With 360 chefs employed throughout its 26 establishments, it has been vital for Conran Restaurants to tackle recruitment and retention head on. And one way the company has done this is through the Conran chef apprenticeship programme, which gives young chefs the chance to follow a training programme and gain the qualifications they need.
Next month the company goes one step further with the introduction of the Conran chef development programme, which will give experienced chefs ongoing training and support.
"It's a very exciting time for the company," comments Conran's human resources director, Ian Horrox. "Having established a successful apprenticeship programme, we needed to put the structure in place to ensure that there would be continued development and progress for all chefs within the company, whatever level they are at."
There will be four levels within the new programme, covering newly qualified apprentices up to sous and head chefs. As well as improving their food skills, the programme will also give chefs the chance to develop their palates as well as learn, among other subjects, about kitchen management, menu development, financial management, advanced health and safety, and group training techniques. The aim is for the programme to achieve accreditation as a degree-level course.
Chris Galvin, Conran's newly appointed chef director who until recently was head chef at London's Orrery, Conran's only Michelin-starred restaurant, is helping to develop the programme and is delighted the company is investing in the new scheme. "It's a logical progression of the apprenticeship programme and will be a great recruitment and retainer tool," he says.
The chef apprenticeship programme itself has moved forward since taking on its first 10 recruits in September 2000. Fourteen new apprentices were recruited last September, while this year, its fourth year, it's hoped that up to 20 young people will join the scheme. "We need to expand the scheme as the number of restaurants grows, but we don't want it to get too big, otherwise the apprentices may not received the dedicated support they need," says human resources manager Holly Bond.
With Conran Restaurants operating such a diverse group of restaurants with wide-ranging cooking styles including French, Italian, British and Japanese, it was necessary to formulate a broad-ranging training scheme. "The colleges previously did not provide what we required, so we've worked closely with Professor David Foskett at Thames Valley University in Ealing to develop an NVQ qualification that meets Conran standards," says Horrox.
The apprentices can complete two one-year placements at different restaurants in the group. During this time they work four days a week, with a fifth day spent at Thames Valley University. Visits are also arranged throughout the training to specialist suppliers such as the Denham Estate (game), Brindisa (Spanish produce) and L'Unico (coffee).
"It is important that we introduce the apprentices to the working hours gently, so there is no evening or weekend work for the first-year apprentices," says Horrox. "Most of them are only 16 years old and just out of school."
Recognising the inexperience of the youngsters, every effort is made to support them. Each one is assigned a "buddy" in the kitchen in which they are working - usually someone at chef de partie level whom they can turn to for support and advice. They all also benefit from having a senior member of the Conran management team as a mentor. Even managing director David Loewi is involved, emphasising the value being placed on the apprentices.
"The mentor remains attached to the apprentice throughout the two-year programme and is there to provide an independent supporting role outside the kitchen where they work," says Bond. "They probably meet up every four to six weeks, but the apprentices also have the mobile phone number of their mentor so they can get in touch whenever they want."
Starting salary for apprentices is £10,500, with reviews scheduled to take place following a three-month probation period and once they've got NVQ levels 2 and 3. Once they've finished their apprenticeships the young chefs also receive a Conran Chef Apprentice certificate and the guarantee of a full-time job. "Some may want to stay at the restaurant where they have been doing their training, while others choose to move to a new restaurant. It is in our interest to make sure they are happy, and we will do everything to ensure that they start their third year with us in the place they want to be," says Bond.
Once they graduated, all the first group of apprentices who completed their training in summer 2002 were promoted to demi-chefs de partie. "We don't promote if the chefs are not ready, but we were delighted with the progress of this whole group," says Bond.
Arnold Ivey, 18, joined the Conran apprentice scheme in September 2002, two years after leaving school. "I was working in a sports shop, but it was a dead-end job and I wanted a career," he says.
Ivey found out about the Conran scheme at his local careers office. Although he knew the Bluebird in London, which was close to his home, was a Conran restaurant, he was surprised to learn how big the group was and the opportunities that it could give him.
Ivey is currently working in the pastry section at Bluebird. He will spend three months on different sections of the kitchen during his one-year stint there.
"I get in at 8am and spend the first hour or so getting items for the café order," he says. "Then I move on to preparing desserts for the restaurant menu. I'm taught how to do each dish and am provided with recipes. Things get hectic between noon and 3pm when I get involved in plating up dishes for the lunch service."
Ivey would like to spend the second year of his apprenticeship at a more classical restaurant than Bluebird. "Maybe Aurora, Le Pont de la Tour or Orrery," he says. "The apprenticeship is an excellent opportunity to work and learn at the same time."
James Assah-Mosunallee, 18, is a second-year apprentice at Sartoria in London. "I enjoy having a hands-on approach instead of full-time studying. It has enabled me to have an insight into my chosen career. The studying aspect is very important, giving me the foundation to work and progress in the kitchen. A great encouragement during NVQ has been winning the award for Modern Apprentice of the Year 2002 at Thames Valley University. It has given me the extra confidence to pursue my ambition to be a better chef."
\* For details of the apprentice scheme call Conran Restaurants' human resources department on 020 7716 0716.