Behind the headlines: A shortage of chefs

A lack of trained kitchen staff may force your local restaurant to close, warns Joanna Blythman

Behind the headlines: A shortage of chefs

Authentic cuisine?

Joanna BlythmanNext time you eat at your local Italian, Greek or Indian restaurant, take a moment to think about who’s doing the cooking – or not. Restaurateurs are having a tough time recruiting staff, with almost half of the vacancies (47 per cent) proving difficult to fill, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

Indian restaurants in particular are struggling, with many expected to close next year because they can’t afford to sponsor chefs coming from the subcontinent. If this situation continues, it’s going to be harder to find well cooked, authentic versions of popular cuisines – as opposed to more watered-down versions – when we eat out.

Glamour vs. graft

Theoretically, being a chef has more status than it used to – television shows have given the job a glamorous air. In reality most restaurant chefs work 70-80 hours a week, doing split shifts with rarely a weekend off. So it’s hardly surprising that retaining staff has never been easy.

However, recent restrictions on recruitment from abroad have made it considerably harder. To obtain a temporary visa for a skilled chef from outside the European Union, an employer must pay him or her £29,000 a year (after deductions for accommodation and meals). Restaurants with a takeaway element are penalised further, as they don’t qualify for this visa scheme.

A chef can only get a permanent visa if the restaurant can pay £35,000, which is way beyond the means of most independent businesses. All this is a problem for an industry that depends heavily on foreign staff – 42% of chefs working here at present are non-UK nationals, according to the workforce development charity, People 1st. Nearly half are from EU countries and there are concerns that further restrictions will escalate this shortage. It’s not just that we need a regular infusion of fresh talent from the mother countries to give us a reasonably authentic taste of the diverse world cuisines we’ve become accustomed to. It’s also that chefs from abroad are now the backbone of the catering business, even in restaurants that seem British to the core.

Cost of living

Also, regardless of where they come from, many chefs struggle with the cost of living, particularly in the capital. When chef and restaurateur Angela Hartnett asked her young, London-based recruits what would improve their situation, many said transport.

As housing is so expensive, more and more restaurant staff are forced to live outside central London and face a long journey home after an already long shift. She was a keen advocate of the recently launched 24-hour Tube, which means many workers' journeys are now cheaper.

So what’s the solution? Many restaurateurs and recruiters argue that the only way to fill vacancies from abroad is by relaxing immigration rules for chefs. However, the UK hospitality industry reckons it needs to recruit an additional 22,000 chefs by 2022, so there are plenty of opportunities for youngsters or retrainers living in the UK. For anyone with British citizenship who has always fancied a career at the stove, now is the time to apply. Their prospects of finding a job have never looked better.

Giving staff a helping hand

Meanwhile, some restaurateurs are doing their best to make the job more attractive. Nottingham-based chef Sat Bains has pioneered a four-day working week at his Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, while others are stopping service on quiet days to reduce chefs' hours.

Catering colleges that run three-year chef diplomas include Westminster Kingsway and Weymouth, which runs the Hix Academy set up by Mark Hix, and Bournemouth & Poole.

Find out more about getting a job in the food industry.

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