How to manage generation Y chefs

31 August 2012 by
How to manage generation Y chefs

A focus on getting to the top in the shortest possible time, a demand for high quality of life outside the kitchen and a preoccupation with money mean that the young chefs of Generation Y can sometimes fail to see eye-to-eye with their employers. But is this attitude unique to hospitality? And is there something chefs can do other than bemoan the youth of today? Tom Vaughan asks the questions

Kids these days, they want the moon on a stick and they want it now. It's a sentiment every generation has espoused about young whippersnappers showing late-teen entitlement before they've even binned the spot cream. Yet if you put your ear to the ground of the hospitality industry, grumbles from chefs are gathering into something much more than occasional eye-rolling at spotty youth. Something more than teenage lethargy is afoot.

In May these gripes went public when two-Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing lambasted the attitude of young chefs as he launched Aalto, the restaurant he consults to at Birmingham's new £24m Hotel La Tour. In The Daily Telegraph he commented: "Young chefs want to be at the top, but don't want to put the work in. Young people come into your kitchen judging you, rather than us judging them. The industry needs to stop and close the door. We need to clamp down. There's a recession on out there at the moment. It's not easy. And young people haven't got a clue."

It's a sentiment that runs deep. In Shropshire, Simon Szymanski, chef-patron of Bridgnorth restaurant Nomis, attended talks in colleges when he was a sous chef at Purnell's in Birmingham. "We'd ask students, ‘Where do you want to be in five years' time?' and the answer would always be that they want to own a restaurant or they want to be a millionaire - not that they want to be grafting hard still."

The naïve ambition of students is one thing, but this arrogance carries on into their professional career, claims Wareing. "If they see something as old-fashioned, they feel they can tell you," he says when interviewed for this piece. "No 19-year-old is going to tell me how to cook. I don't want an opinion. If I visited Oxford or Cambridge, would I stand in front of a professor and give my opinion on his work? No."

The biggest problem, chefs will tell you, is that there is a disinclination to work hard among many of their young charges. "I get so many requests for stages wanting to work in the restaurant," says Adam Stokes, head chef at the Michelin-starred Glenapp Castle hotel in Ayrshire. "The first questions people often ask me are: ‘How much will I get paid? How long will I work? How much time off will I get? What will I be doing?'"

If it is a menial job, then some are not interested, says Szymanski: "You get stagiaires in and they won't sweep the floor. Because Gordon Ramsay doesn't have to do it on television, they won't do it. They even have one button hanging down on their chef's whites, just like Gordon."

Gary Usher, chef-patron of the Sticky Walnut in Chester, saw a lot of these characters while working at Gordon Ramsay Holdings restaurant York & Albany in London. "Because it was a Gordon Ramsay restaurant we got a lot of chefs who just followed his name," he says. "They came on board and we gave them a life expectancy of three weeks. In a busy, busy kitchen it could be really painful watching them."

It would be easy to blame this air of entitlement on the culture of celebrity chefs and the faint promise of superstar status. Geoff Booth, assistant principal at Westminster Kingsway College, says that despite the promise of riches young chefs see in the likes of Ramsay and Jamie Oliver's prominence, celebrity chefs have been a positive presence this past decade.

"These role models are strong influences and they are the reason we are able to recruit in the first place," Wareing agrees. "They have contributed so much to the industry. They have done much more good than bad. Gordon Ramsay, for example: that ruthlessness, that hardness has made me the man I am today, without doubt."

Social media

Wareing himself is more inclined to cite another phenomenon of the past 10 years as a principal factor in young chefs' attitudes: social media. "Young guys of today are so sure of what's around them, of where they are in the world, and social media has opened their eyes. My 19- or 20-year-old chef knows exactly what is going on down the road. It distracts them from the job in hand, and they get involved in gossiping and forming these strong opinions so young."

The likes of Twitter and Facebook have let every young Tom, Dick and Harry pose as an online columnist, agrees Booth: "Employers, colleges, restaurants are being constantly appraised and compared through social media. We are dealing with a different type of person these days."

A different type of person? Certainly, each new generation has different workplace characteristics from its elders. And this new breed - known as Generation Y and classified as children born in the 1980s and 1990s - has a markedly altered approach to work. The good news, if you can call it that, is that this attitude is by no means unique to the hospitality industry.

The University of Queensland in Australia conducted a three-year study of Generation Y as employees, finding that: "In a working context, the Gen Y employee is described as more demanding than new employees have ever been before. They are not afraid of expressing their opinions. With a low tolerance for boredom, Gen Y thrives on new challenges and expects to be shown respect and given responsibility from early on in their employment."

While these characteristics apply to employees in all industries, the report, Generation Y as Hospitality Employees, was specifically concerned with employment in hospitality.

Speaking to Caterer and Hotelkeeper, co-author Dr David Solnet, of the university's school of tourism, agrees that Generation Y presents a unique set of challenges for employers, especially chefs. "Generation Y tends to be children of two working parents, and the parents, out of guilt, often gave the kids a lot of things, especially support and praise. Generation Y is used to getting things easily and without, perhaps, as much manual effort as prior. I think they do work hard - but they work differently, and they value independence. This is not a good match for chefs, as chefs can't work from home so easily."

The report states that, "as a traditional employer of younger staff, the hospitality industry has been particularly affected by this new generation". These employees, it goes on to say, expect praise, early respect, constant feedback and flexible working hours and they "dislike menial and repetitive work" - not ideal attributes for the early years of a hospitality career.

Employers must face up to a realisation that they are dealing with a new breed - one that doesn't think the same as them. "There is no question that this generation is in a hurry," says Booth. "They are more mobile than previous generations and more willing to gamble. They have been encouraged to think where they are heading. They leave school asking the questions, ‘What's in it for me? What's my quality of life going to be?'"

Chefs have two options when it comes to Generation Y: ignore or co-exist. Despite the hyperbole, there is definitely a large proportion of capable, willing young chefs out there. And the same factors that are blamed for the bad attitudes - celebrity chefs, social media - are also responsible for improving a lot of chefs, says Usher. "For every person that is an idiot, there is someone who is amazing. A lot of young chefs are so much more clued up about eating out and food, and they use that knowledge well."

More abundant

For Wareing, the sheer number of new recruits who have come into the kitchen in the past decade means that bad attitudes are bound to be more abundant, but that doesn't mean the ratio of good to bad has changed. "I still see it as like the queues in X Factor. They all get a chance, and in among those thousands there will be one real talent. And if I manage to find it among the doughnuts out there, then great."

The University of Queensland report suggests practical methods for working with Generation Y (see panel, right). To really make a difference, chefs need to be involved in colleges at an early stage, says Booth. "We hear what chefs are saying about attitude, and it's our job to work together to ensure that there are no surprises for young chefs out there. They just need to come in to college to provide case studies of their lives and the hard work, stamina, stability and reliability that is needed to get to the top."

It would be easy to put one's head in the sand and pretend that the demands for quality of life and swift results will go away. But, Solnet says, unless you face up to these attitudes, you could find yourself losing out to competitors when it comes to unearthing real talent. "It's so typical for older groups to be in denial of change. How much is specific to Generation Y and how much is simply twentysomethings always being a bit frustrating to 30- and 40-year-olds we don't know. But there is no doubt that this generation is different and that the best companies will work with them and not against them to have mutual success."

Case study: Luke Thomas, chef-patron at 18

Luke Thomas
Luke Thomas
Luke Thomas, 18-year-old chef of Luke's Dining Room at Sanctum on the Green hotel, Cookham Dean, Berkshire

For 2009 FutureChef winner Luke Thomas, being offered his own restaurant at the age of 18 was simply too good an opportunity to turn down. "To be successful sometimes you have to be a bit out-there and take opportunities when they arrive," he says.

Thomas followed up his FutureChef success with work placements at the likes of Alinea in Chicago, La Pergola in Rome, Burj al Arab in Dubai and the Fat Duck, as well as the Individual Restaurant Company, where he learnt about the business side of restaurants, he says. Along the way he met restaurateur and hotelier Mark Fuller. The pair stayed in touch, and in early 2012 Fuller asked Thomas to open a restaurant at his Berkshire boutique hotel, Sanctum on the Green, and Thomas jumped at the opportunity.

But has all of this not happened quite quickly for an 18-year-old? "Since I left school I have been working so hard in order to get to this stage. My friends didn't realise that I would need to work this hard. To get to this position takes more than just luck," he points out.

But can a teenager ever have the life experience to be an employer? To deal with an unruly or upset chef, say, or even one afflicted with problems in his or her private life? Mentor and FutureChef chairman Brian Turner, who has helped nurture Thomas since he won FutureChef, says that the important thing is not necessarily having the experience, but being able to delegate to those who do. "Being a head chef is like being an orchestra conductor, getting the right parts to play at the right time," he says. "So long as he has got that back-up at the hotel, he can refer these problems to someone with more experience."

Lots of young chefs might think they can cook well and deserve to head up a kitchen, so what does Thomas have that is different? "He's got a maturity beyond his age," says Turner. "He's talked with so many great chefs and he's taken on board what they said. He also has a great counsel to draw on."

Five tips for managing Generation Y

1 Get it right, right from the start Perhaps more important than ever is ensuring that you hire well. Generation Y places great importance on co-worker relationships and value alignment with their employer. Before recruiting and hiring, consider the values of the potential recruit, Generation Y or otherwise, and how the person will fit with the organisation. Too often recruiters focus on a candidate's current level of skills and knowledge, rather than on the bigger picture of the individual.

2 Find ways for the new to learn from the old (and vice versa) Never has there been a better time for older employees to engage with younger employees, to impart their knowledge, skills and wisdom built over decades of experience. Mentoring provides the perfect opportunity for passing on this individually stored knowledge, while at the same time providing alternative development and engagement opportunities for Generation Y employees.

3 Encourage opportunities for learning and growth through challenging work Ask yourself: "What business activities can I involve my staff in so that they can learn and grow professionally?" Placing stock orders, learning to read and understand financial flash reports - all of these seemingly mundane tasks can be a world of learning for an inexperienced employee that they might not otherwise be exposed to in their primary role.

4 Be more flexible than you thought necessary Generation Y employees are looking for a new mix of rewards in return for their efforts at work. This includes such things as flexible work arrangements and opportunities to engage in socially responsible actions (volunteering, green initiatives, etc).

5 Recognise and respect individuality It is clear from the results of this study that how employees are managed cannot be approached from a "one size fits all" perspective. Thoughtful consideration must be given to individual characteristics and motivations. This is a generation that expects managers to know every employee's name and to be given personal attention.

From the University of Queensland report Generation Y As Hospitality Employees

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