As if Covid wasn’t enough the UK hospitality industry is in absolute crisis and there is no end in sight. It appears that many countries are struggling to encourage staff back to work in the hospitality industry following Covid shutdowns. There has been plenty written over the summer concerning staffing shortages in France, where I live, but also in the rest of Europe and America. But on a recent visit to England I witnessed the extent of the problem first-hand.
The UK has enjoyed a booming hospitality sector for many years – pubs, clubs and restaurants have been opening on every corner. There are more Michelin stars in the UK than in France. Staffing was never an issue with plenty of economic migrants from the heart of Europe to fill some of the low-paid positions and good quality chefs being turned out from some top catering colleges. However, in January 2021 it all came to a grinding halt and not because of Covid. The United Kingdom officially left the European Union meaning that the access to a massive staffing pool that the hospitality industry had previously enjoyed, dried up overnight.
Many of the migrant workers had already returned back to their country of origin because of the pandemic but in order to return to their work in the UK they now need a visa, so obviously, many have decided to stay where they are.
I visited England in early September, staying in a coastal town that is renowned for its sandy beaches, pier entertainment and fish and chips! On a glorious sunny day we walked along the promenade which was thronged with late-season holidaymakers. Cafés were full, street vendors were doing well and restaurants were preparing for a lunchtime rush. But one thing that became evident very quickly was that, almost without fail, every catering outlet had a board outside advertising staff vacancies, everything from kitchen porter to waiting staff to experienced chefs.
I had two very interesting conversations with young people working within the restaurant industry. Firstly, a floor manager working at Bistrot Pierre, who at 26 years old was among the more experienced staff there. He was saying that the entire hospitality industry in England is in trouble and he blamed it mostly upon Brexit (the UK leaving the European Union). Recruiting quality staff is becoming increasingly difficult and that most young people would rather stack shelves in their local supermarket than work unsociable hours in a bar or restaurant dealing with rude customers. Unfortunately the hospitality industry is notoriously bad at paying decent wages.
The second conversation was more disturbing. A young chef who started out at age 17 with a determination to become a top quality chef. He literally banged on doors until someone would give him a job. He moved to London and had a trial at a 3-Michelin star restaurant. His trial day started at 8am and finished just before midnight! He actually started work with the restaurant and continued with a similar gruelling schedule working 100 hours per week but added into that was a level of physical abuse within the kitchen brigade.
Kitchens have always been tough places to work and, in my opinion, we have become soft on many issues over recent years but there is no place for violence within any professional kitchen team! My young chef, who at the tender age of 24, has returned home to work in smaller establishments and was acting head chef the night we ate with him.
He went on to talk about the crisis within hospitality stating that many restaurants are able to open only four days per week in order to give the staff a rest. The restaurant he works at is currently short three front of house staff and three kitchen members which forces the restaurant to limit the number of covers it can handle. The night we were there they were turning away customers without reservations.
I have learned that there are now some organisations helping to address some of the issues within catering. A project known as Burnt Chef is providing help and counselling for hospitality staff who are suffering from mental health issues linked to the stress or abuse they face in their daily work. It is a non-profit organisation committed to destigmatising mental health within UK hospitality and providing free support to workers. For more information visit www.theburntchefproject.com
There is no denying that the hospitality industry is a tough one but there needs to be drastic change, and very soon. We need guaranteed working hours, decent pay and an environment where our young workers can feel safe. The pressure in a kitchen is enormous and tempers get frayed, I understand that more than most people, but physical abuse has no place and older chefs (maybe myself included) need educating on how to deal with the stress. The hospitality industry itself should start addressing these issues and, maybe, some of our celebrity chefs should lead the change and encourage our young people into an industry that can be extremely rewarding with countless opportunities for progression.