Bridging the Skills Gap and Building Foodies – Niall McKenna on His Chef Apprenticeship Programme

“I was very very lucky, from a young age I was very much focused on becoming a chef. You ask most kids nowadays what they want to do and you get a dumb look on their face, they haven’t got a clue”, says Niall McKenna, one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent chefs and the restaurateur behind much-lauded James Street South, Hadski’s, Cast and Crew and The Bar and Grill.

While Niall himself saw becoming a chef as a vocation, to which he needed no persuasion or definitive call, he has made it his business both literally and metaphorically to ensure that the future of his restaurants is in safe hands. His Chef Apprenticeship Programme, open to aspiring chefs between the ages of 16 and 24 is proving to be a major success, at a time where the demand for chefs far outweighs the supply and recruiting staff, let alone talented staff, is more difficult than ever.

McKenna was determined to get to the root of the problem and do more than just pay lip service to wanting to solve it. No stranger to adjusting his sails to navigate a storm, Niall recalls taking a leap of faith and opening a new restaurant and cookery school in the middle of the economic downturn, a decisive moment in his success story today. “We had years of unbelievable growth at James Street South and then the recession came in and the pressure was on. Halfway through it, I had an epiphany”, he says of the decision to expand.

I always say a good recession sorts a lot of things out. It makes people clarify their vision and focus on the business.

“I turned around and said we’re going to expand in the middle of a recession – let’s open a restaurant. People looked at me like I was absolutely nuts! We got The Bar and Grill going and it was the best thing we ever did. Then we opened Hadski’s and Cast and Crew, plus a cookery school”, he explains.

However, with rapid growth came the need to equip each kitchen and restaurant with the most important ingredient in the recipe for success, a strong team of staff from front of house to the pass and therein lay the problem for McKenna. A chef rather than funds shortage, it seemed, would be a bigger stumbling block in driving forward.

As the adage goes, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. Not content to be an idle observer to this industry issue and watch his business suffer as a result, Niall affirms that “we don’t stand there with the begging bowl out, we don’t ask anybody for anything. There’s nobody banging on the door looking for a job, so we had to start creating them ourselves. For us to keep our business going, we had no choice.”

Uncompromising in his resolve to move forward with the expansion, Niall looked into ways of solving the issue himself. “We looked at different apprenticeship schemes, they were all very long. I said to my wife Joanne, who has a background in business, that we could set up our own one year intensive apprenticeship programme.

A straight talker throughout the course of our chat, Niall noted that the few who were coming to the door seeking a job hadn’t been trained properly and that a skills gap existed even in chefs who had a number of years of experience in kitchens. “The industry has totally changed, head chefs years ago used to just throw staff out who didn’t perform, nowadays you can’t afford to do that with so many kitchens short-staffed.”

As for the training itself, Niall believes getting the recruits into the kitchen and actually cooking from day one is the key to keeping motivation high. “They’re learning the really important structure in the beginning – they’re making bread, doing souffles, doing the classics with modern techniques and cooking straight away. Throwing someone in the back and having them do donkey work, that’s just breaking them down”, he says.

While creating a positive environment in each of his restaurants is paramount to Niall, who notes that humor is a vital commodity, it is also extremely important to him that his young recruits look after their mental well-being. In an intense environment, he ensures that each of the apprentices is partnered with an ex-apprentice, who is there to lend support and encouragement having been through the same programme.

The sous chefs, and some of the head chefs are ex apprentices and they’ve been there and they are there for the apprentices when their heads go down – there’s a connection straight away.

“I say to the team, if these guys leave, it means you have to do more work, so your job is to make sure we’re getting the right people in and making sure we train them up and treat them properly. The key thing is, its all about not taking people on just for the hell of it. We started taking on twelve apprentices every year and now we only take six, and it is really concentrated.”

The apprentices split their time between hands-on work in the kitchen and lectures at Belfast Metropolitan College and are required to treat their college hours like work, to ensure they emerge from the paid programme fully equipped for their new career. “You’re not going to university and getting a massive bill at the end of it, you come in, train and come out with a career and it hasn’t cost you a fortune”, he says.

Niall will employ all six in the end, based on their unique skill set – “some of them are the creatives, some are workhorses and some are more management orientated – everybody has got a skill. I’m trying to get a mixture of a type of chefs for each different restaurant.”

Niall believes in full immersion in the culture of food and focusing on the broader picture of the industry, taking his apprentices to visit artisan producers to gain a respect for where our food comes from and to build their passion. “This way, we are building foodies and that can only be a good thing for the entire industry.” Niall has seen a number of his apprentices branching out to become food producers, fishmongers and bakers as a result of the experience, and although he may lose a chef, he sees this as invaluable for the industry.

Looking at the bigger picture, Niall tells me that he is losing one of his chefs to the fishmonger trade this month, but sees the positives – “All of a sudden, you have a fishmonger who knows food, who knows the standard, who understands a kitchen and the quality we need”, he says. “One thing that is so important is communicating that out, that people can move and do different things. We need to change peoples perception of this industry, because it is a great one to be in” he notes proudly.

When asked if he could see programmes like this becoming more widespread across Ireland, Niall himself employs a healthy dose of positivity – “I think its in our DNA now, it will definitely happen, but I think it has to start with the individuals who own the restaurants, who have the passion but also understand the problems.”

Having recently expanded his apprenticeship offering to include a Front of House programme, Niall is actively ensuring that the surge of hotel openings in his native Belfast and of course, Brexit, will not impact his businesses catastrophically staff wise. He built his team from the ground up and filled his kitchens with passionate young food lovers and in so doing, changed both their lives and his own.

The ultimate measure of success does not come in the form of totting up profits and business accolades for this chef and prolific restaurateur, but rather the results are plain to see every day when he visits each kitchen. “Apart from Head Chef David Gillmore, virtually every chef at James Street South, our main kitchen, is ex-apprentice. They are all amazing chefs, really good cooks, really organised and methodical and to me that is what its all about. Virtually half of all the teams across all our restaurants are ex-apprentices, that’s after four years and that to me says it works. There’s the proof.”

RECIPE BY DARINA COFFEY

Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.

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