Where did all the chefs go?


While many restaurants struggle in a tough business environment, those that are still trading have to deal with an acute shortage in kitchen staff. Why?

SOMETIMES IT seems like everyone wants to don an apron and whisk up a signature dish – until it comes to doing it in a real kitchen. The production company behind an Irish version of Masterchefhas had about 1,000 applications for the amateur competition and yet the Irish restaurant industry is grappling with a shortage of qualified chefs.

Some of the biggest names in the industry are looking for qualified chefs, including Shanahan’s on the Green, the Shelbourne Hotel and the Michelin-starred Malahide restaurant Bon Appetit. Even Masterchefjudge Dylan McGrath has been recruiting staff for his Rustic Stone restaurant in Dublin. Recently the jobs.ie website listed more than 100 jobs around the country for chefs at a variety of levels.

The skills shortage looks set to worsen, following the closure last month of the Fáilte Ireland training centre on Amiens St in Dublin. A spokeswoman says 250 people were trained last year in bar, restaurant and culinary skills. But budget cuts mean Fáilte Ireland is moving away from offering training courses.

The restaurant trade is one of the few experiencing a shortage of skilled people. Brian Fallon, the newly appointed president of the Restaurants’ Association of Ireland (RAI), says it is strange when restaurants are being forced to close that the remaining ones are facing difficulties finding staff. “Part of the reason is that there’s been an exodus. A lot of northern European workers have gone back to their home countries,” he says.

Those workers were filling a void created during the boom times when Irish school-leavers preferred to head into the construction industry than the kitchen, he adds.

The RAI will be lobbying the Government to set up a training scheme whereby people could be taken off the Live Register and trained in restaurant kitchens to a certified qualification.

“You could have people doing four days in a live cooking environment and a one-day college placement,” he says. “It would be putting the onus back on restaurants to train people.”

The worst shortage is at the mid-range for chefs de partie and commis chefs who are required to have a level of skill and experience, but do not command the wages of a head chef.

Even the salaries paid to head chefs have dropped since the days when some star names were reputed to be on €140,000 a year. A head chef now can expect to earn between €50,000 and €60,000 with a sous chef earning €30,000 to €40,000, Fallon says.

The first rung on the kitchen ladder is notoriously labour-intensive and low-paid. “A real problem is that people don’t have the right attitude,” says Fallon. “They mightn’t start at the wages they want to start on but there’s plenty of work out there if people showed initiative.”

Most restaurants would be “very open” to the idea of unemployed people who like to cook “coming along and offering to work at a reduced rate to get skilled”.

Plenty of enthusiasts have signed up to try their hand at cooking on television, however. Irish Masterchefproducer, Lynda McQuaid, said the production company, Screen Time Shinawil, has had about 1,000 applications so far. (The deadline for applications is Wednesday). Competitors must not have had any professional training and 16 will be picked to compete in the 12-episode programme. McGrath will be joined in the judging by restaurateur Nick Munier of Pichet.

Chef Penny Plunkett is recruiting for her new restaurant in the Mercantile Tavern on Dame St in Dublin’s city centre. Plunkett was a chef at Patrick Guilbaud’s Michelin-starred restaurant before she ran La Maison. She also worked in Charles Guilbaud’s Venu before heading to the new venture.

“It’s very difficult to find people. I tend to try and stick to people I know rather than go to websites. So I’ll ring around a few friends and ask if they know anyone looking. That way they come recommended. If I’m looking for more casual labour, I’ll put a notice in the window.”

A good chef de partiehas a secure job, she says, and they’re holding on to them in this climate. “Quite a few people have left the country for New York, London and Australia. And you’ve a shortage of people coming in.”

She said lots of school leavers who think they want to work in a kitchen drop out when they realise it’s not as easy as it seems to be for Jamie Oliver. “It’s physical work with long hours and at the start it’s not going to be very exciting. It’s peeling potatoes and cleaning the kitchen.”

She has trained a lot of kitchen porters who have studied catering. “If I see any kind of potential, someone who really wants to learn, I’d have them in the kitchen for a day, see if they ask questions and if they’re interested and, if I give them a job to do, they can do it.”

The country’s top chef’s course is at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) where the BA in culinary arts is attracting large numbers of applications. Lecturer Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire says the demand for the course is huge, pushing the points up dramatically. At an open day in the college’s kitchen recently, he saw 20 Leaving Cert students every five minutes for three hours, a rough headcount of 700 potential young chefs. The attrition rate on the course is low. “We normally take in 48 students a year and lose about six,” he says.

Those who have qualified elsewhere can be allowed into the second year of the programme. “Part of our problem is the whole moratorium on staff recruitment,” he said. A lecturer recently retired after 35 years teaching. “He had over 50 years in the industry and we can’t fill the space.”

Teaching people to cook is “one of the most expensive courses to run in the DIT,” he explains. “You can’t pack 300 to 400 people into a lecture theatre like in UCD.” Students are being taught in small groups preparing and cooking real food. He said it was “absolute madness” to be culling training courses when the industry was short of qualified chefs.

“We’re fully aware of the cycle,” says Mac Con Iomaire. “I see cheffing as a young person’s game. By the time you’re 35 or 40, you’d hope to have your own business. Our students are coming out absolutely on the ball culinary-wise but also aware of product development, setting up their own businesses, becoming artisan producers, exporters or opening their own restaurants. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship and innovation.”

DIT students do unpaid internships, but 80 per cent of them are kept on in paid employment afterwards, he says. The college has sent 14 students to Britain to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck in Berkshire and several more to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire.

“It’s expensive to teach people to cook. But then you get what you pay for,” he says.