Restaurant owners spent the recession years trying to attract customers. Now they have an additional problem: a shortage of chefs has reached "crisis levels" and is threatening the hospitality industry, according to the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Many applicants for jobs are not “appropriately qualified”, it says, calling on the Minister for Education to re-establish Cert, the agency that up until 2003 provided training in the hotel, catering and tourism industries.
It wants 10 new chef training centres set up around the country.
For John Wyer of high-end restaurant Forest Avenue in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, the issue is about quality of training, not quantity.
He says the system for training chefs in Ireland is “fundamentally flawed” and is “simply not working”, because the key to learning is real-world experience, something many courses lack.
A three-month work placement is not enough, he says, adding that he did not feel like a chef until about eight years into his career.
“I would be expecting someone walking in off the street from a course to have a basic skill-set and know-how to cook stocks and soups, chop vegetables, have a basic understanding of technique and be able to work efficiently with cleanliness in the kitchen. That’s simply not happening,” he says.
“I couldn’t have somebody employed here whom I’m babysitting.”
Wyer’s initial training was through an apprenticeship programme, where he went to college one day a week and spent the rest of his time working in restaurants.
“That’s how I think it should be done. Then you’ll very quickly realise if that’s what you want to do.”
The carefree student life, he says, is nothing like the lifestyle one can expect in the restaurant industry, with its demanding work schedules.
While Wyer applauds the Restaurants Association of Ireland for highlighting staffing difficulties, he says the issue extends to things that cannot be taught: passion and commitment.
“The Celtic Tiger has a lot to answer for regarding this craft. The Celtic Tiger cubs have done courses and want to become chefs, and they want it now. They want success straight away.
“There are people looking for the fast track to stardom. It’s a difficult trade, and it requires years of commitment and sacrifice.
“The career has been glorified through social media and TV, and I think that has had some very positive influences on the trade but also some detrimental effects.”
MasterChef Ireland judge Nick Munier, whose latest restaurant Avenue, opened in Temple Bar, Dublin, recently, says the job is not as glamorous as it looks. After 30 years , he finds it is still hard for him to take a day off.
Lynda Booth, founder of the Dublin Cookery School, in Blackrock, says her chef qualification was a passport that took her to top kitchens in Italy, Canada and England, and she sees other recently qualified chefs doing the same thing.
“When I was younger, I worked under extremely talented chefs, and it was very inspiring. That breadth of experience led me to start something of my own.
“I wanted to have a family, and I think that’s why so many women don’t stay in the restaurant business long-term. Working long hours in a restaurant doesn’t marry with having a family and bringing up children.”
Munier agrees with the restaurant association’s call for more training centres in Ireland.
He found it “a scramble”to find the right calibre of front- and back-of-house staff for his restaurant. But he also says the perception of the industry needs adjustment.
“In London, Paris and New York it’s regarded as a first-class job. Whereas here, you’re just a server in a restaurant or you’re a cook. Here, it’s not regarded as the correct career path.”
Wyer says some of his chef friends have turned to agencies in the UK and as far away as the Middle East to staff their restaurants.
“A friend of mine prefers to hire French waiters because the quality is miles ahead of here, and that’s down to training and instilling in people that waiting is a profession. Here, it’s not considered a profession.”
Both Munier and Wyer say the pick-up in the business is contributing to the staff shortage. New restaurants are opening and established places are doing well, they say.
“Nobody saw the return coming so quickly, I suppose,” Wyer says. “There’s been a boom in the restaurant business in the last six to eight months, and we haven’t been prepared for it in terms of staffing.”