Qualified Chef Shortage gap continues to widen in the UK

Over the years, restaurants throughout the UK have had to deal with the challenge of culinary skill shortages within their heated and fast-paced kitchens. With this year’s festive season predicted to see the biggest shortage of skills in comparison to the increasing demand, we catch up our two Senior Hospitality Recruitment Consultants and former chefs to find out the exact extent of the skill shortage crisis, how it has impacted the hospitality industry and what employers should do to attract more talent to their kitchens.

How bad is the shortage in real time?

In a recent survey by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, 61 percent of Hospitality recruitment agencies say that they do not have enough chefs to meet the demand over the Xmas period. 21 percent of agencies said that they were unsure of whether or not they would have enough chefs to source, with just 18 percent of agencies reporting that they had sufficient talent to source.

That’s not all however, because the shortage has been ongoing for many years, with 93 percent of agencies reporting that there are not enough trained chefs in the UK to meet the demand, while 83 percent of agencies said that they expected the gap between supply and demand to widen over the next 12 months.

When discussing the figures above, Adam Russell, Senior Hospitality Consultant and Chef Specialist who worked in kitchens for over 10 years, provides some insight as to why there is such an immense shortage of skilled chefs within the UK. “There are many factors that fuel the shortage of highly skilled chefs in the industry. Among these factors is the fact that many catering colleges do not offer a comprehensive training scheme that empowers aspiring chefs to be resilient and quick on their feet in the fast-paced, and high-pressured environment of a restaurant’s kitchen.”

Matthew Covell, also a Senior Hospitality Consultant and Chef Specialist who worked within the industry for 8 years, agrees with Adam, saying, “I can see that there is a problem with the way these training schemes portray the industry to aspiring chefs. They portray a chef’s career in a manner that seems glamorous, like something out of Masterchef, when the reality is vastly different in comparison. This in turn puts candidates off the industry after just a short time of working in a kitchen themselves.”

What could make matters worse is if the British government decides to make a clean break from the EU, which may result in visa and migration restrictions. As it stands, 42 percent of the 250,000 chefs working in the UK are migrants, and restricting free movement of labour would likely lead to an increased gap in the market.

“The vast majority of people working in our kitchens are from Europe and not from Britain, so whilst it may be possible to improve training schemes in the long-term, the government needs to think long and hard about the immediate implications to the catering industry should they restrict free movement, as I can foresee the shortage becoming even more severe, to the point of it being ridiculous,” cautions Adam.

The underlying causes of the chef shortage

In examining the problems, one must try to determine what the underlying causes are. Both Adam and Matthew believe that the skill shortage crisis is perpetuated by a combination of factors, including treatment of staff, working hours, culinary courses neglecting to offer adequate hands-on training, and even the fact that the industry is largely candidate-driven.

Adam notes that many apprenticeship programmes in the UK are too simplistic, and fail to provide opportunities whereby students can practice and perfect their culinary art, saying, “Many students will literally spend an entire day learning how to make one dish or side. After watching a chef prepare the dish once, the students are only given one opportunity to do it themselves, and that’s it, their course work for that area is concluded and never reviewed. To me, this is problematic because it is impossible to fit learning such crucial skills - that take years of effort and practice to perfect- into one 3-hour session.”

Matthew agrees with this observation, offering his insights into the issue: “Whilst there are some excellent culinary colleges in the UK, there is unfortunately a great deal of average ones as well. The NVQ course, if you do the 7061 or the 7062, can be a very comprehensive and thorough training scheme. The NVQ1 however is very basic and students will literally just learn how to make a sandwich, or how to present a cold buffet. They are then presented with a qualification without really being properly trained in the craft.”

In addition to there being limited resources to prepare students for the heat of the kitchen, Matthew feels that there is just not enough emphasis on upholding a work to life balance within the industry. “Unfortunately the majority of UK restaurants have created this culture whereby chefs are overworked and suffer burnouts from working 60 to 70 hours per week, which ultimately results in them being turned off by the industry altogether,” he says.

Adam also observes that the demand for skilled chefs perpetuates a high turnover and catch 22 scenario for employers, whereby they hire untrained individuals out of sheer desperation, causing the quality of both the food and service to suffer. “The industry is admittedly a blue-collared one, and you get many fresh-faced youngsters entering the business who cannot take criticism, and so they just walk away,” He says. “We’re also at a candidate lead market, so people will inevitably walk away from a job that’s paying them £8 an hour, go 4 doors down and start working at the next restaurant owner who will, out of sheer desperation, be all too eager to hire without even conducting background or reference checks.”

Solutions to narrow the gap

Adam and Matthew both agree that the solution to the problem should start at the grassroots training of aspiring chefs.

Adam argues that practice is the best teacher when it comes to perfecting one’s culinary art. “In my experience, many apprentices who have entered my kitchen in the past were better able to cultivate and develop their culinary skills from working alongside myself and other chefs.” He believes that if colleges were to offer more opportunities for practical training, along with an accurate glimpse into the nitty gritty and high-pressured nature of the industry, then it would enable educational institutions to better distinguish individuals with genuine interest and talent for growth from those who are indifferent and are indifferently entering the industry as a means to make money.

Matthew agrees, highlighting how colleges can better incentivise their students to learn. “I think it would prove highly effective and beneficial if tutors were given the opportunity to train employers and apprentices in their own respective workplaces,” says Matthew. “It doesn’t take a great deal of time or money to incentivise individuals to learn, and simple actions, such as providing students with new kitchen gear, can really go a long way in motivating them to learn.”

Another positive change to the industry would be to make shift patterns more sustainable in the long-term, reducing the risk of chefs becoming overworked and unwilling to continue pursuing a career in catering. “As it stands, working hours as a chef are just not conducive for individuals who plan to have a life, relationship or family outside of work,” observes Adam. However, Matthew notes that some businesses in the UK are starting to remodel their shift patterns to better retain their kitchen staff, saying, “There are quite a few high-end, Michelin Star restaurants in London that are beginning to implement a system whereby staff only need to work 8 shifts per week, which can be split over 4 days, meaning that their chefs can now have 3 days off. This to me is a crucial step in the right direction."

Chefs needed urgently!

Are you a culinary artist looking to make the most out of the busy Christmas season? Do you fancy yourself as the saviour of a kitchen that desperately needs a makeover, and a master in spicing up dishes that need an extra boost of flavour? Whether you're looking for a role as a Head chef, a Sous Chef or a Chef Manager, our specialist Hospitality & Catering consultants provide a range of bespoke solutions and can refer you to some of the UK's largest employers in the Hospitality & Catering sectors! You can find our full list of vacancies here!

About our Contributors

Adam Russell

Adam Russell is a Specialist Chef Recruitment Consultant for the Hospitality & Catering Division in Manchester. He recruits permanent chefs of all levels, ranging from commis to executive, across the North West and Midlands, with a particular focus on the hotel, bar and restaurant market.

Matthew Covell

After working in the hospitality and catering industry for 8 years (with 2 years at Head Chef level) Matthew Covell is now a Senior Consultant for hospitality, specialising in chef recruitment  across London and the South East. He notes that his time spent cooking in various restaurants, pubs and even for her Majesty the Queen helped him develop a passion for not only great food but building a great team and recognising true talent when sourcing candidates.



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