The chef shortage begins to bite
Why is there an acute shortage of chefs? And does the blame lie with the industry or the teaching colleges?
Second-year students in the pastry class of the professional cookery programme at DIT Cathal Brugha Street. Photograph: Eric Luke
November is Food Month in The Irish Times
Ireland’s restaurant industry is thriving, but for how long? A shortage of chefs is really starting to bite. Restaurants and hotels say they can’t find the right staff, and they are concerned about the impact this might have on standards and business.
The reason, says Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, is simple: not enough chefs are being trained and there are not enough chef-training programmes. He wants the Minister for Education to immediately re-establish Cert, the former State Tourism Training Agency.
These days, every other person appears to be a food blogger or Yelp reviewer, artisan food businesses are mushrooming, a bakery show gets huge ratings and eating out is a national pastime. But this interest doesn’t seem to be driving more people to train as chefs.
Domini Kemp, restaurant owner and Irish Times food columnist, is one of the patrons of a new MSc in applied culinary nutrition at IT Tallaght. She says there are a number of factors blocking the pipeline, and the story begins long before young people go to college. “Like most areas of education, chef training is underfunded. We actually need to harness more interest in food and eating habits at primary schools.
“Yes, there have been successful programmes, such as Bord Bia’s Food Dudes and a scheme by Euro-toques which encourages healthy eating. But not all kids are exposed to a wide range of food at a young age. I’d much rather teach children about food than religion. This is where resources need to be directed. Food education needs to start at an early age.”
A mass exodus of talent
There are other, more immediate factors. Kemp says there was a mass exodus of talented chefs during the recession, and they haven’t come back.
The Restaurants Association of Ireland has been raising the issue since 2012. Cummins says the relevant agencies involved in employment and training – Solas (the Further Education and Training Authority), the Department of Education, the Department of Jobs, Fáilte Ireland and the institutes of technology that provide chef training – are only starting to listen now.
“The problem we will have over the next four years is that there simply will not be enough people coming out of the colleges to meet the needs,” says Cummins. “I’ve seen Solas claim there is no shortage of skills in hospitality. The agencies have clearly taken their eye off the ball. We believe that there needs to be a greater focus on training through the apprenticeship model, and the Education and Training Boards are the way to make this happen.”
Kitchens are just about managing. Kemp says some people who are not very good are being hired, and that, increasingly, substandard people are working in kitchens. Cummins says restaurants and hotels are improvising and sourcing staff overseas; he anticipates the problem will worsen over the next six months. However, the problem is also international; restaurants in the UK and other parts of Europe also experiencing shortages.
Many chefs blame the academic system. In an interview with the Sunday Times in May, Ross Lewis, chef proprietor at Michelin-starred Chapter One in Dublin, said there was a paucity of good recruits to fill the hundreds of vacant positions, and the academic system is not fit to produce passionate graduates with cooking abilities. Lewis said the colleges are not producing the next generation of great chefs, that there are better options open to young people in terms of hours and pay, and fewer and fewer culinary students are becoming chefs. His comments were supported in the report by Barry Liscombe, chef at Hartes of Kildare. Caroline Byrne of Euro-toques Ireland, part of the pan-European food lobby group, said “we are looking at a dismal future in terms of culinary arts”. Euro-toques was not available for comment for this.
Dr Frank Cullen is head of the school of culinary arts and food technology at Dublin Institute of Technology , which is by some distance the largest culinary arts training centre in Ireland, with about 200-250 graduates across its various programmes each year. He rejects this assessment and says such statements are impacting on new entry into the business. “It saddens me when I read [established chefs] suggesting how shameful it is for young chefs who want to get paid for the hard work they do.”
Cheffing is seen as a tough career: the hours are long, the pressure is high, it’s not family-friendly and an angry head chef might yell at you. But this is changing – because it has to, says Cullen. “There can be long hours, sometimes even up to 60 or 70 a week. But restaurants have caught on to the fact that, if they want to attract employees and keep them, they also need to look after them.”
Cullen says the industry should also respond to the shortage by releasing more apprentice chefs from their restaurants to train one day a week at DIT. But he says that, although many students have good experiences, some of those who go out to work in kitchens in their first or second year return with their enthusiasm destroyed.
Cullen showed me two extracts from the reflective diaries of culinary students who had gone on placement in hotels or restaurants. He said many other students had more positive experiences, but he showed these two diaries to highlight the factors that might drive students away from cheffing (see panel, below left).
Cullen says there needs to be a partnership between academia and industry. “It is not the responsibility of one or the other. Acknowledging that, there are some very good restaurant partnerships within the school. The understanding that their restaurant is an extension of the culinary educational system would go a long way to instilling the much-needed passion for fine cookery that is often referred to by chefs in the industry. The students’ industry experience should reinforce passion, not kill it.”
At the recent Food on the Edge symposium in Galway, world-leading chefs discussed the shortage. Irish chef Mark Moriarty (23), winner of the World Chef of the Year award for 2015, said young entrants have to be realistic about joining a tough industry, but that the industry also has to look at how it behaves and how it trains young industry professionals.
Nobody at the symposium was blaming education institutes for the problem, says Cáit Noone, head of the College of Tourism and Arts at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. “This is an international issue, with people like Rene Redzepi of Noma and Sat Bains of Restaurant Sat Bains stating that our industry has to change. But if the hospitality sector is serious about dealing with the chef shortage, then why are all stakeholders not sitting down to find solutions? We are an articulate, intelligent industry that manages and operates tourism businesses, so why not use examples of best practice as they exist in Ireland and build solutions rather than engaging in a blame culture?”
FRONTLINE EXPERIENCE: DIT STUDENT DIARIES
1 “As we were shouted at a lot for even the smallest of mistakes, you eventually find yourself giving way to their way of operating, and I started doing jobs I would easily have done before with no problems to conform to their specifications so as not to be shouted at. Doing anything outside the box in this place gets you marked and they will not like you. As most of the people didn’t like each other, the atmosphere reflected that. You eventually conformed and did as they say in their way.”
2 ”Now that I have had only three weeks in the kitchen, it surprised me how much I have learned so far in terms of the dishes on the menu, each individual ingredient, how they are assembled and presented. I also have learned that the individual components of most starters and desserts require very little cooking in terms of heat application and can be assembled very quickly, which is obviously very convenient during a busy service. I really think that I have gained a good insight into the running of a professional kitchen, which is what I wanted from this placement. I definitely will feel more confident going into another kitchen now with this experience behind me.”
3 “I no longer understand the politics in the kitchen. There seems to be no team and no camaraderie. Everybody seems to be out for themselves. I am finding the stress unbearable. Where is the team spirit? I kept thinking: surely this isn’t the way a kitchen is, or is it?”
THE CULINARY COLLEGE ROUTE FROM STUDENT TO HEAD CHEF
Margaret Roche graduated from DIT’s school of culinary arts in 2011. She worked for three years as chef tournant in the Michelin-starred Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire, alongside Alain Roux. She then worked as a private chef in a French villa, before travelling to Australia for six months doing stages in some of the country’s best restaurants. She is currently head chef at Hugo’s in Dublin.
“I had great relationships with my lecturers at DIT, and they encouraged me to move from the two-year certificate course into the culinary arts degree. The professional cookery course at DIT was very practically focused, whereas there was a 50-50 split between theory and practical cookery when I moved into the degree programme.
“I worked in the Merrion Hotel while at college, and I can’t over-stress how important it is for students on a culinary arts programme to also work in a kitchen during college. Not only will you gain invaluable experience, but you also make sure this is the career that you want.
“Yes, it is a hard industry, and to do well you do have to sacrifice a lot. There are long hours and you do miss out on occasions, but you do this job because you love it. I’d much rather miss out on the odd occasion than wake up on Monday morning and go in to a job that I hate. The days of awful, stressful, angry kitchens are, although not gone, definitely fading.
“There is a severe shortage of good chefs at the moment, but restaurants are responding to this by making the job more accessible. I know that at Hugo’s, for instance, they are very strict on ensuring staff have a work-life balance.
“Should someone go to an institute of technology or a private cookery school? DIT has a great name and I learned from chefs in the industry. But actually, for me, the most important factor in my decision to employ someone is not necessarily where they trained or went to college, or how many Michelin stars they have, or how experienced they are – it’s all about attitude: are they willing to learn and to follow instruction? If they are, then they have good prospects.”