The boss of a Belper-based national staffing agency for skilled chefs says a slow-burning crisis in the hospitality sector could soon boil over without a fresh approach to the trade.
Chris Hallsworth, 32, set up Top Chef last year after ten years working freelance in kitchens and says he has been overwhelmed by demand.
He said: “I realised that we are facing a chronic shortage of trained chefs, and I saw the agency as a way to help some local people into employment by connecting them with opportunities.
“In one sense it’s good for us, because we’re busy, but the situation is dire for the industry as a whole. January and February are traditionally a quiet time in hospitality but we’re busier than ever.
“We have a lot of open jobs on our books, and it’s a common story for other agencies too. I don’t know what will happen when the seasonal trade picks up in places like Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District.”
Top Chef supplies staff for kitchens ranging from small family bistros to the very best Michelin-starred destinations, as far afield as the Channel Islands, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Chris says the shortage is having an impact at every level, and is being driven by a mix of factors making a perfect recipe for trouble.
For one thing, Brexit has a chilling effect on migrant labour, with hospitality one of the most highly dependent sectors in the UK economy.
For another thing, shifts in consumer spending have seen eating out grow in popularity and an explosion of new businesses and chain operators chasing their share.
Chris said: “Any upturn in the hospitality sector is welcome, but a lot of these businesses don’t employ or train people to be chefs. There are a lot of kitchen technicians around, who are given a guidebook on working with prepared food—reheating it in microwave or a deep fat fryer— but that’s a very different skillset.
“They serve a purpose, but it means people can’t easily go on to higher-end kitchens led by fresh food, something Derbyshire has a lot of.
“You can see a branded restaurant doing 1,500 covers a week with huge margins, while a small place with a couple of rosette awards will have empty seats. Fresh food is becoming untenable for all but the elite restaurants.”
As the trade has changed, so have the traditional pathways into the industry from educational institutions.
Chris said: “Even those students who do take a route through catering college are coming out to find that they can make better money in other jobs, with more sociable hours and less pressure.
“The only way to make a career of it is to start young and work for years on very little money. The profession has high rates of vice and mental health issues, and chefs make huge sacrifices for any kind of family life. They burn out by 40 with nowhere else to go.”
“From a restauranteur’s point of view, that means you also get problems with reliability and risks to the reputation of the business.”
The upshot is that many chefs make a better living on the agency circuit. That is good for a business like Top Chef—paying a minimum £12 an hour for a maximum 55 hours a week—but unsustainable for a profession.
Chris said: “It’s hard to say what will happen ultimately, but it’s a difficult outlook. There needs to be a shake-up. Its down to us all: chefs, agencies, restaurant owners, and diners. I’m looking to approach local colleges to come up with some ideas.
“Countries like Canada and Australia pay chefs four times more than the UK. It has to be treated like a proper trade with better management and work-life balance to make people attracted to gaining skills which are being lost.”
For more on Top Chef, visit www.topchef.agency.