The great British chef shortage: why eating out is under threat

It was, says chef patron Alexis Gauthier, “not the last resort”, but almost. Last September, he needed to fill three positions at his central London restaurant, Gauthier Soho: a pastry chef; a chef de partie, to head up one of the stations in the kitchen; and a sommelier. Gauthier has held a Michelin star since 2011, but that is not enough of an enticement in an age where new restaurants seem to open every hour and there are not enough trained chefs and waiters to go round. Gauthier, a 44-year-old from Provence, decided to sweeten the deal: the winning candidates would each receive a £1,000 “golden handshake” in return for committing to work for one year.

The unusual offer received some industry press and Gauthier, who has worked in London for 20 years, was pleased with the response. There were some strong applicants and all the spots were taken up within two weeks.

Six months on, I check in with Gauthier: how are they getting on? “All three did not last,” he sighs. “One left after a week. The other two left after two and three months.” Each had their reasons: one chef went home to France, the other returned to Italy and the sommelier decided to go back to studying oenology.

Quick guide

What’s eating the restaurant trade?

Higher costs

Business rates and wages are up, as is the cost of imported food. Wages are up partly because of the rise in the legal minimum but also because finding workers is more tricky. High employment means there are less Brits available while the Brexit vote is putting off some EU workers who are already less keen because of the lower value of the pound.

The rise of delivery

Deliveroo, UberEats and Just Eat are driving a rise in demand for home delivery, cutting the number of customers eating out.

Over-expansion

Until 2015/16, dining out was growing strongly. Private equity firms helped mid-market chains expand, which increased competition just as the market was feeling the squeeze.

Spending shifts

Takeaway breakfasts and lunches are also diverting money away from sit-down restaurants.

Photograph: Kristin Lee/Tetra images RF

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Gauthier doesn’t take the rejection personally and prides himself on being a fair boss. “I used to be an employee for many years myself, so the day I became an employer I did not want to be a bastard,” he says. Gauthier pays his staff comparatively well: they also receive a private pension, health insurance and each has access to a research and development fund, for trying out other restaurants and bakeries, that pays out between £250 and £1,000 a month per person, depending on experience. One pâtissier and sommelier saved up their stipends and went to eat at Eleven Madison Avenue in New York. Gauthier says: “We try to make sure they can develop their professional career with our help.”

That, however, does not seem to be enough in 2018. In one way, Gauthier concedes that he is lucky: he is first and foremost a chef, so if he is one or two down in the kitchen – which is the case most days – he can fill in. Gauthier Soho does around 100 covers a day (50 for lunch, 50 for dinner) and, if really stretched, he can remove one dish from the menu and the quality of the service is not compromised. “As an employer, as a businessman, the sun is shining,” he says wryly. “I can work the extra hours and it’s more money in a way for me! But it’s unsustainable.” Gauthier is out of ideas about what to do next. “I swear,” he huffs, “if I’d given a £10,000 bonus, it would still be the same.”

This is, most agree, a golden age for eating out in Britain: never before has such a high quality of food been so widely available. This boom, though, is threatened by a chronic shortage of chefs and waiting staff. The hospitality industry is responsible for six million jobs, making it the UK’s fourth biggest employer. But this notoriously precarious business appears to be more topsy-turvy than ever. For every heartening headline: “Record 44 new restaurants set to open across London in September,” from the Evening Standard in September, 2017; there’s a depressing one: “Number of UK restaurants going bust up by a fifth in 2017” from the Guardian last month.

The situation, post-Brexit, will only become more complicated. The British Hospitality Association, with help from accountancy firm KPMG, published a report last year which suggests that the sector is staring into a recruitment black hole without EU nationals to bail them out: by 2029, the industry could have a deficit of more than a million workers. The report recommended that the industry will need to find at least another 60,000 workers per year on top of the 200,000 required “to replace churn and to power growth”.

Of course, 2029 is a way off, but the pinch is being felt now, according to Adam Hyman from Code Hospitality, a consultancy on restaurants and recruitment. “Every single restaurant in London is constantly looking for people – and good people.” He tells of a London private members’ club whose head of recruitment went out to Australia last year to find chefs.

Although the problem is perhaps being felt most keenly in London – where KPMG found that 25% of chefs and 75% of the waiting staff were from continental Europe – it is a nationwide concern, one that predates Brexit. Josh Overington took over Le Cochon Aveugle in York four years ago and won over diners and critics with his thoughtful take on classic French cooking. Yet, ever since opening, the 30-year-old Overington – who represented the north-east in 2017’s Great British Menu – cannot recall more than a week here or there when Le Cochon Aveugle has been fully staffed.

“It’s been a constant struggle to find chefs,” he says. “We’re a very small restaurant, we can fit four chefs in at one time, and the chef de partie” – number three in the chain of command – “has, in particular, been an elusive position. We’ve had long periods where it’s not filled, and it’s still not filled even as we speak.”

As for the causes of the chef shortage, he says there are a number of factors. “A lot of it is young chefs don’t have any patience. They just want to go straight to sous chef, head chef. Or they can sign up for an agency or work in a private home and the pay is better, the hours are better, you’re not being shouted at. You don’t really have any responsibilities and life is a lot better.”

Agency chefs are becoming a controversial – but indispensable – part of the restaurant food chain, filling in the holes when they arise. A recent report on the Big Hospitality website asked whether these freelance individuals were “Kitchen heroes or mercenary zeroes?” It’s easy to see why chefs are attracted to agencies: with wages often up to 25% higher than for equivalent staffers. Overington, though, has vowed to never use them again: “They’re not good enough. I’m basically paying double for a member of staff who isn’t anywhere near the level they need to be to work in a kitchen.”

Overington believes many restaurants will start offering simpler food and concentrate more on quality produce. This is fine, he says, but will make it harder than ever to operate “a game-changing” kitchen: “No one’s going to have the money; no one’s going to have the time.”

He has maintained standards at Le Cochon Aveugle by working long hours himself but, like Gauthier, he knows this is a short-term fix. On honeymoon in Australia in January, Overington marvelled at how different the restaurant culture was: chefs were rested, fresh, rarely working more than 10 hours a day. “I had a long, hard think: ‘Do I really want to carry on doing it?’” Overington admits. “Every day coming into work short staffed and customers’ expectations are so high because they’re spending quite a lot of money. And you go, ‘God, how do I get by?’”

It’s a similar story elsewhere. Dan Smith, who won best young chef at the 2016 OFM Awards when he was a sous chef at the Clove Club, set up on his own at the Fordwich Arms in Kent in December. “Staffing has been the toughest part of it,” he says. For the first month, Smith ran the kitchen with just the help of his fiancée Tash: “We were doing 25 to 30 covers for lunch, 40 covers for dinner. It was good fun for a little bit, but you can’t go on like that; you’d burn out.”

Smith, who is 26, spent three years earning a professional chef’s diploma from Westminster Kingsway College, working in restaurants at night. He’s young, but he has a decade’s experience, and this background and commitment is increasingly rare: “If I put an ad for a chef up, the people that are applying are plumbers, labourers, with no kitchen experience. You see that more and more: there’s fewer chefs coming through and I’m sure the catering colleges will tell you the same.”

It’s certainly a seller’s market: if you have the skills, you can pick and choose where you work. Serena von der Heyde, the owner of the five-star Georgian House Hotel in Victoria, London, has found it almost impossible to recruit chefs. “It’s a desperate situation,” she says. “When we put an ad in, we don’t get people responding. Or they don’t turn up for interview. Or they don’t turn up for their first day. It used to be that we were interviewing someone for the role. Now we’re trying to sell the role to them!”

Von der Heyde has attempted to enter partnerships with schools and colleges, and with charities that connect businesses with ex-offenders and women returning to work after a period of crisis. “Recruiting people from these different sources takes 10 times as long and has a tenth of the success rate,” she says. “There’s so many people coming through that aren’t really ready to go into work, don’t have the self-confidence, so we try very hard with all of that.”

So, why don’t young people want to be chefs and waiting staff any more? Anthony Bourdain styled chefs as renegades, Jamie Oliver showed the job could be lucrative and had the potential to change society, Gordon Ramsay lost his rag a lot – but, the more we looked into professional kitchens, the more it became clear that for many employees working in a restaurant meant antisocial hours, low pay and attritional conditions.

“It’s not sexy to be cleaning a kitchen at 11pm,” says Gauthier. “It’s not sexy to come in at 8.30am to clean the inside of a fish or debone a rack of lamb.” He exhales, “For a lot of people it would be hell. For me, it’s beautiful. But if you don’t have the passion, you can’t force yourself into it. And the passion comes from perseverance [but], in a society where the majority of people want things fast, it goes against the idea of perseverance.”

In recent years, too, young people interested in food didn’t have to follow the traditional route of earning their stripes in a kitchen. For a couple of years, everyone was launching food trucks or supper clubs: you got to be your own boss and maybe you’d be the next Pitt Cue or the new Bao. But those successes are becoming rarer. “This is a mirage,” scoffs Gauthier. “A lot of people have been excited to be an entrepreneur but you tell me the number who have succeeded? I can’t think of five. And there are probably 50,000 who have tried.”

Meanwhile, the murky reputation of the professional kitchen appears to be catching up with it. “Another reason why there’s no chefs is because they get bullied, they work long hours, getting paid little money for that,” says Overington from Le Cochon Aveugle. “I’m not saying everywhere is horrendous, because it’s not, but I’m sure nearly 100% of chefs my age would have had horrendous experiences.”

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For consultant Adam Hyman, it all comes back to an eternal failure in Britain – in contrast to, say, France, Italy and Spain – to promote working in a restaurant as “just as respectable as being an accountant, a lawyer or a teacher”. He continues, “Hospitality has never been seen as a proper career in Britain. It’s been seen as something that you do on your summer holidays or in between proper jobs. And that’s now starting to catch up.” There are few obvious solutions to the chef shortage. Gauthier would like to see an overhaul of the apprentice system, perhaps to bring it in line with France, where each area has a state-funded catering school that provides staff for the local restaurants.

“We need to start from scratch, by having people who are 14, 15, 16 going into the apprenticeships: they work one week in the restaurant, one week in school,” says Gauthier. “The school is funded by the government for chefs and for waiters and they graduate with a serious diploma that everybody is proud of holding.”

Some of the bigger restaurant groups are taking matters into their own hands. Gordon Ramsay Restaurants, for example, has partnered with the University of West London to offer a three-year programme and certification up to NVQ Level 3 in professional cookery, patisserie and confectionery. So far 36 students have entered the scheme, 10 have graduated – in all catering courses, a high drop-out rate is expected – and a new intake for September will be selected this spring.

Overington, meanwhile, is attempting to improve the quality of life for his staff. He recently announced that, from this summer, his restaurant will open for only four nights a week. “Since doing that, I’ve actually had more interest from potential candidates than ever before,” he says. “Which I’m actually really surprised at; I didn’t think it would make that big a difference. Obviously, it’s a massive risk to go down to four days for a little business like us, but it’s something we’re willing to do for our life-work balance.”

Von der Heyde believes that the situation will become impossible if the government pushes forward with the plan to restrict the number of EU nationals allowed visas to work in the UK. “However much we want to think there’s a pool of British workers who are being undercut by foreign workers,” she says, “in London, in my patch, in my industry, it is simply not the case.”

She issues a stark warning. “Twenty years ago, London had an awful reputation for its food and accommodation. Across the capital, you’ve seen standards rise. But the pressure that we’re under, it’s pushing us backwards. It’s going to push us to be the capital of budget service in the world.”

Numbers may be down, times are definitely hard, but everyone you speak to still has genuine passion for what they do. No one proves that better than the Fordwich Arms’s Smith. “I could never imagine being sat in front of a computer all day,” he says. “Being a chef is so creative. You have the freedom to say, ‘what can we get today from the market?’ Or, ‘what’s the fisherman caught today?’ There’s very few industries that you can create things every day. Once people realise that, that’s the thing that will give them the drive to want to do it.”