Why I quit my job to become a chef in the middle of the great hospitality crisis
Despite having no experience or formal training, a hastily written email set Pip Sloan on a brand new path in life.
It’s midday and I have been awake for approximately 45 minutes, during which I’ve made myself a bowl of porridge and two cups of tea, nodded off twice while checking my WhatsApp messages, and spent the remainder staring into space. A meaty smell is emanating from my hair. No – I haven’t been on a weeknight bender with a pit-stop for a kebab; I’ve just done my first shift as a full-time professional chef, and looks (and odour) aside, it was one of the best days of my life.
As many will know, the hospitality industry is shouldering a mighty storm of staff shortages this summer, with job vacancies the highest since records began. The number of chef jobs advertised increased by 62 per cent between February 2020 – a month before the UK’s first lockdown began – and July this year, according to recruitment website Caterer.com; this week, more
Ivan Vukadinovic, head chef at Frenchie in Covent Garden, usually runs a kitchen of 12 chefs. Currently, it’s just him, his sous and three other chefs in the kitchen. “It feels like people just don’t want to do the job anymore. I hired a pastry chef recently who immediately asked for reduced hours, and in the end quit because it was still too much.”
Jack Stein, chef director of his father Rick’s restaurants, says they are in a similar situation, with some restaurants currently closed owing to a lack of staff. “It’s the summer – we need to be making hay while the sun shines. But, particularly in holiday destinations like Cornwall, it’s very hard to fully staff a kitchen. A lot of our European workforce went home during the pandemic, and with travel restrictions still in place it’s extremely hard for them to come back.”
than 2,100 chef roles were advertised within a five-mile radius of Soho alone. Trade body UKHospitality estimates that two-fifths of venues have had to close partially or entirely in the last month because of staff shortages, much of which was caused by the “pingdemic” forcing swathes of workers to isolate after being instructed to do so via the NHS Test and Trace app. All that plus long months of closure during lockdowns, combined with a change in Brexit immigration laws, means many have chosen to find work elsewhere or return to their home countries.
Perhaps, at least in part, all of these openings are the reason that last month, I handed in my notice as assistant food editor of The Daily Telegraph to begin life as a commis chef at Mexican restaurant Tacos Padre, based in London’s Borough Market. I have no prior experience – save for the waitressing I did as a student – and no formal training via culinary school. Everything I know has been based on a foundation of Masterchef, a (frankly, ridiculous) collection of cookbooks, and the knowledge passed down to me by chefs during my time as a food writer. Incidentally, my first day on the job happened to fall on the day of the National Restaurant Awards, for which we were catering. Getting back at 3am after serving some 500 tacos to tipsy hospitality folk was certainly one way to familiarise myself with the job.
On a regular shift, the day starts with washing and prepping a delivery of fresh produce, before prepping some marinades and sauces. Things get busy around 12pm when we start service. There’s not really time for small talk. You’re so focused on the cooking that you don’t notice the hours flying by – although I did have to invest in a comfortable pair of new trainers after my first day. We end the shift with a staff meal at around 5pm, which usually consists of leftovers and freshly made side dishes.
I first met Nick Fitzgerald, Padre’s owner, after writing a hasty email in response to an Instagram post advertising a job. We both agreed that I probably wasn’t that serious about quitting my job, so I asked instead for a day of work experience, which he gladly provided. Within five minutes of my arrival the following Saturday morning, I was next to him at the plancha, prepping a cauliflower dish for the daytime service. Three hours later and I was at the pass, spooning meltingly soft cochinita (roast suckling pig) into fresh tortillas for customers. It came as something of a shock when Nick offered me a job four shifts later, and even more of a surprise that he was offering £27,000 – a wage I could genuinely live off – while working a 48-hour week.
A new starter can expect to be paid anything between £25-£30,000, although I think the bigger corporations get away with paying their staff a lot less with some reportedly paid as little as £18,000 a year for gruelling work. It’s become a lot more competitive because there is so much demand. Bigger salaries are increasingly common in kitchens – but the key to attracting more people to the job lies in changing their public image. The current absence of workers may help, in fact: “I think staff shortages are going to force some owners to really consider how they’re treating their staff,” says Vukadinovic. “If you treat your staff like a number, they will quit… this is a time when chefs will start to pay for being a——-s.”
Stein agrees, and is: “looking at doing things like premium pay structures for busy periods and offering more perks like big discounts on the rooms in our hotels for staff to have family to stay. We need to make an effort to make our staff feel as welcome as possible, that’s the only way to persuade people to enter the industry.”
My experiences of working in a kitchen couldn’t be further from the nightmarish anecdotes you often hear. I’m learning the ropes alongside another new colleague, Bobby, 27, who joined at the same time as me after making the switch from a career in acting. I’m yet to secretly break down in tears in the fridge. And yesterday morning, I chopped the onions the wrong way – but instead of being made to feel like I’d wasted a load of stock, the chef said: “This is yours – make yourself a good onion soup and start from scratch.”
One thing I can vouch for is that there has never been a better time to enter the hospitality industry. The Hell’s Kitchen image it once had is being diluted by owners who care about their staff, implementing hours caps, eliminating split shifts and encouraging career growth.
I don’t think I would have considered this job five or 10 years ago because I would have thought the atmosphere was too harsh and intimidating. I could never have expected to land somewhere so nurturing and inclusive. Though I officially started on Monday, I’ve been coming in for shifts around three times a week throughout my notice period to help out at particularly busy times and I’ve been taught a huge amount in this time, from how to shuck oysters to breaking down large cuts of meat, stacking containers in the correct way and carrying heavy gastros. These may sound simple, but as I’ve learned quickly, a lot of cheffing is about logistics. And what better time than now to try?
The original version of this article was first published in The Telegraph
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