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The big question: Where have all the chefs de partie gone?

02 August 2013
The big question: Where have all the chefs de partie gone?

Nick Evans
Head chef, Middlethorpe Hall, York

In the seven years that I have been here, it has always been a struggle to find the people who have the skillset to work to the required standard. Often the basic foundations of cooking are lacking. If you get a 20-year-old and ask them to make a fluid gel of some description, then they can make it, but ask them to make a tomato soup and they will struggle.

From CVs I get from agencies, you find people who have worked as a commis chef for a couple of years in a pub, hotel or restaurant, and they automatically think they can be a chef de partie. The first time I ever used a recruitment consultant was for my first head chef position. I had always been passed on by a previous head chef, who had passed me on to another job to progress. There just doesn't seem to be that any more.

We take on youngsters from local colleges and just try to move them forward. At the moment I have a Polish lad who has been with me for six years who is a chef de partie. You teach them, you train them, you get them to progress. It is a case of having to.

Rob Flinter
General manager, Apex City of London hotel

Chef recruitment in London has been really difficult for the last year or so. I have been very lucky with Darren (Thomas), our head chef, because with the majority of positions, he has brought people in at commis level and developed them up. With the new hotel opening, we moved three guys over there and then we had to look outside for the first time in a while.

Initially, we had to go back and do something on the salary because the applications just weren't coming in, or the ones we got were from line chefs who didn't have any skills to cook or prep stuff on their own.

There is also an issue with visas because there are some very talented international chefs who are over here on student visas who have the skillset required, but we can't offer them a job. The colleges are doing the right thing and are offering the right courses, but it will take time.

Tom van Zeller
Chef patron, Van Zeller, Harrogate

As the business has grown, head chef Neil Edward Bentick and I decided that he needed another chef de partie rather than another commis, so we didn't replace like-for-like, we decided to pull the stops out and find someone of a higher calibre, and that process has taken us five months with one false start.

We have had a few applications and we are now an established brand, so we attract talent. But there is a shortage of chefs. I have always managed in the past by bringing young chefs along and training them up. It is a skilled job, at that level, your skillset is an extension of the head chef's skillset because you are doing exactly what he wants you to do. The chef de partie has to be enveloped in the culture of the establishment and the kitchen, in order for him to be good at what he does.

It is also harder to find people if you are in a provincial town - you can get lonely and you are often in live-in accommodation. The hardcore culture of immersing yourself into a chef's life doesn't exist as much any more and people want, quite rightly, more of a work-life balance.

Russell Bateman
Head chef, Colette's, The Grove, Hertfordshire

We've been trying to source two chefs de partie for over a year now. They are not forthcoming and agencies simply chuckle when you ask them to look out for someone. It hasn't always been this difficult, but over the last few years it's become increasingly hard.

Often the basics are lacking among prospective chefs de partie. Modern cooking is fantastic, but it is founded on basic principles that still apply. Not everywhere you work will poach an egg in a waterbath, make hollandaise in a Thermomix or roast a piece of meat with a probe in the Rational oven.

Chefs need to feel the food, to understand it and only then use these pieces of kit. The chefs now seem to want instant gratification, to move quickly through the ranks without necessarily being competent enough. Responsibility is not something people seem to want to take on any more and a chef de partie position comes with responsibilities. Chefs used to write letters to places they wanted to work, but it doesn't happen any more. Why? It worked for me.

Allan Pickett
Head chef, Plateau, London

Everyone is looking for that super cook, so if businesses can't give them money, they tend to promote them more quickly than they should. Some people come in and don't know how to fillet and portion a salmon or duck. We try to stay seasonal so there is a variety of produce that comes through, which means my team need a variety of skills.

It hasn't always been like this, though. Because London is booming, with businesses opening all the time, there is more competition for experienced staff. There are places that will pay upwards of £28,000 for a chef de partie. We're competitive, though, and we send our stars on supplier trips and training to help them feel valued and to ensure we nurture our talent.

We also work with colleges to try to forge relationships with lecturers and students so that we can grow our own.

Bruno Loubet
Head chef, Grain Store, London

I know a lot of people have long struggled, but we are a new restaurant that is in the press a lot at the moment, so for us it has been OK. But the problem is that these days you have a big gap - some people coming in as chefs de partie can't even cook fish or do a sauce - but they are chefs de partie because in the London market, everybody is in need of staff.

For me, and by definition, a chef de partie is someone who is supposed to be able to control two guys underneath him, control the section, not only in the quality but also the organisation, the ordering, the planning - everything. We spent two months looking for staff before opening Grain Store. It didn't just happen like that. We invested a lot to get there.

Paul Collins
CPC Food Consultancy

I've spent time at some places where we didn't really have an issue with staff because we'd take on people from Eastern Europe. When they arrived in the country, they didn't speak English and you had to invest your time in training them. Because they had no kitchen experience, they did it exactly how you asked them to do it.

Fast forward to another place I worked, where we were paying a chef de partie £20,000 a year and they didn't know their arse from their elbow - couldn't do ordering, couldn't do mise en place sheets and wouldn't fillet fish because it would come in ready filleted.

People criticise the "influx of Europeans, taking all our jobs", but last week I had five guys lined up for an interview in Staffordshire. They were all English, and not one of them turned up. Having said that, I don't think it's all doom and gloom. Some are qualified and are looking for a step up and have gone through a natural progression.

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