With leading operators crying out for chefs nationwide, Stuart Mathieson, former head of hospitality at Cornwall College and one of the founders of Academy Nathan Outlaw, asks if more such beacons of excellence could help ease the recruitment pain
Having spent more than 20 years in the industry and another 25 in education, I read with interest and concern about the shortage of chefs the industry faces. It is probably one of the worst shortages experienced yet, but there are peaks and troughs in the picture and it is only by looking at the statistics that things become clearer.
We know the popularity of the industry is cyclical, but it is surprising that we're having these problems when, in 2015, hospitality seems to be the word on everyone's lips.
In 2013, the sector contributed £43.2b in gross value added to the UK economy: an increase of almost 7% from 2012 (People 1st, July 2015). But high labour turnover is diverting investment away from training and development. Viewing figures for programmes such as The Great British Bake Off, MasterChef: The Professionals, Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen are high, but can it be that while everyone wants to cook, few want to cook for a living?
We need to look at the skills shortage seriously. It must be remedied, so the sector can be regarded as offering excellent career opportunities and pathways of which any employee can be proud to be a part.
Employers are working imaginatively and undertaking a range of initiatives to tackle the retention issue. Some enlightened employers such as Sat Bains, Isaac McHale at the Clove Club and Nathan Outlaw have already cut back on the working week of their teams; shiftwork is disappearing and there is a realisation that while salary is important, the quality of work, the standard of working practices and an understanding of the need for a good work/life balance all combine to deliver a happy and - vitally - a retained employee.
Inevitably, a skills gap increases the workload for existing staff, and that, in turn, leads to difficulties in meeting internal standards and so to higher operating costs. This negative picture, identified in the trade press, has already led to a fall in the recruitment of students willing to commit to college training courses and apprenticeship schemes. The simple truth is that new recruits, and their parents, fear that work opportunities in a negative environment will lead to dead-end jobs.
Young people are the lifeblood of our industry, and employers who engage with colleges and training providers, and contribute to the curriculum will not only benefit from a pipeline of potential young talent but, by association with a training institution, will identify the value of training to potential recruits. Skilled staff need training, and, from the beginning, training in the basics is key to understanding the nature of the roles that staff aspire to undertake in the future.
At Cornwall College, where I used to work, we always had an open and vibrant association with employers, especially the key players in the region. Michael Caines and Gidleigh Park have been long-term partners; Paul Ainsworth and Chris Eden spare a great deal of time for students; Ben Tunnicliffe and Ryan Venning have led culinary sessions focusing on seafood; Angela Hartnett, Alex Polizzi and Amanda Afiya have travelled long distances to be guest speakers and, thus, role models. It is the sheer impact of that close association with such luminaries that led to the creation of Academy Nathan Outlaw.
The academy enhances the college's full-time programmes for both chefs and front of house staff. It requires a commitment by Outlaw and one of his excellent head chefs, Tom Brown, to a number of days in the faculty, working alongside the Level 2 and Level 3 academy students, putting time and effort into working with them to help shape the curriculum. As a result, students at the academy are stretched, feel the difference and are infused with the expertise. As part of their timetable, Level 3 students are scheduled to work at the Outlaw restaurants as part of their training, which allows Outlaw to identify those with potential; he and his staff spend time in mentoring and in demonstrating wider skills, and that helps students develop into committed and inspired staff.
On both sides of the partnership, there has to be confidence that the priority is an enrichment of the training provision. The added value is that the exclusivity of the academy, the prestige attached to its respected namesake and the work ethic inherent in the Outlaw kitchens translates to the college environment. The result is work-ready graduates, skilled and proud of their credentials, who have earned a golden start to their careers.
A hero on their home ground
The feelgood factor of having a chef of Outlaw's calibre in the building gives a real buzz to both academy and non-academy students alike, and brings an endorsement to the academic staff and the institution that delivers the mainstream subjects. Many young learners have aspirations to join the Michelin ranks, but lack the confidence or are just too fearful of ridicule to apply to some of our top restaurants. Meeting such a hero on neutral, home territory, surrounded by their peers, gives them the confidence to vault that barrier, knowing that a multi-Michelin-starred chef is actually human, doesn't possess superpowers and started off preparing veg just as they are doing!
I hope to see far more such academies set up nationally to act as beacons of excellence in the hospitality field. It is a great moment for some of our high-profile employers and chefs to engage with education and endorse it, and to work together to increase the numbers of young people who are entering the profession.
The government agenda of embedding employability skills in education means that more young people will be entering the workplace as part of their studies. What better opportunity can there be for enlightened and passionate employers to get in on this process at the ground floor and be there at the start of the learner journey to beat a path to our sector?
Follow Stuart Mathieson on Twitter: @sdmathieson