Ireland's chef shortage, which has been flagged in recent years by the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), shows no signs of abating, even though recently released official statistics reveal that the number of working chefs increased 25.5 per cent between 2011 and 2016.
Last month the Central Statistics Office released Employment, Industry and Occupation figures, based on information from the 2016 census. The information relating to chefs allows for a comparison with the 2011 census, revealing good and bad news for the profession.
The demand for chefs in Ireland is considerable, and growing. New eateries opening up, offering ever more diverse range of cuisines, is a now familiar occurrence.
However, the restaurant industry, tourism sector and other food-related businesses, have highlighted the urgent need for more qualified chefs to fill the additional roles. Culinary arts courses are full and chef apprentice programmes are coming on stream to help cater for the demand for suitably trained chefs.
The 2016 census figures show that the majority of chefs, almost 30 per cent, are in located in Dublin city and county, with 24.5 per cent in Leinster (ex-Dublin), 26.8 per cent in Munster and 12.8 per cent in Connacht. There is only a very slight variation in percentage representation for each region since 2011.
Unsurprisingly, the number of chefs at work in the Republic of Ireland has increased, from 18,908 in 2011 to 23,732 in 2016, an increase of 25.5 per cent in the working chef population.
The number of chefs in the labour force (combined employed and unemployed) stands at 26,194, suggesting that 10 per cent of chefs are unemployed. This is a considerable drop from a high of 18 per cent in 2011 and compares with the general unemployment rate of 8.6 per cent in March 2016. This figure may have dropped further since 2016. The statistics confirm the high demand for chefs and the increasing pressures in the industry.
So should we be looking at what is steering young people away from working as chefs, and causing others to leave the career prematurely?
Pressure can have a negative effect on working chefs and should be a cause for concern. Burnout is a familiar occupational hazard for chefs working long hours in a high pressure, stressful environment.
Several speakers at the Food on the Edge chefs’ symposium in Galway last October highlighted mental health issues that arise for chefs who work in stressful kitchens. This is exacerbated when chefs are under pressure to work extra shifts to “keep the show on the road”.
It is also the case that some chefs may not be adequately paid for the long hours worked, where they have limited knowledge of their employment rights. The chef profession is not highly paid, and busy restaurants with chef shortages may require chefs to work extra hours. Yet chefs should be paid for the hours they work and should not be expected to work unreasonably long hours as a norm. It is incumbent on head chefs and employers to ensure that the demands of the industry do not outweigh the welfare and employment rights of chefs in their kitchens.
The census figures also show that there has been a slight increase in gender imbalance in the profession. Both the male and female working chef population has increased since 2011. There were 16,349 male chefs and 7,383 female chefs working in Ireland in 2016.
However, while the numbers have increased, the ratio of male to female chefs remains stubbornly at 2:1. Females represent 31.10 per cent of the chef population in 2016, down from 33.6 per cent in 2011. As a female chef currently engaged in academic research in this area, this is very disappointing. I was hoping to see an improvement.
International research suggests that there are many challenges for women chefs, including a masculine kitchen culture where the out-dated brigade authoritarian system of management is still widely used.
Sexism, sexual harassment and bullying are features of this brigade system. Executive head chef Anna Haugh spoke about her own experiences of sexual harassment at Food on the Edge.
In the US, high profile chefs have been publicly disgraced as a result of sexual harassment claims by women chefs. This is an issue that has been brushed under the carpet or denied for far too long. It is time chefs talked about it openly and frankly.
Other challenges for women suggest they are less likely to be promoted or to hold head chef positions. It is also suggested that women are often pigeonholed into certain roles such as pastry chefs, where their opportunities for career advancement are more limited.
There are currently no substantial statistics on the roles that men and women occupy as chefs in professional kitchens in Ireland. This data will become available later this year as part of my PhD research project.
Similar to other professions, it is strongly suggested that women chefs are paid less than their male counterparts, while long hours and shift work mean that many kitchen work environments are not conducive to family life.
Chefs are acknowledging some of these issues, however there is considerable work to do to address them.
Mary Farrell, is an executive head chef, and a final year PhD student at DIT School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology, researching gender inequality in the chef profession in Ireland