is our chance to have the industry change into the glorious industry it can be.”
During the pandemic, several businesses heeded that rallying cry. In January, among other positive changes, Jonny Heyes put all staff at his Manchester venues, which include the Northern Quarter café-bar Common, on at least Living Wage Foundation (LWF) pay rates: “We want a busy, profitable business. Staff are key to that. We’re a people business, so why not invest in people?”
At the Ethicurean, near Bristol, a suite of changes introduced last October (LWF accreditation; 48-hour week for kitchen staff; 43 for front-of-house; personalised rotas) is paying dividends. “Everyone’s well rested, there’s a shift in mood,” says co-general manager Emily Shephard. Recruitment is easier, too. The kitchen is fully staffed: “With CVs on bank ready to go. Our youngest front-of-house is 18 and was desperate to move over because of the increase in pay.”
The most dramatic change at the Ethicurean was a decision to discourage tips. Previously, an optional 10% service charge was added to bills as guidance. Now diners pay a set amount at dinner (any tips go to charity). This was done to stop wages varying at the whim of guests. Staff are instead paid a consistent salary at a rate equivalent to their earnings in salary and tips under the old regime.
Staff were slightly wary, admits Shephard: “With tipping, you do have those amazing months where everyone’s having a great time and you end up with great pay.” But a regular wage has many upsides: “It’s easier to plan, access loans and mortgages and, talking to new hires in that framing, it immediately makes sense. I much prefer it.”
The restaurant industry, say the Ethicurean’s owners, brothers Matt and Iain Pennington, is in a cost-cutting race to the bottom. “This must end,” says Matt, “and it ends with operators and guests.” Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the Ethicurean recruited more staff, reduced its opening hours and radically transformed its dinner service, increasing prices, to make its relaunch tenable.
If the restaurant model is broken, mending it will involve diners paying more, whether it’s 50p on a pint or £50 on a tasting menu. The public will also need to embrace venues which, with shorter menus and limited hours, are designed for the wellbeing of their smaller teams as much as customer convenience.
Common’s rebirth involved dropping its old full brunch and dinner menu and introducing a high-quality pizza menu, which is more profitable and requires fewer staff. “We’re playing a risky hand,” admits Heyes, “predicated on doing similar numbers over fewer hours with fewer staff. We need to move to having better paid staff, better conditions and perks, but fewer of them, ultimately.”
Change is always a gamble. But in Edinburgh Stuart Ralston has no regrets about, in 2018, moving staff to a four-day week at his restaurant, Aizle. The move was part personal epiphany for a fine-dining chef then driving himself way too hard (“I have the right to enjoy my life. I only have one”), and partly a realisation that, in business terms, such “archaic” industry work practices are counterproductive: “I don’t want to spend two years training a sous chef for them to go and work somewhere else. It definitely worked in staff retention.”
It is not like anyone at Aizle or its sister venue, Noto, is slacking. Ralston’s chefs work hard over those four days. But says Ash Fahy, Noto’s head chef, that block of three days off means “you can plan, go somewhere, have fun. It feels like you’ve got a work-life balance, rather than feeling exhausted, week to week.”
It is not just hours worked. The atmosphere in the kitchen matters, too. Ensuring chefs work smart, that menus and dishes are designed to be achievable and “proper boundaries” are set to stop perfectionist chefs from overworking, is all part, says 32-year-old Fahy, of showing leadership in a modern kitchen: “People of myself and Stuart’s generation have seen first-hand people go mad, burn out, lose love with the industry. I don’t ever want my team under the pressures that were put on chefs years ago. No one was very nice to you.”
Similarly, Harry Cragoe has spent the past five years at the Gallivant, a 20-bed boutique hotel and members-only restaurant in East Sussex, wrestling with that question: “How can I rebalance that whole employer-employee relationship?
“I had this deep-seated belief we could only make guests happy if our team is happy,” says Cragoe, who made his money in fruit smoothies. But he discovered that the “incredibly tough, weird world” of hotels (“unrelenting” hours, tight profit margins) seemed to make that impossible. Prices needed to go up, but to justify that “you’ve got to deliver a materially better product”. And that is only possible if you’ve got a happy team.
Fine-tuning this virtuous circle has taken time. But the revenue generated at the Gallivant (three courses, £45; rooms up to £600 a night) has enabled Cragoe to, in June, publish a 28-point “wellness charter” which – from free gym memberships and healthcare packages to funding for personal hobbies, professional mental health support or paid time off for birthdays – is, he claims, unequalled anywhere in hospitality. People still leave the Gallivant. That is life. Four left during the pandemic. But with competitive terms and salaries, it fills posts rapidly. The team is “more stable” than ever. It is an example of what is possible, if not necessary.
Having arrived in restaurants late from the corporate world, chef Liz Cottam is bewildered by the worst examples of hospitality employment practice. Be it intensive life-coaching to improve her own management skills, or reducing chefs’ hours and increasing pay, she seeks at her three restaurants in Leeds to act progressively. Cottam hopes the recruitment crisis will accelerate wider improvement: “This is a pivotal moment. Hospitality has taken advantage of people for ever. It has to change.”
The original version of this article was first published in The Guardian
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