Whilst it may not be making much news in the mainstream media, there is a big topic in the world of fine dining right now – a chef shortage. Several papers and food publications have run stories this month about the issue, with high profile chefs bemoaning the lack of young people entering and, more importantly, staying in the industry. As one of these 'young people' (26 is still young, right?) who entered, then relatively swiftly left the fine dining arena, I cannot help but have some strong feelings around the issue. And so, as a way of looking at the topic briefly, I thought I would address some of the reasons that I decided not to pursue a long term career in fine dining.
So to begin, here is a trio of stories to showcase a few points I want to make. As I'm sure that any chef will tell you, none of these anecdotes is very extreme, they pretty much sum up every day life in a restaurant. Therein lies the problem.
As it happens, I have been for a trial shift, a chef equivalent of a job interview, for one of the chefs who has been speaking out about the issue at hand. Now I am not expecting a chef to be delighted that an inexperienced commis is traipsing round their kitchen but, at the same time, I think a degree of respect is the least that is required. I have travelled to your restaurant, paid for two nights' accommodation and carried out two 18 hour days of unpaid work that may or may not lead to a job. I do not think it is unreasonable that, at some point during those 36 hours, you shake my hand, and have a brief conversation with me. Perhaps addressing me politely wouldn't go amiss either, or thanking me for coming after my two days were up. Two things to make clear for full disclosure - first, I didn't get the job, and second, and rather importantly, that was definitely the correct decision; I was not very good at the time. That, however, is not the point. The fact is that once I did have enough experience to be applying to that calibre of restaurant, this one was firmly off my list of potentials.
The first day, first lunch service, in my first chef job in a Michelin starred kitchen, the sous chef picked up a plate of food and smashed it against a wall, not only obviously destroying the plate and food, but also sending shards of china over an entire prep section so everything had to be thrown away. Because someone brought up the wrong garnish. Congratulations on a calm handling of what was obviously a life threatening situation. We have all heard about this sort of thing, and assume it's just Gordon Ramsay on TV who does it. Well, sadly no. The job is obviously stressful, but if you think this is an acceptable way to handle the situation, there is something wrong.
After a particularly 'rough' service in a 2 star restaurant during which there had been a lot of, shall we say 'colourful' language thrown in my direction by the head chef, one of the chef de parties came up to me and said, 'don't worry about it, everyone gets given a hard time on that section'. This guy was only about my age, but had been cooking since he left school, so had been in the business for a lot longer than myself. What I find endlessly depressing about this story is not what happened during the service but the fact that the kitchen environment in which it occurred had managed to convince this young guy that this was totally acceptable. It was part of the way a kitchen worked so you shouldn't let it worry you.
There are undoubtedly issues surrounding, in particular, senior chefs in some kitchens nowadays, that drive away young talent. And whilst this aspect of it does need to change, it is not just telling people that it is not ok to shout and swear that is the issue. It is something more fundamental than that if things are to improve in the long run.
When it is your money and your business on the line, I can only imagine the amount of pressure and stress that a head chef must be under, and I am in no way trying to belittle that. These things are, however, not excuses. Here is a quote from the original article that started it all from Rene Redzepi, the head chef of Noma:
'But then I became a chef. I had my own restaurant, with my own money invested, with the weight of all the expectation in the world. And within a few months I started to feel something rumbling inside of me. I could feel it bubbling, bubbling, bubbling. And then one day the lid came flying off. The smallest transgressions sent me into an absolute rage: Why the hell have you not picked the thyme correctly? Why have you overcooked the fish? What is wrong with you? Suddenly I was going crazy about someone’s mise en place or some small thing they said wrong.
This was how I had been taught to cook, and it was the only way I knew to get a message through. I can’t say that it didn’t work for a time. Noma has succeeded beyond whatever I could have imagined for it.'
As Rene Redzepi says 'it was the only way I knew to get a message through'. Herein lies so much of the issue. Most chefs entering the business start at 18, or even 16, and so a kitchen is the only workplace they know. The problem is that this workplace that they're entering happens to be one that generates huge pressure, demands an enormous time commitment, and is very stressful. The kitchen becomes their home, and shapes them in every way because it is all they know, right down to, fundamentally, how to behave socially.
I have been working in 2 Michelin star restaurants where the head chef is unable to string two words together when a diner comes into the kitchen wanting to meet them. Having been shouting at commis chefs all day, suddenly the head chef has nothing to say for himself! The maitre'd does his best to facilitate some polite conversation, but the head chef stands in a mute silence staring at his feet like a child. Don't get me wrong, I can understand that the chef probably doesn't really wish to engage in small talk with every guest, but the more restaurants I've seen this at, the more I've come to realise that it's nothing to do with not wanting to talk to customers, the chef just doesn't know how to have a normal conversation with them. To get to the age of 30 and be unable to open your mouth when a guest speaks to you for fear that you might suddenly swear at them is a sorry state of affairs.
Part of solving the problem is acknowledging that chefs are starting into a high pressure job at a very young age and therefore it is essential that from the outset the work environment is one that will set the standards to which they themselves will aspire in their own kitchens in the future. If I had been younger when I started out then I think there is a good chance I would have put up with my experiences and stayed in the industry. But, having a modicum of life experience before kitchens, I decided I just had no time for such nonsense and wouldn't stand for it.
A lot of the focus has been on the antisocial hours, which is undoubtedly a problem as well, and certainly contributed to my decision to leave, but many people have jobs with difficult hours. A better work environment I believe would have compensated for this to a large degree. It is a variety of connected things that I believe will help starting to solve this issue. Yes, hours need to be reduced, but not just for the sake of having to work less. Also because it will give these chefs time to become 'real' people. To actually socialise outside of the kitchen and realise that things that go on inside kitchens do not have to be tolerated if they are unacceptable. These things might help to create chefs who are more rounded people and will strive to improve things when their time at the helm comes.
All of my examples are obviously very specific, and during my (brief) time in fine dining I met plenty of exemplary chefs along the way too, but my examples were, in my experience, not isolated incidents. The topic is large and there are plenty of areas that I have not touched on such as rates of pay and the traditional hierarchy system in a kitchen, but to go into everything in such detail would require a book, not a blog post, so I will leave it there.
I promise next week will be lighter.
The original artcile from Rene Redzepi: http://luckypeach.com/mad5/
A follow up in the guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/sep/18/chef-shortage-could-change-way-we-eat-restaurants