Chefs ‘more fickle than ever’ as recruitment challenge keeps getting tougher

Chefs are becoming “more fickle than ever” as rising pay and an acute skills shortage mean that even top establishments are struggling to fill their requirements.

That’s the view of numerous chefs and recruiters who have told The Caterer that the recruitment challenge, particularly when it comes to chefs, is harder than it has ever been.

Steven Smith, chef-patron of the award-winning Freemasons at Wiswell in Clitheroe, Lancashire, said he has been battling to recruit a junior sous chef since the start of the year, to no avail.

Smith said: “It’s massively tougher now. We’re the current AA Restaurant of the Year for England and since January I have been posting on social media [about the junior sous vacancy] and I think I have probably had four or five people contact me and that’s it.

“Of the four or five who contacted me, only two turned up to interviews and out of the two who turned up, nobody has stayed.

“We are a small business and we can’t afford to use agencies but you would think that with where we are in the industry, posting like mad on social media would do the trick.

“Where all the chefs have gone and what they are doing, I have absolutely no idea.”

Smith said the business had made efforts to make working there as attractive as possible, with competitive salaries, a new, more pleasant kitchen to work in, and two guaranteed days off per week.

He has also changed the way in which he manages staff but it has had little effect, he claimed.

He said: “Front of house is a little bit better but the attitude is still ‘what can you do for me?’ not ‘what can I do for you?’.

“You have to be very constructive when you speak to someone these days – there is no such thing as getting shouted at.”

Smith said that agencies were offering young chefs up to £15 an hour to work on a temporary basis and that now many chefs preferred this to building a career in a respected kitchen.

Meanwhile, Matt Paice the managing director and founder of Killer Tomato, which operates two taco restaurants in London’s Shepherd’s Bush and Portobello Road said that recruiting chefs had become considerably harder in just two years.

He said: “When I first opened, which was May 2016, I recruited a head chef and my recollection is interviewing a number of candidates and I pretty much used Gumtree for everything from day one.”

“But when our sous chef left in December, we tried recruiting for about two months solidly and got nowhere.

“We had a very small number of applications and people either didn’t turn up to the interview having confirmed it, or on the rare occasion when someone did turn up to the interview and was a sentient human and agreed to turn up for a trial, they just wouldn’t turn up for the trial.”

He said he had noted a similar phenomenon when it came to front of house roles and blamed increased competition and a lack of supply of staff, as well as the fact that slicker websites made it easier to “spam” employers with job applications.

He said: “What is weird is how I have a number of interviews where people come to the restaurant and have a nice chat and then just go into hiding when I book them in for a trial and just ghost me completely.

“The only way I can get them to respond is if I send them a rude email.”

Meanwhile, Hannah Horler managing director of Cartwheel Recruitment confirmed that from her perspective, chefs are “more fickle than ever”.

She said: “Because there is such a demand for chefs and they can be considering several jobs at the same time, they have become more fickle than ever before.

“They are easily swayed, even for only a few pounds more.

“The hard work, commitment and drive is lacking in many of today’s chefs as they know they can get another job tomorrow.”

Horler added that Brexit was also having an impact, in her estimation, with Europeans returning home because economic prospects were as good at home as in the UK, if not better.

Nonetheless, Paice said he didn’t think that it was purely a matter of wages that was making would-be employees so tough to recruit.

He added: “One of the fascinating things is I don’t think wages matter. We cranked up the money and it was clearly specified how much you could expect to earn. It’s decent money. It doesn’t make a difference.

“The weirdest one I have found is kitchen porters. Because I am a bit of a sad leftie, I had my kitchen porters on the London Living Wage which is about £9.75 an hour on the basis that it’s a shit job and they tend to be grown men so I should be paying a decent wage.

“That did me absolutely no good whatsoever. People aren’t motivated just by pennies per hour.

“Many of them just walked out because they felt like we were working them too hard. It is completely surreal because a shift here is six or seven hours and it is not particularly high pressure but they wanted a bit more dignity in a job I suppose you could call it.

“We now use a big agency which employs people, generally from west Africa, the classic KP kind of person, and these are people who don’t have great language, no connections and no money and that is why they are KPs.

“They are very nice and efficient, keep themselves to themselves, and that is who you end up with.”

Martin-Christian Kent, executive director at People 1st, added: “It’s a very challenging time to recruit and in many respects it’s a perfect storm for hospitality operators.

“There are fewer people seeking work – unemployment stands at 4.3% – and fewer young people leaving compulsory education (600,000 fewer 16-24 year olds by 2024) which is a challenge for a sector that has typically recruited from that demographic.

“The competition for staff is fuelled by the tighter labour market as staff are moving employers for higher pay elsewhere.

“This means that employers are being forced to raise pay levels.”

Paula Rogers, founder of Admiral Recruitment, said: “This is not a new problem; we have been dealing with staff shortages for many years but now with the new challenges of Brexit, it is more prevalent than ever and is coming back to bite us.”

But Liam Humphreys, managing director of recruitment firm Berkeley Scott warned that the extent of the shortage of chefs shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

He said: “The demand for chefs still continues to grow and recruiting/retaining quality chefs can cause companies significant challenges, however, there are still chefs out there so sometimes it’s easy to overstate the impact of the shortage.

“We have two divisions — our permanent chef division and our temporary chef division — some businesses favour a business model of having temporary chefs rather than having a permanent, resident chef.”

Nonetheless, he still saw the split between chefs working on a temporary basis and those working on a permanent basis as being roughly the same.

He said: “I can see why someone may feel frustrated if all they can secure is temps when they want permanent staff.  I think some of that also comes down to conditions in the workplace.

“A temp will be hired for a specific amount of time and will be paid for a specific amount of time.

“While there are some fantastic businesses out there that look after and develop their chefs, historically the industry has been given a bad name by expecting chefs to work excessive hours without additional pay. If you are temp then you are not doing that, so temping provides them with some certainty as well.”

When a good chef does cross an employer’s path, they need to act with speed to secure them, he added.

The recruitment struggle: two more operators share their experiences

“In my own experience down here on the south coast, there is no right way to recruit. It seems we can throw money at advertising positions with no avail.  We can have a number of recruitment agencies looking.  But it does not mean you will get results.  I feel that the recruitment field has become diluted with far too many avenues.  As an employer I really don’t know where or who to advertise with.  It must be the same for employees which would explain why there is an increase of young staff turning to agencies.

“One thing I have come to notice is the package that is on offer.  In our area, if you can’t offer live-in accommodation, you will struggle!  They seem to expect to be mollycoddled, which for me seems crazy.  I can understand if you are an apprentice, but when you start to move up the ladder you should be standing on your own two feet.  This environment can breed contempt and with a lack of personal responsibilities which can increase the chance of walk-outs.”

Andrew Du Bourg, chef proprietor, the Elderflower restaurant, Lymington, Hampshire

“It is fierce out there in the job market at the moment. Good people will get offered jobs by any decent operator worth their salt so you have to be quick. Even then, sometimes you call someone back after a trial shift and they’ve already taken another job because it’s a few minutes closer to their home.

“I think it would help if the catering industry is seen as more of a potential career, rather than just a way to earn extra money. If more people wanted to make a go of it in restaurants, and work their way up, then more people would apply and more people would see the benefits. Of course, restaurants (and hotels etc) have to do their part too – we should pay properly for good people; help people be the best they can be, and look after staff – too often we (the industry) fall down on all of these necessities.”

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