Shows like Bake-Off, Masterchef and the rise of the celebrity chef are forcing contract catering operations to do more to attract and keep their chefs close. Andrew Pring reports.
14 December 2016 | Andrew Pring
Look back over the years and it is clear that the catering world has always faced a recruitment crisis.
Lower pay than most other sectors, longer, often unsociable hours and poor staff management have dogged the business and deterred young people from considering it as a worthwhile career.
It's no different today. Restaurants continue to struggle to recruit good-quality staff, particularly chefs. A report last year from UK Employment and Skills found that restaurants were unable to fill nearly half of all skilled chef vacancies. The situation will not have improved in the past 12 months.
The success of casual dining chains in the past decade has contributed enormously to the strain of recruiting chefs. In 2008, the proportion of hard-to-fill vacancies that were for chef roles was 33 per cent and has now risen to 38 per cent. For skilled chef roles, the figures are even higher - 44 per cent, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills' (UKCES) Employer Skills Survey, which highlighted that shortages are particularly prevalent in London (66 per cent) and in the South-East (46 per cent). People 1st estimates that 11,000 new chefs will be needed by 2020.
To add to the problem for recruiters, in the past year half of catering colleges have seen student numbers fall on chef courses while the number of chef apprentices has also fallen.
It's against this challenging backdrop that contract caterers must compete for their share of chef talent. And adding to the challenge are the increasing demands by clients for better quality food, the kind of food they and employees enjoy when dining out in their leisure time.
Contractor Servest's head chef Chris Ince agrees that the world of celebrity has no doubt popularised the industry; the success of shows like The Great British Bake Off and Masterchef reaffirm this. "However, as is the case with most reality TV shows, they present an utterly unrealistic picture of what's actually involved in a chef's day to day activities. What can be said of such cooking programmes is that they have helped make the general public aware of what good food is; they have alerted people to the issues of sustainability, seasonality and cuisines from across the globe," he said.
Top chef challenge
Accordingly, when you talk to contract caterers there's no sense of despondency. Instead, there's a conviction from the top that they can show young people that being a chef in a contract catering operation is every bit as creative and satisfying as working in a top-class restaurant - all without the 80-hour weeks, the towering egos, the high-octane testosterone and non-stop expletives. And they're confident that increasing numbers of young people keen on catering are getting the message.
"IIIn recent years there has been a definite, marked change in the perception of contract catering, and as a result, in the numbers of young chefs entering the profession, says Ince. "Young aspiring chefs have realised that contract catering offers the opportunity to work in a variety of environments and with a diverse range of people."
Ian Thomas, CEO of Bartlett Mitchell, describes enormous progress in contract catering over the past 20-odd years, but says that too many people are still unaware of the changes. "There's so much creativity in our industry, but even people in the FM world still sometimes think of contract catering as all about unappetising school dinners - whereas in many places it has become almost fine dining."
This level of culinary excellence means contract caterers can now attract chefs who are passionate about their food. Chefs crave a creative environment, and with contract caterers now delivering to such a high level, firms are able to attract ambitious chefs from hotels and restaurants; it doesn't hinder contract catering's cause that chefs can work ordinary office hours as well.
Simon Esner of BaxterStorey sees chef recruitment as "a challenge, rather than a problem".
The company's success in tackling it has been built on a series of initiatives, chief of which was establishing its own chef academy 13 years ago. It forms the centerpiece of a training programme that costs the company £2 million a year.
Esner says: "We felt colleges weren't preparing students adequately for the workplace, and we decided to nurture our own talent. Michelin-starred chef John Campbell learnt about what we were doing and got in touch. It reflected his own ethos and he quickly came on board. We used to work with him and train our chefs at clients' venues, but since the start of 2014 we've had our own physical base in Newbury."
This teaching and demonstration kitchen sits next to Campbell's restaurant. Chefs from all over the UK visit and spend time with him as part of their training. For his part, Campbell is fully committed to the venture.
"It is such an exciting time now in the food service sector as expectations are far higher now than they have ever been, which challenges us all," says Campbell. He may have his two Michelin stars, but Campbell says the real stars are those chefs employed at contract caterers creating fantastic food within a more rigid environment.
BaxterStorey's trainee chefs get the chance to put their skills into practice with a week's tuition with Campbell and other chef consultants including Monica Galetti, Nigel Haworth, Mark Hix and Tom Kitchin. These chefs also conduct workshops at client locations; understandably, the chefs on site enjoy the experiences too and both recruitment and retention are boosted.
Top chefs working alongside the contract catering profession are changing catering colleges' perception of contract catering. Colleges that once saw contract catering as the poor relation in the chef employment world are now beginning to appreciate the sector's change in status.
However, Gather & Gather's director of food Jim Norris says the battle for chef talent is far from won, and it's about to get harder. "It's true that contract catering's 9-5 working day, Monday to Friday, has proved an attractive option to many chefs. But now, many clients want a 24/7 service, so our chefs may find their 40 hours are spread over a seven-day working week, day and night. I think it's going to get tougher to find people."
Norris is of the opinion that although catering colleges have improved, they're still not in tune with working life today.
"Colleges prepare their students as best they can, but they often arrive totally unready for the reality. We also see that colleges are still focused on encouraging students into hotels and restaurants, not our sector. And there's still a perception that if you work in those sectors you're properly trained whereas if you work in contract catering, you're not."
To raise the image of contract catering, Norris has been developing Gather & Gather's own set of accreditations. "We're not trying to replace traditional qualifications, but we employ lots of people with no college qualifications and this is all about unlocking their ability," says Norris. "The programme is designed to achieve four things: create a consistent approach to food standards across the business; increase learning and development opportunities for all chefs; recognise and retain great people; and drive sales and increase profit across the business."
Says Norris: "At the end of this programme, every chef in Gather & Gather will either have an externally recognised qualification or be formally recognised through internal accreditation as having completed a minimal standard of vocational training."
Simon Biggs, senior partner at the Litmus consultancy and chairman of the Catering & Hospitality Special Interest Group for the BIFM, bears witness to progressive training developments across much of the contract catering landscape these days.
"It's so important to hold on to your people, so training and career development is crucial. Train well and look after them better, or they'll walk away. I'm afraid that contract catering, despite all that it's doing, is still a hidden market. It has to work twice as hard as other sectors to attract people. It has to shout louder."
Employers in the pub trade might beg to differ. Many think their sector is still the poor relation in the catering world, despite the slew of celebrity chefs running gastro pubs. The sector has launched initiative after initiative to attract young people and particularly chefs and courts catering colleges assiduously yet still struggles. Last September, for example, the British Beer & Pub Association and the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group launched the Parliamentary Pub Chef of the Year Award in partnership with Nestlé Professional. The aim was to involve MPs by asking them to recognise chefs in their constituency renowned for their food. It followed a bigger recruitment initiative from the industry's Perceptions Group that aimed to champion career opportunities in the pub trade. Lack of money led quickly to its collapse, but one of its co-founders, the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), is about to unveil a more all-encompassing training project that builds on Perceptions.
Says BII vice-chairman Anthony Pender: "It's definitely become harder to recruit chefs, and some are being over-promoted as a result. The fear is that it will encourage operators to de-skill kitchens, and we may lose our position as leader of the culinary world. This initiative will address the problem head-on."
Contract caterers know they will have to keep shouting as loudly as possible to attract new talent. But with all that's going in their sector these days, they're clearly not short of things to shout very loudly about.