Despite the almost rock-star adulation of chefs that has developed over the past decade, the industry has an image problem and recruitment crisis, writes Nick Mosley

RESTAURANTS are struggling to recruit staff and to retain them. Workers blame long hours, low wages and a pressured environment while employers see a lack of respect for a hospitality career path, weak technical skills and a poor work ethos in those entering the profession.

They also blame Brexit, saying it has had an impact on recruitment and retention.

>> SEE ALSO: Skewered by Brexit: City centre restaurant closes amid uncertainty

The fall in the value of sterling against the Euro has meant the UK is a less attractive place for young people to live and work, while general insecurity of post-Brexit citizenship rights has meant many Europeans feel uncertain about their lives in the UK, particularly in a what is perceived as a low-skilled and low-paid sector.

“I think a negative impact of Brexit has already started to take effect,” said Peter Whiffen, curriculum manager for hospitality at Greater Brighton Metropolitan College (the Met).

The Argus:

“With the worries over Brexit, there could be a huge skills gap in the industry of up to 60,000 catering workers.

“The college has seen an increase in casual jobs being offered to students as the pool of workers from Europe decreases. The downside of this is that students can leave college prematurely and enter the industry, gaining experience of one style of cooking only. College courses embrace a variety of styles, giving the students a range of skills that will stand them in good stead for their career.”

Ben McKellar is one of the longest established chef-restaurateurs in Brighton and Hove, overseeing the successful Gingerman restaurant, three gastropubs and the new Flint House in Brighton’s new Hannington Lane.

He said: “Hospitality in general in this country is looked down upon, it is seen as a lesser profession much like other vocational employment.

“There is not much history of professionalism in catering among British people unlike in countries like Spain, France and Italy. People tend to go into catering because they did not do well at school rather than as an ambition.”

Jeremy Ashpool, of Jeremy’s Restaurant at Borde Hill near Haywards Heath, has seen a lot of change in the industry over the past 30 years.

He said: “For too long it’s been a given that hospitality generally demands long hours and poor pay.

“Clearly the pendulum has swung towards a better lifestyle balance with less hours and fairer pay. While that is rightly so, it remains true that without passion and inspiration, our industry is not one to enter lightly. Colleges need to provide inspiration and steer students towards the best establishments rather than mid range hotels.”

The Met is the main provider of hospitality training in Brighton. It has an impressive conversion rate with 98 per cent of college leavers either employed or moving on to further training.

Peter Whiffen said: “The caveat is that the industry itself needs to look at how millennials are being treated. They are from a different generation and need nurturing to encourage and maintain their employment within the industry.

“We see some restaurants reducing their opening hours to four days a week to maintain the work-life balance that society is now more conscious of, along with the fact that retirement may not be available until mid-70s for 16 to 19-year-olds entering the industry.”

The college collaborates with local chefs and employers including Isaac At, The Set, South Lodge and The Ginger Pig to offer students hands-on experience of the restaurant working environment.

George Thomas of Isaac At in Gloucester Street, Brighton, said: “This is almost like a probation period for students we would like to hire. By the time they finish college they already know how the kitchen works. We only hire from college. As a young team I believe it’s important in our restaurant that we do this. It means we can teach them what they need to know for their future career without the fear of bad habits More and more vocational colleges are closing down in England so across the country we will definitely find it more difficult to find well trained chefs in the future.”

The funding squeeze from Government for further education and vocational training is of huge concern not only for colleges themselves but also for the wider industry.

“I think colleges do the best they can with the resources they have,” said Johnny Stanford of No1 Broad Street Restaurant in Cuckfield.

“There are severe cutbacks to hospitality programmes nationally. They offer the best training they can but it’s never going to match working in a fully functioning restaurant where standards are high and costs are monitored strictly.”

Nationally, industry figures show a shortfall of some 30,000 chefs in the UK at the moment.

Resolving that issue in the long term, while also allowing independent restaurants to survive in a tough marketplace, will need support from Westminster – including policy change.

“A lot of recruitment issues will obviously come from the appeal of wages,” said Michael Bremner, proprietor and executive chef at 64 Degrees restaurant in Meeting House Lane.

“The long hours and therefore relatively low wages compared to a lot of other professions will be a bit of a deterrent for youngsters looking to start a trade. What Government could help to do to make this a more lucrative industry is not enforce such high costs for restaurants – specifically VAT and business rates. This way more money could be spent on staff without having to raise prices and put customers off coming.

“There are so many valuable skills you acquire when working in restaurants.

“You’ll learn very quickly how to work well in a team. You’ll often spend more hours with your work colleagues than friends and family, so the bonds you create will be extremely strong.

“These benefits also highlight what could potentially be seen as negatives – long, unsociable hours, hard work and having to deal with difficult customers in a high-pressure situation. The long and short of it is that a hospitality career is not for everyone – but if it is for you, then you’ll love it.”

Young chef Conor Geffryes 23, of 64 Degrees in Meeting House Lane, said: “I didn’t train at college, just learnt on the job, but university certainly doesn’t prepare you for the real world.”

Jake Young, 18, who works at Isaac At, said: I definitely underestimated how much hard work it would be. You only know how hard a 70-hour week is once you try it. However I wouldn’t change that as it has installed a hard working attitude into me, and has generally made me a more successful person.”

Caspian Armani 19, also at Isaac At, said: It’s an industry that really rewards self motivation, drive and desire for success, to that end I could never see myself doing anything else. The kitchen is my home.”

Chef Jose Martinez, 30, at No1 Broad Street, said: “I love cooking and the emotion of service time. I don’t think there are many things like it.”

His colleague Sean Beegan, 26, said: “The main attraction I have always had to a career in the restaurant industry is the chance to interact with the public every day and to make sure they have the best time possible.”