David Wilkinson - 02 Feb 2017

Catering Staff – A Dying Breed?

We are lucky to have an excellent catering team at One Great George Street (one that recently helped us scoop London’s Best Private Dining Venue no less!) but over the last ten years I’ve worked at our Westminster venue I’ve noticed the process of recruiting new catering talent has become longer and longer.

I believe the biggest issue facing catering today is the lack of young people coming into the industry, which is creating a shortfall of skilled labour that is threatening to turn a problem into a crisis.

Without wanting to sound like a grumpy old man (and as soon as I said that I did!) when I started work in the mid 80’s finding a job was not a given and as a college leaver you had to do a fair bit of applying to actually get yourself some employment. I wrote to a plethora of hotels begging them to employ me and I well remember the bitter disappointment as each rejection letter arrived saying “Dear Mr. Wilkinson, thank you for your interest in our hotel but…”

Then one day I had an acceptance letter from the Savoy and I was so grateful to be offered a job. I didn’t ask what the hours were, what the pay was or even how many days holiday I might get. (As it turned out I took home £60 a week in cash, I worked a minimum of 60 hours a week without overtime and the holiday was laughable!)

But I didn’t care because I had a job at a great hotel where I could learn and become a better chef. My working conditions weren’t unique to me; it was just the way that catering was for everyone and as soon as you accepted this fact it became the norm. We would scoff at people who worked 40 hour week and we wore stories of mega-shifts like badges of honour. My personal record was a 33 hour straight shift, something that would probably end up as a law suit today. Even today I feel pangs of guilt if I leave work after eight hours! It was hard, uncompromising and unfair but also rewarding and inspiring. It made me who I am and I will be forever grateful.

Wind the clock forwards 30 years and the job market and the expectation of the people who populate it have changed drastically.

Firstly catering has expanded and diversified unimaginably. 30 years ago going out for a meal was a special occasion for ‘the man on the Clapham Omnibus’, but now eating out is just what we do. This has meant that there are far more chef’s jobs than there were back then and although I don’t have an official figure, I would say that it was at least 5 times as many.

One of the issues we have is the lack of appetite (no pun intended) that young British people have for coming into catering. The age group that would traditionally be the ones coming into the trade now are the so called ‘Millennial’ generation who unlike the baby boomers such as myself tend to put greater importance on work life balance. Catering, especially at the entry level, has never been conducive to having a life outside work.
Gone are the days when I could interview my pick of the candidates and choose the best one. More often than not these days’ candidates are only interested in one piece of information: how many hours? As soon as you say evenings, weekends and overtime you can see in their eyes glaze over and you know that you have lost them. I am of course generalising and I’m sure that there are many excellent young people entering catering but unfortunately there are simply just not enough.

Another issue we have is job expectation. It is hard to turn on the T.V. without seeing a cooking programme but there are very few that actually portray cooking as it really is. We have had people of all ages who genuinely believe that it’s all about spending two hours producing one dish followed by a pat on the back, a group hug and then a well-earned rest. This is particularly true of some mature candidates who are coming into the trade for the first time having been seduced by the romantic illusion of television theatre.

One group of people who bucked the trend and are more than willing to get stuck in and do a great job are our cousins from across the water. Over the years many of my best staff have not hailed from these shores but have instead come from South Africa, the Philippines and Eastern Europe. Now of course that avenue of opportunity is threatened by our vote for Brexit, a decision that may have far reaching consequences across the food industry including farming.

The two main things that put people off catering are the long, unsociable hours and the wages.

So, can we change the unsociable hours? Well, by the very nature of the beast the hours will be unsociable because that’s when the rest of the world wants to be sociable, so this is one thing that we can do nothing about.

What about the wages? In an ideal world we would pay everyone more or increase headcount. The trouble is that Catering is a very labour intensive industry and the margins are so tight that many businesses would become unviable if there were dramatic financial increases.

For me I think that the answer should be promoting the positives rather than concentrating on the negatives. For instance, we need to stop saying ‘unsociable hours’ because believe me, anyone who has worked in a big hotel will tell you exactly how sociable it can be, if you know what I mean! It’s just that we socialize in a different time zone from those who work a 9 to 5.

Then there’s the thing about low pay. Well yes, when you start you’re not going to make a fortune but wouldn’t it be better to say that with the right attitude and hard work you can learn a profession that will keep you employed for the rest of your life. Think of it as a vocational pension; the more you put into it as a youngster, the more you will be able to draw out in later life. It might one day give you the opportunity to become a Head Chef, to travel the world, to start your own business or maybe diversify into a related profession. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if school leavers were informed about the long game and where it could take them as opposed to sitting on benefits and learning nothing, just because it’s easier?

That all sounds very utopic and I know that it’s not as simple as that. This industry needs to clean up its act and make sure that all its staff, not just in the kitchen, are treated well, paid fairly and given the respect they deserve. Why is it that we feel the need to perpetuate this archaic image of the bad tempered, pot throwing, shouty chef? As an educated 16 year old wouldn’t you be put off by a boss with no management skills?

Companies who cheat on pay, overtime and benefits are doing a disservice to their employees and the industry alike, and it won’t be until we make catering transparent and appealing will we be able to attract the calibre of staff that we all crave.

I don’t know what the future holds but at this moment in time it’s looking very much under pressure. I love this job and really believe that catering has been very good to me. I hope that as an industry we can sort ourselves out and give many more people the same excitement, fulfillment and enjoyment that I have had from it.

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