As the rock stars of the restaurant world arrive Australia is struggling for chefs

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

The rise of the celebrity chef and the cooking show star machine is sending the wrong messages to would-be chefs and contributing to skills shortages.

That’s the view of Massimo Bottura whose restaurant Osteria Francescana was last year ranked as the number one restaurant in the world.

“Too many people, too many young men and women are driven by the wrong stimulation to become a chef,” Bottura tells Fairfax Media at a lunch on Monday at Higher Ground cafe attended by apprentice chefs.

“The television is sending out a message like, you are going to be a star you are going to be a master chef. That is wrong. Our job is all about hard work and a little bit of talent.”

In Australia for Wednesday night’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants event, Bottura spoke to Fairfax Media in between posing for selfies with apprentice chefs and autographing their jackets.

His message is that the reality of a chef’s life is hard work and anti social hours.

“It’s a job when everyone else is out enjoying themselves on a Saturday night you are in the middle of the most difficult service,” he says. “The pressure is unbelievable. In the Osteria every day we play the final of the World Cup lunch and dinner.”

Bottura is flooded with applications to work at Osteria Francescana but Australia’s restaurants are struggling to get the right staff.

A 2015 Deloitte Access Economics report found a current gap of 38,000 staff across the tourism and hospitality sector, a shortage predicted to increase to 123,000 by 2020. And the situation is not helped by over half of all hospitality TAFE students dropping out.

A real struggle

Peter Gilmore, owner of Quay in Sydney, says it is hard to get chefs.

“Even at the top end there is a bit of a shortage,” he says. “Just one level below that there is a real struggle.”

Gilmore says the large number of new restaurants opening and ongoing misconceptions amongst young people starting in the industry are causing the problem.

“It’s a job when everyone else is out enjoying themselves on a Saturday night you are in the middle of the most difficult service.” Massimo Bottura

“There are more people starting and less people staying a lot of that has to do with media and TV shows like MasterChef,” he says.

“They have this expectation that within a couple of years they are all going to be rockstars. When I started cooking that was the furthest thing from my mind. The reality of it hits home, it is hard graft and long hours. I’m not seeing people staying as long as they used to and it is a real worry. It is a long haul.”

Gilmore says most chefs are not well paid.

“The wages these days for apprentices are better than they have ever been but in some ways it is maybe part of the problem as there is not a lot of difference between their wages and qualified chef wages,” he says.

“They can’t just keep on going up. It’s the affordability of running a restaurant business, it’s so labour intensive, in other countries labour laws are a lot different and it’s easier running a restaurant overseas with slightly cheaper labour.”

An international workforce

Chefs from overseas on 457 visas are filling the gap for restaurants with the hospitality industry the biggest user of the visas.

“A lot of our kitchens in Australia are filled with foreign chefs,” Gilmore says.

Chefs from overseas on 457 visas are filling the gap for restaurants with the hospitality industry the biggest user of the visas.

“There are lots of English, Scandinavians, Korean and Japanese chefs that are travelling and here on a visa. It’s helping us fill the gap at the moment because there is a huge gap. The problem with that is they can only work in a restaurant for six months at a time and then they have to move on and have to work in a different place for six months.”

Gilmore says after six months the chefs are often trained up and “useful” but then have to move to another restaurant.

“I could understand it if a lot of Australian chefs were saying ‘Hey, What about me?’ but they’re not and the industry is saying ‘Help’. We need more training for young chefs but we also need better working conditions for the overseas chefs so they can stay with you longer”.

Persevering

Chef Luke Mangan helped organise the event at Higher Ground alongside American Express and the World’s Best Chefs to try to encourage these young chefs.

“We can’t fill the gaps for chef de parties, apprentices and things like that, Mangan says. “We take in chefs from overseas on the visas but we’d all prefer to hire Australians.

Mangan says high drop out rates of hospitality courses occur because apprentice chefs are deterred by the hours and pay.

“They jump in and see the glamorous side of it on a TV show and they get there and they are peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans,” he says.

“It is a hard industry but you have to persevere. You have to be committed, you have to be passionate you have to work hard. The beauty of our business is if you do that you can travel the world, you can meet interesting people, you can eat great food. I keep saying the world is your oyster.”

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