The harsh reality – Chef hours

This weekend saw Jay Rayner address the prickly issue of chef hours, titled:

When you moan about the cost of a meal, think about who’s slaving in the kitchens.

It is a difficult subject to address, principally because there is a direct knock on effect to customers & businesses.

So for those that don’t know, this is roughly how a hospitality business spends its turnover:

  • 30% Food costs
  • 30-35% Wage costs
  • 20% VAT
  • 5-10% Rent & Overheads

So, with extremely tight margins like this, & an element of chefs wanting to deliver a better product, is it any wonder that chefs don’t work 40hours a week?

There is a sad reality that UK kitchens are reaching breaking point, mainly due to the lack of staff retention & new blood entering the industry. Rayner is right when he says:

However, the stories from further down the industry – of young commis chefs simply expected to put up and shut up, of abuse by head chefs, of illegal working practices – give the lie to the glossy media image of life in the kitchen brigade. In these mythical kitchens in magazines and on TV you graft hard and pursue your passion – it’s always about “passion” – encouraged by sympathetic colleagues, and a fair wage.

The stark reality is this; it is about managing expectations.

  • Young people coming into the industry need to know that they aren’t going to be the next Gordon, Heston or Raymond any time soon.
  • Customers need to know what the real cost of food is, sadly we have a society where ‘2 chickens for a fiver‘ is perfectly acceptable, don’t believe me? Read the comments at the foot of Rayner’s piece.
  • Employer’s need to understand that staff want the to be up front with them; if there are genuine opportunities for growth mean it, don’t just use it as a sales technique to get the candidate.

I speak to clients about this subject alot. I hear stories of college students staying on an extra year to get the next NVQ etc, then demanding a Chef de Partie role for £25k. I’ve got news for you, it doesn’t work like that. no matter how much you think that you’re prepared for the realities of a professional kitchen – you aren’t.

Employer’s aren’t exactly blameless either. When I was a freelance chef, I regularly saw Commis chefs manning sections. This isn’t what being a Commis is all about, it’s a learning role where you are shepherded, nurtured and have minimal responsibilities. Sadly Commis chefs have become bywords for cheap labour under, the guise of gaining experience.

Some chefs also need to have a reality check. I read on social media about how many hours many chefs do & roll my eyes. Hours in the building aren’t the same as hours actually spent working, but long hours are just unique to catering either. May be try looking further than the pass, & realise than many professions can go toe to toe with chefs over unpaid overtime or the length of a working week.

Sadly, those that can influence & shape the industry have done a pretty mediocre job at addressing the issue. Rayner cites Roux’s Le Gavroche (moved from a 6 day week to a 5day week) & Restaurant Sat Bains (moved to 4 day week from 5) sadly these are the exception rather than the rule, but where is the BHA and other relevant lobbying groups who can mould an industry?

Margins in the labour intensive Michelin star kitchens are even tighter than the rest of the industry. The risk to Bains when initially implementing the 4 day week regime was a financial tightrope, with a potential six figure cost attached.

My personal experience of working in a 1 Michelin starred restaurant was this: 7.30am to Midnight-1am Tuesday to Friday, and Noon to 1am on a Saturday. It requires dedication & drive to maintain that kind of work ethic, and you have to ask; For the new cooks coming into industry, who want the book deals & TV programmes, are they prepared to do this to reap the rewards?

No, probably not.

Sadly the chef shortage is set to go on; it’s a complex issue which will require some big thinking and possibly an injection of cash to change the status quo. One can only hope there is a wind of change coming.