Better working conditions needed to improve chef retention

Culinary apprentices, along with those in hairdressing, are exposed to the same inhalant occupational allergens during their training as qualified colleagues, a study has suggested

Chef training and working conditions need to be reformed to help restaurants retain the estimated 10% of chefs that leave the profession every year.

A report from the Centre for London claims that poor working conditions and pay make chef retention difficult. Around 20,000 chefs across the UK leave their roles every year, often because of low reward, a lack of flexible working opportunities and frequent sexism in kitchen environments.

The average working week is 50-60 hours in most restaurants, according to the Kitchen talent: Training and retaining the chefs of the future report, and it is not uncommon for chefs to work 80-100 hours per week at busy times of the year.

The issue is particularly acute in London – despite the number of chefs in the city tripling over the past decade, the report claims – as pay rarely reflects the higher cost of living compared with the rest of the UK.

In 2017/18, half of London’s chefs earned under £21,000 a year and 80% earned less than £28,000. This means that, after adjusting for inflation, the average hourly pay was no higher in 2017 than in 1997.

Such working conditions are turning people away from a culinary career and are “tantamount to modern slavery”, suggested Iqbal Wahhab, founder of Westminster restaurant The Cinnamon Club.

“Restaurants need to break down the image of ludicrously long hours and aggressive work environments as somehow being character building when often the opposite is the case,” he said.

Recruitment challenges are likely to continue after Brexit as London restaurants are heavily reliant on migrant labour. Around 85% of London’s chefs were born abroad, the report says, compared with 50% across the UK.

The report suggests that in order to plug the skills gap as the number of migrant workers falls, London must take action to equip aspiring chefs with the skills and experience to succeed, while improving working environment and pay.

Working conditions could be improved if restaurants and food businesses work with the Mayor of London to draft a long-term plan, based on the Mayor’s Good Work Standard, introducing family-friendly working practices, taking a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment, and paying all staff the London Living Wage.

Longer work experience placements are needed, as well as greater business involvement in catering courses, to develop the skills chefs need to succeed, while the status of apprenticeship qualifications should be enhanced.

Nicolas Bosetti, research manager at Centre for London and co-author of the report, said: “Despite being home to some of the best catering colleges in the country, London’s culinary education offer isn’t specialised and high profile enough. And London is a chef apprenticeship dark spot.

“London’s restaurants and colleges need to cultivate local culinary talent to maintain and grow the city’s global and national reputation as a hub for culinary creativity and good food, and benefit its workers.”

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