How Heston Blumenthal's Dinner is coping with the skills shortage

16 September 2010 by
How Heston Blumenthal's Dinner is coping with the skills shortage

The most anticipated restaurant of 2010, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, is set to open at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, London, on 1 December. But can the biggest launch of the year circumnavigate hospitality's principal problem - a lack of skilled staff? Tom Vaughan asks the questions,

The more famous you get, the easier life becomes. Or so you might be forgiven for thinking. Not so. It seems that some things even international acclaim can't solve.

December will see the launch of one of the UK's most eagerly anticipated new openings - Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a 130-seat restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, London. It will represent the three-Michelin-starred chef's first venture outside of Bray, where he owns the Fat Duck restaurant and Hinds Head and Crown pubs.

However, international acclaim - which Blumenthal is no stranger to - doesn't fix the most deep-rooted of problems, principally the hospitality industry's chronic lack of new recruits. Currently on the lookout for 130 staff to man Dinner, Blumenthal and company are worryingly short of applicants.

The opening in the Mandarin earlier this year of Bar Boulud, a more informal concept from three-starred New York chef Daniel Boulud, soaked up many of the staff who had been employed by the site's previous fine-dining restaurant, Foliage.

So far, Dinner's executive chef Ashley Palmer-Watts has the most important positions - the three sous chef roles - filled, but has yet to have any applicants for much of the lower kitchen ranks or any of the pastry section. Likewise, general manager Simon King has people in place for three of the important senior manager roles, but is struggling to find candidates for the remaining front-of-house positions.

Why so? Stagiaires trip over themselves to do a one-month stint at the Fat Duck, and the Bray restaurant has between six and 10 at any one time. Palmer-Watts thinks a combination of factors are at play. "Firstly, the restaurant is a little way in advance, so it's hard to sell to people," he says. "Secondly, it's the worst possible time for recruitment - we are opening in December and nobody wants to leave a kitchen in November, just before Christmas. Then thirdly, there's the calibre of openings this year - the Savoy is reopening in October, Jason [Atherton] is opening his new site in November, there's Silvena Rowe opening at the May Fair Hotel, plus Pierre Koffmann and Bar Boulud have both opened recently."

worrying factor

There is also a more worrying factor to consider, says King. "The pound being so weak against the Euro makes it a lot harder," he explains. "The backbone of a restaurant's front-of-house staff are often European - they actually treat it as a profession unlike a lot of the British. Now if you come across from the continent, the weak pound and the high cost of living in London means you have to take a considerable pay cut. Less and less people are coming over and it's resulting in a skills shortage."

It could also be an issue of intimidation. Not only is the idea of a kitchen run by a three-Michelin-starred chef daunting, but the word on the grapevine is that the new concept will be based upon historical dishes - more of which later - which might also confuse people.

"When we recruit in Bray we find that, with Fat Duck appeal comes Fat Duck fear," says King. "People are not really sure what we do in the kitchen, they're unsure how Heston operates. In some cases, they might even think it will be a hostile environment, like some three-stars of old, where people will work relentlessly."

The answer to the staffing conundrum isn't forthcoming, although the next step will be to move on to plan B, says King - a more strategic advertising campaign, on the web and in print, at a higher cost. The hope that word-of-mouth might do much of the work for them has proved misguided.

"Historically, it's the best way of recruiting," says Palmer-Watts. "Secondary recommendations from head chefs are normally a great way of getting staff. Nobody wants to keep a good member of staff in a position all their life - they want to be part of that person's development."

The 130 staff required for the new restaurant marks a vast expansion for Blumenthal's mini-empire - which currently employs 130 people across the Fat Duck, the Hinds Head, and its latest acquisition the Crown pub in Bray. The move to London represents a doubling in size of the company's staff numbers. It also marks a big step for Blumenthal's kitchen team.

Only a small number - three in total - are moving from Bray to help the launch. At the helm of this back-of-house is Palmer-Watts, who is currently immersed in preparing the menu. The idea that it is to be based around historical dishes is right, although the emphasis should be placed on "based". The end product, he says, will be very contemporary.

At the moment, Palmer-Watts has formed a bank of dishes, some of which are nearly finished, some of which need refining, from which the menu will be compiled. So far, dishes the dining public can look forward to include bergamot-cured mackerel salad, slow-cooked short rib of beef and scallops with cucumber ketchup and peas, with a set lunch priced at £25 and à la carte dinner from £55.

Has history inspired all the food? "We read books and we have someone who compiles research and gets to know the books a little better than us," he says. "Old combinations, old dishes, even just snippets of info - they might inspire something literal or something a bit more watered down. Inspirations have come from the last 500 years but it's about not ramming history down people's throats. It's certainly not a theme restaurant - the end product will be very contemporary."

right moment

For waiting staff, it will be about carefully bringing this history to the customer. "Staff will have the knowledge and the skill will be choosing the right moment to share it," says King. "Again, it's about not ramming it down throats."

At present, the site is being refurbished, with stripped-back walls giving little indication of what the end product will feel like. The end product will be a design by Adam Tihany, who was responsible for the design at Foliage, the previous restaurant at the site, as well as the nearby Aspleys by Heinz Beck at the Lanesborough hotel.

With the restaurant due to open on 1 December, momentum will really gather in November, with Palmer-Watts and King hoping they will have a full complement of staff by then. It will also, obviously, see Blumenthal heavily involved. At present he has filming commitments for television that take him across the globe, but when he's not travelling, he can be found in the kitchen of the Fat Duck or the Hinds Head, says Palmer-Watts. "People are surprised by that these days, but he still likes nothing better than to cook. There's a real buzz in the kitchen when people know that Heston is behind the stove."

From the first major expansion of Blumenthal's empire, Dinner's staffing problems don't represent the most auspicious of starts. But, says King, the key is making sure word trickles down to the chef de partie and waiter levels at other restaurants. "We need to get the jungle drums going," he says. "We're trying to put across that people needn't be intimidated. If you want to excel with us you need to work for it, but you will be treated respectfully, you will learn valuable skills, and you will get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

How to find the right people - and keep them

Be "the place to be": Shout as loudly about your reputation as an employer as you do about your product/service. Check that working practices - hours and career opportunities - stack up against the competition. What are your unique selling points?

â- Use your network: make sure your business is represented across actual and virtual networks; make sure you and everyone within your business are using your connections to access the right people for your business. Make sure your employees would recommend you and encourage them to introduce good people, all the time.

â- Culture: think about "how we do things around here", and make sure that those you employ will be able to thrive and progress within the business. Explore this at interview stage - ask the right questions.

â- Selection: make sure you have a robust format - test attitude, skills and knowledge. Ask for examples and pose scenarios to find out a person's approach. If you can, try them out and take feedback from your team. If in doubt, recruit for attitude and then train skills.

â- Progression: a key motivator, so make sure your offer is up there with the best.

â- Communication: internally, keep two-way communication channels open; externally, continue to market your business as a "best place to work".
Jane Sunley, chief executive officer of staff retention organisation LearnPurple

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