Energy, hard work and a great personality will get you a long way in the restaurant industry - and as the sector battles the recession, it's a great chance for you to shine. Rosalind Mullen reports.
News that one of the USA's most successful upmarket fast-food chains, Chipotle Mexican Grill, is heading for these shores hardly comes as a surprise. Let's face it, everyone wants a slice of the still surprisingly dynamic UK restaurant scene - and that means there are great career opportunities out there for those with talent.
It's true that most of the action is in London, particularly when it comes to trendy, chic or experimental outlets, such as Tony Kitous's Comptoir Libanaise - a contemporary twist on his fine-dining restaurants - but there is still plenty going on in the rest of the country, too. For instance, northern-based Ego restaurants plans to double in size by adding a further five sites, with Sheffield and Lytham in Lancashire confirmed so far.
A bigger headache is what type of restaurant you should choose. If operational management interests you, why not consider taking advantage of the career structure in a fast-food empire such as McDonald's or a large chain such The Restaurant Group.
Alternatively, you might want to hone your craft in fine-dining establishments, or take your knowledge of wine to pubs.
Don't worry about making a few wrong career turns. In today's restaurant world, skills are never wasted so it's possible to move from a formal restaurant to a relaxed gastro pub, or to swap contract catering for a fast-casual high street outlet. All you have to do is make sure that your experience counts.If you don't believe us, read on…
THE ASSISTANT MANAGER
Who? Jo Saward, 30
Where?Black & Blue Steakhouse, Gloucester Road, London
Did you plan to go into restaurants? No. I went to college in Salisbury to study film and TV production. I came up to London with a friend and did some part-time work at Black & Blue, decided I liked it and became full-time.
But isn't TV a bit more glamorous? Well, I found the TV world a bit false. Everyone was pretending they were someone else - even if you work in the background. Working at Black & Blue made me really happy. The owners take care of the staff, the regular customers are nice, the systems at the company work, and there's a nice team and no stress.
The hours are long, though?
True. It's busy and there are long hours, but it's also very flexible. We do six shifts a week - eight hours for a day shift and seven hours for an evening shift. If you want an extra day off you can swap and do a double shift the following week. We get four weeks' paid holiday a year and I am going to Taiwan for three weeks in the summer to visit family - let's face it, there are few jobs where you can take three weeks off in one go.
Is this your first post as assistant manager? No. I took a break to go travelling for a while, so when I got back I had to start at the bottom and work my way up again. I've been back for 18 months and was promoted back to assistant manager in January.
What draws you to Black & Blue? It's a good social scene. Most of my friends either work or have worked at Black & Blue. In the restaurant the atmosphere is friendly and fun. You can chat to the customers and have fun amongst yourselves. In fact, the whole point is to create a great atmosphere - if there's animosity between the staff then it won't work.
Any top tips on getting ahead? You can't be a drama queen - you need to be patient, full of energy and on the ball.
What about your future?
This lifestyle suits me, although it would be difficult for people who have kids. I'm looking forward to running my own restaurant for Black & Blue one day - well, it would be nice to be taken into consideration
BLACK & BLUE IN A NUTSHELL
- This steakhouse chain is the brainchild of Nick Hill and Alan Bacon, who built up the Tootsies burger bar business before selling in 1999.
- The first Black & Blue opened in 2000.
- Now has five modern, airy restaurants in London.
THE HEAD CHEF
Who? David Jaram, 27
Where?Fishmore Hall, Ludlow, Shropshire
What has been your route - college or on-the-job training? I did go to college, but I gained most of my knowledge by working for other chefs. I started out under Daren Bale at the Close Hotel in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, and then went on to work with Simon MacKenzie at Newbury Manor in Berkshire and Nigel Goodwin at Nunsmere Hall, Cheshire. I was Marc Hardiman's sous chef at the Greenway in Cheltenham and came over with him to set up the Fishmore hotel restaurant. I've been head chef for six months.
So you've only ever worked for a hotel restaurant?
Yes, that's right. It's a different world from high-street restaurants because we have to provide whatever the guest wants - breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a sandwich at midnight.
Are there advantages in hotels? I think that in a hotel restaurant there is more to do and focus on. There is also more leeway in creating menus because a hotel generates money from different services within the business, so we can afford luxury ingredients. That is also why I feel more secure working in a hotel restaurant.
What are the challenges? We have to keep the menu seasonal, interesting and consistent because guests often stay for several days. Besides changing dishes daily or weekly, we also offer a seven-course Shropshire tasting menu at £55.
Obviously standards are high as you have two AA rosettes? Yes, and I was told recently that we were very close to getting three rosettes. We just have to keep listening to the customers - but I don't work just for rewards.
It seems you have achieved a lot at a young age The brigade are even younger - I've got two junior sous chefs, a pastry chef, a commis and kitchen porters - so I don't feel that young. But you do get responsibility and accolades at a young age. I like to cook and enjoy getting compliments from people. It makes me feel good about myself. In fact, I can't imagine working as anything else.
How do you work with front of house? We understand each other. There's a restaurant manager, assistant restaurant manager, two full-timers and a few part-timers. If we have a disagreement during service it is because we are passionate about our jobs but we shake hands and go down to the pub afterwards. They do a great job front of house.
Any plans, ambitions or dreams?
I don't like to think too far ahead. I know I don't want to work behind a desk. Obviously, it would be great to win a Michelin star one day, but I don't want to work 24/7 and I don't have pretensions to be the next Marco Pierre White. If I am recognised, then fab; if not, then I'm still happy.
FISHMORE HALL IN A NUTSHELL
- Privately owned boutique country house hotel.
- 25 bedrooms.
- Two-AA rosette restaurant seats 60.
- Meetings and events facilities.
Who? Michael Trenga, 34
Where?Royal Oak, Paley Street, Berkshire
Have you always wanted to become a sommelier? Actually, I started out as a waiter at 19 with no interest in wine, but I was working at the Canteen on Chelsea Wharf and one day the sommelier started talking to me about a Burgundy wine he was tasting. He described its smell, colour and taste. I tasted it and I got it, too. From then on I was fascinated.
So did you go back to study in France? No. I am French, but ironically I studied about wine here in England. First I bought a wine book and then I took my wine certificate at the Wine & Spirit Trust in Mansion House, London, and later I took my higher wine certificate.
So then you became a sommelier? Well, eventually the sommelier left the Canteen and I asked the manager for his job. I didn't know how to make a profit from wine, or how to order it, but the manager taught me the business side and I just kept tasting and practising.
Give us a rundown on your career as a sommelier
I have been at the Royal Oak for a year. Before that I was at a French restaurant, Le Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea, London, and I also spent two years as a sommelier on board cruise ships.
Isn't it a bit odd to be a wine specialist in a pub - even a gastropub? I like working here. What we do is provide good-quality food and service but in a laid-back atmosphere. It was good for me to learn discipline in restaurants, but I was tired of wearing a suit and tie. The Royal Oak is perfect for me as we are both professional but relaxed.
What has your experience brought to the pub? I think that because I didn't learn about wines in France I now love wines from all over the world. There were 80 wines on the list when I joined the Royal Oak, and now there are 237.
What should would-be sommeliers think about? You have to give up your free time. Even when I'm off I love cooking and tasting wines. It's a job of real passion. You have to be involved in it.
And what would you look for in new staff? You have to be well-groomed and willing to work hard. A good CV is important, but what is more important is having the right personality.
Any ambitions? We are trying for a Michelin star, so I want to stay and be part of it if we get it.
THE ROYAL OAK IN A NUTSHELL
- Gastropub owned by former chat show host Sir Michael Parkinson and his son, Nick.
- Accolades include a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
- Restaurant seats 60.
WHY WOULD YOU WORK IN THE RESTAURANT SECTOR?
Lourdes Lista, 27, manager at the Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers pub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, studied hotel and restaurant management in her native Argentina and started her career as commis and chef de rang at the two Michelin-starred Midsummer House in Cambridge. Here she gives three good reasons why she loves working in restaurants
- The people - I love the fact it's easy to meet people and that you socialise with the colleagues you work with.
- The challenge - you've got to meet guest expectations and these can be high - particularly in a Michelin-starred restaurant such as the Hand & Flowers.
- Becoming a manager - it's important to have worked your way up through the ranks from commis right up to manager so you see everything from a different perspective.
RESTAURANT RECRUITMENT TRENDS
Competition for the best jobs is hotting up. Restaurants are seeing an injection of fresh talent as workers from other industries are drawn by the fun, sociability and career progression that the sector offers.
Vik Dhillon, managing director at headhunter ProCapita, says that in the past 12 months, the restaurant sector's image has been enhanced significantly, attracting people from other industries, such as retail, or from other sectors within hospitality. And a talent gap further up the career ladder means that he is increasingly being asked to head-hunt candidates from pubs, hotels, leisure and retail into middle, senior and main board roles.
"People coming into restaurants are attracted by the fact that there is a chance to make a difference, to raise the bar - and, in an industry where there is a plethora of private equity funding, a chance to potentially make significant financial gain. Furthermore, a number of the businesses in the sector are in growth mode."
The other good news is that a CV that shows restaurant experience will open doors to other leisure and service industries, such as retail, hotels and banks. "These industries previously shunned candidates from the restaurant sector," says Dhillon. "Nowadays, with the integration of different people and practices, and the bar being raised significantly, the sector is finally being recognised as awash with talented individuals who can add value to other industries."