The laborious lifestyle of a chef is well chronicled. The long hours in a hot, cramped, pressurised environment that are guaranteed to result in a sore back, multiple burns and sleep deprivation, and less so in a social life. But there’s another key player in the hospitality industry who’s working tirelessly of late but whose services are rarely acknowledged, the job fairy.
Sprinkling her fairy dust, via the hashtag #jobfairy, all over your Twitter feed and Facebook wall she’s furiously spreading the word of the slew of chef job vacancies that are flooding onto market.
There’s no fairytale ending to this story however. Due to the steady increase in new openings competition for staff is fierce and that fast-flowing stream of posts from restaurants, hotels and other catering facilities crying out for staff amounts to a chef shortage of 5000 trainees annually, as indicated by The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.
The Restaurants Association of Ireland CEO Adrian Cummins has repeatedly stated that the situation is at crisis point and that the only way to ease the pressure on the industry is to re-establish CERT, the former State Tourism Training Agency programme responsible for providing a trained workforce for the hotel, catering and tourism industry that was abolished in 2003.
While there are now a range of courses available for school-leavers, ranging from certificates to honours degree programmes in hospitality management, the 1,800 chefs that qualify each year falls far short of meeting the demand, leaving the industry in quite a pickle, or whichever trendy fermented vegetable is taking your fancy of late.
Throwing a life buoy to restaurants struggling to keep their heads above water, the government has planned to boost the both the quantity and variety of apprenticeships to address the mismatch between the skills of those entering the workforce and the demands in the marketplace.
It is claimed that 15 schemes should be in place by the end of this year and that the projected annual intake of 6,000 apprentices and 4,000 trainees will spend much of their time with employers and the rest with education providers like the institutes of technology.
Adrian Cummins recently commenting however that officials have told him that there is no money available to pay allowances to apprentices, and remains adamant in his belief, one supported by a vocal band of chefs, that the re-establishment of CERT is the only solution to counter the deficit.
Speaking to Ciarán Ó hAnnracháin, Head of Department of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts at Letterkenny IT, he straight away throws water on the hot coals of this intensely debated topic, agreeing that yes there is a shortage but that it’s only a “slight” one, and says that those in training centres get little credit for their significant contribution.
“The colleges get a lot of criticism for offering degrees. The industry thinks that there is one way to train a chef. There’s a lot of talk about the old way, about apprenticeships and to bring back CERT and forget about all these degrees.”
“Those in the industry are saying just give us the chefs and we’ll do all the training but they’ve been saying that for years and they don’t have the structures, capacity or facilities to do that.”
He points out that shortages of commis chefs feed into shortages at higher and specialist levels, sous chefs, demi chefs, chefs de partie, and pastry chefs.
“The middle range is a huge challenge for the industry. There is an insufficient number of people trained at that level to take up those roles.”
“There are a few reasons for that. We talk about the ‘five year burn out.’ People work as a commis chef for a few years and there’s a lack of opportunity to move up so they are stuck at entry level, and if they are not moving up they are moving out.”
Targeting the students who have been working in industry for a number of years and are struggling to make any progress Ciaran says Killybegs was the first to offer an honours degree in Culinary Arts.
“We are putting a ladder of progression in place, so when people are not getting this training in industry they can come back and study to degree level. This is an option to step out, reskill, upskill and go back at a different level.”
“The industry criticises us that we are doing all this ‘academic’ work and not training chefs, that’s actually incorrect. We do all our chef training in the first two years, it’s only in the latter two years that it takes an academic focus and very few chefs choose to do that.”
He says out of an average 100 first year students only 12 to 14 will proceed to third and fourth year, the vast majority of the rest will go out into the industry after second year.
“We feel like we are getting backlash for training chefs to this level rather than support.”
“Whereas if people go directly into the industry, they’ll do their training and five years on they fail to move up and they’ll move out.”
Ciaran says that the shortage is being felt most strongly in smaller restaurants. “If people are going into small restaurants they are not getting the training they need to step up.”
“There’s no way that a chef can go into a small, owner operated restaurant environment and get the same experience and exposure to managing larger teams, menu design, purchasing and all that as would get they say if they were to go into say a large hotel with a well-structured team, and with that the possibility of advancement.”
Paul Kelly Executive Pastry Chef at the five Star Merrion Hotel, backs up this theory: “like everywhere The Merrion has been impacted (by the shortage) but luckily trainees are attracted to The Merrion for its reputation as a great centre for learning and our kitchen has produced some of the best chefs in the country.”
“I believe the best way to train a chef is to find a balance between practical and theory.”
“There is no doubt that the majority of young chefs are going to enjoy the practical side of our work but it’s so important that they understand the fundamentals of cooking and the business side of the industry.”
Elsewhere, chefs are taking matters into their own hands devising their own apprenticeship programmes, like chef Kevin Aherne of Sage in Midelton, County Cork, who’s encouraging those with “no experience” to apply for a four-year stint in his kitchen as a route into the career.
Belfast restaurant James Street South has also established a chef apprentice programme of its own, while on the Lisburn Road in the city, head chef Brian McCann of the multi award winning Shu has partnered up with Belfast Metropolitan College, opening its kitchen doors to four young cooks.
Of course, all of this takes into consideration that young people are choosing to work as a chef as a career in the first place, which Ciaran says has become a less attractive option as other industries offer better structured and more financially rewarding career paths.
“There’s a lot of talk about minimum pay and long hours, but it’s not that the restaurant industry has gotten any worse, it’s just that the other opportunities available to young people have gotten far better and more attractive.”
“The role of CERT was to provide trained people for the industry, but that was at a time when the industry, the European Social Fund and the government paid for that education. Now when a student finishes the leaving cert and has to pay for college and accommodation they have a right to choose what they want to do. That’s the fundamental change that has happened over the years.”
“So this notion to bring back CERT isn’t realistic, people have to understand that 18 year olds will never buy into that like they did when there were no other options. Today it’s a buyers marker and students will vote with their feet. If they are not happy they will go elsewhere.”
So, how can the industry help attract young people and retain the chefs they already have? “It’s a huge challenge for small restaurants. There are already huge costs involved and the margins are very tight. They simply do not have enough money to pay staff well enough to retain them.”
“I don’t think the industry has done a good job as selling itself as a viable career.”
Chef Patron at Boxty House Padraic Og Gallagher, says this year he had to make the decision to close for breakfast due to the lack of experienced chefs available.
Aside from pay issues and long hours, he highlights that the treatment of young chefs is having a negative impact on numbers applying and calls for “a code of conduct for industry to follow to prevent perceived abuse of commis chefs.”
Chef Paul Kelly says before a young person commits to a career as a chef they must accept that the job is “a physical, mental and emotional rollercoaster that takes focus and commitment.”
But adds that “like any rollercoaster ride its scary at first but extremely exciting, has its ups and downs and at the end you feel so proud that you have achieved something, and you’ll want to do it all over again!”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.