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Feature Article: Too Many Foodies, Not Enough Chefs

Sydney opens a new restaurant every other Friday. On any outing diners can find themselves swamped with choice. If one feels like a Charcuterie board they might head into Merivale’s Felix Restaurant, the four-week old Kittyhawk on Phillip Lane, or even Big Poppa’s - a new cheese and hip-hop venue on Oxford Street. Yet, underlying these glamorous venues and food culture lays a tiny, yet indomitable rock ready to dislodge the industry: a chef shortage.

A charcuterie is one fad trending across the Sydney food scene. Take in burger joints, gastro-pubs, cocktail bars, and fine-dining restaurants, and the number of venues ready to satisfy the hungry mouth of any Sydney-sider becomes daunting.

The food hype in this current day and age is only increasing. Self-proclaimed foodies have upwards of 100K followers on Instagram. Channel Ten pumps out kitchen drama like Taco’s on Cinco De Mayo. But in any industry, especially in this informational age, what we’re seeing is aggression. The dream of quick fame could be the biggest trend of all. Dan Hong, Executive Chef of three Merivale venues, including Ms. G’s, Mr. Wong, and El Loco believes these are some of the contributing factors to the chef shortage, not only here in Australia but worldwide.

‘I’m not blaming shows like Master Chef, but they glorify the lifestyles of chefs and they only really show the top tier,’ says Hong.

Hong finished school with a mark of 48 on his High School Diploma. He was at odds with his future, unsure of what to do. It was in fact his mother who got him his first gig working at Longrain, under Martin Boetz. Here he began his career, like many other chefs, working over fifty-hours a week on an apprentice’s wage of $220. ‘When you start at the very bottom the pay is not great, the hours are long. The days people are celebrating - New Years Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Melbourne Cup - are your busiest times,’ says Hong.

Many up and coming chefs covet a person in his position. For them, it’s hard to fathom how he bridged the gap. To imagine Dan Hong in the backroom being taught how to hold a knife is not easy to imagine. But he ensures there is no secret to his success, only hard work, laborious hours, and mentoring.

His beginnings are unlikely, but not uncommon with many others in the industry. Peeling potatoes is not what every apprentice has in mind when they think of life as a chef. Cutting carrots out back, receiving snap-chats of friends’ 21st does not paint a very inspiring picture of what the industry holds. But that is often how most chefs spend their Friday and Saturday nights.

There’s little debate about whether there actually is a chef shortage. A high number of apprentices’ dropout in their first year. The effect on the industry can be seen in the long hours chefs endure. Venues go short-staffed, and with no alternative, chefs and under-skilled staff pick up the slack where possible.

But what’s really under dispute is why there is a shortage. Some say the long hours, hard work, and little pay is a reality apprentices are not coming to terms with before picking up the knife. With an ever-increasing population, not only in Australia but also across the globe, more and more niche professions make their way into the market. It’s easy to understand why people don’t want to spend the best years of their life doing menial tasks for a subpar wage.

The Australian Government’s Department of Employment released a report on employment shortages at the beginning of 2015. What was found was that there is not just a lack of hospitality professionals, but a skills shortage across the board. Pastry chefs, Carpenters and Joiners, Engineers, Physiotherapists, and Teachers are only some of the occupations failing to meet needs within their industry.

In NSW alone around 6 of every 10 chef vacancies were filled. There were roughly 3 applicants per vacancy with just one being considered suitable for the position. The numbers varied across regional and metropolitan areas. In October of 2014 Sydney filled about 9 out of every 10 vacancies while regional NSW filled just over half. It goes without saying that perhaps there are more opportunities in the city. There might be higher wages, more opportunities for progression, and of course there is more glamour.

In Sydney there was around 8 applicants per vacancy. Half of them had formal qualifications and only one was considered suitable. In other states the numbers were different yet painted a similar picture. That is: there are plenty of applicants, but none that make the cut. The two main reasons for this unsuitability involved either the applicant not living in the local region or they were under-skilled. Secondary reasons were found to be poor attitude on applicants’ behalf, lack of general experience, and a low level of wages offered.

Skills and disciplines are something Anna Kennedy, Head Chef of The Crow Bar in Sydney’s Crow’s Nest, thinks of as necessary. ‘Not only as a chef, but as a person, and in life too,’ Anna says.

Anna began her career in similar fashion to Hong. Even armed with great marks from school and a solid work ethic, Anna struggled to find opportunity at home in Poland. A call from her brother inspired her travel to Ireland. ‘For days I was wandering around, no education except a high school certificate, handing out CV’s to every kitchen and restaurant I saw. One man finally took me on, but he said, “I’ll make you quit within a month”.

The hardcore sentimentality is something of a dying trend in the modern day. Being hard on staff is not a great way of teaching people these days. In a time where nothing is ever good enough, where praise is never given to a job well done, it could be that those brought up so disciplined have swung the other way. They’re the teachers, they make the rules, and maybe they’re over-compensating.

‘I spent nearly every day crying I was so stressed out,’ Anna says of her formative years, ‘but now I know I just had people who cared about me and my future.’ This dedication to learning and teaching she found wasn’t given such rigorous attention once arriving to Australia. Instead, there was a culture of sensitivity and a focus on basic participation rather than excellence. Discipline was something she realised was in short supply. Kennedy believes this does not inspire a person to exceed their personal limits and that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Mentoring is definitely the way forward, in any profession. After all, how can people learn from someone who doesn’t want to teach? The same is true in reverse. Perhaps the young need to recognise discipline as care rather than bullying. Perhaps chefs need to take more interest, sharing their knowledge with more care and enthusiasm. What is certain is that something has to give in the educational sector of the trade industry.

Hong believes his education was one of the axis on which his career relied. It’s easy to see how highly he regards teaching in the workplace as he’s in the kitchen, cutting up vegetables for the busy night ahead and simultaneously quizzing one of his younger chefs about the menu.

‘The only thing we can do is recognise the potential of the chefs we hire. If they have it then it’s our job to develop them into better chefs.’

Hong says other answers to the issue are fairly straightforward. There are driving factors behind every decision a person makes. If a chef is in it for the money then you can offer it to them if you think they deserve it. If it’s willingness to learn then you teach them and push them. Above all Hong says passion is what gets people through a shift. ‘I mean, they’re spending more time here than they are with their friends and family. You can’t do it if you’re not passionate.’

For Anna money and education are paramount but not what drives her either. ‘I’ve been at the same place for three years, and it’s small for a venue. I’ve worked in big places. One was a Michelin star restaurant and after one day I was ready to quit. In a restaurant that size, and with that sort of expectation on its head it begins to feel like a factory.’

Atmosphere is an underrated thing that may be adding to false expectations in the industry. People hoping to make it big in prestigious restaurants are not aware that the level of creativity goes way down with great expectations on standards. In larger venues there is less room for error. Considering their reputation or cuisine there is much less freedom and much more regiment. And this is something Anna says contributes to a bland mentality - this is where life goes to die for the sake of a job. And this isn’t conducive to job satisfaction or longevity. ‘You have to make your environment happy - that’s the only real way to keep chefs,’ agrees Hong.

As a Carpenter and foreman, Kieran McGlinchey, who’s been at work on several of the Merivale venues working alongside Hong and Hemmes, said that there is more work than can be done by the current amount of skilled tradesmen. As a result, he believes the work being done comes down in standard. ‘If I were to take even a week off, the projects would buckle because I’m just not there to see it, and no one has the experience I have.’ A humble-brag perhaps, but one voicing very true and real concerns. McGlinchey says that without quality tradesmen and women working on jobs you have to rely on sub-par skills to even get the work done. The resulting quality is very low, and almost unsafe.

Anna is under the same impression of hospitality and the chef-world. ‘I think if this problem persists we’ll begin to see much lower quality dining experiences, poor service, and poor food both in flavour. It won’t exactly be fast-food but it might as well be.’ This dystopian picture of the industry can be imagined with ready-made meals, using less healthy ingredients, and poor experiences.

This might suit the age of today. There is less time for life as workweeks dribble over the sides of allocated hours. Attention spans are diminishing. Social lives are plugged online. Ubereats have begun to deliver food to your home. iPad dinners are taking over TV dinners, which took over table dinners. Maybe it is just evolution.

Hong fears many restaurants might face the same fate. ‘I don’t want it to happen, but in ten years time restaurants may just begin closing.’ It’s sad, not yet nostalgic, to see engaging interactions between people die off one by one. Restaurants cater to more than just hungry people. They provide a space and experience for slow living. They bring people together. But with technology as instantaneous as it is, why do we need to spend time with people when we can simply text them?

References

“ANZSCO 3513-11 Chef - NSW.” Chef Occupational Reports, created by The Department of Employment. 14 Feb. 2015. https://docs.employment.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/351311chefnsw_0.pdf. Accessed 15 Aug. 2016.

Interview Subjects

Anna Kennedy – Head Chef of Crow Bar

Dan Hong – Executive Chef at Merivale Group

Kieran McGlinchey – Foreman and Builder for CWP Construction

(Disclaimer: This article was not commercially published)

Mark Brenchley