Monday 11 December 2017

Boiling Point: Ross Lewis on Ireland's chef shortage

Michelin-award winning chef Ross Lewis on the crisis of the chef shortage in Ireland

Chapter One's Michelin-award winning chef Ross Lewis
Chapter One's Michelin-award winning chef Ross Lewis

Jillian Bolger

The chef shortage in Ireland has always been there, but it's been worse in the last 10 years. The economy is one of the main reasons but there are many others. We've seen 3,000 to 4,000 more restaurant seats in Dublin city centre alone in the last few years, making it hard for everyone to get staff.

There's still a stigma about making a career in catering. There's an old-fashioned view that you would prefer your son or daughter to be going into one of the professions.

Mostly chefs are quite young. I don't know what happens, but you wouldn't walk into a restaurant in Ireland and see four 55-year-old chefs working like you might in Spain. There seems to be an issue here where they come to a certain stage and get out. Give me the names of 10 chefs over 50 who are working in Ireland today? You'd probably say Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, Aidan MacManus and then you'll struggle. It's long hours and repetitive work, and people have easier options.

Salary is a factor too. The restaurant industry works on a model of flexible and reasonably priced labour because it's a competitive model. If I had the same 40 staff today that started in Chapter One 24 years ago and wanted to give them incremental wage rises, I'd be out of business. Customers would be coming in paying €60 for a main course to make the numbers work.

There's also an element of the media glamorising things. Many chefs don't survive because the media portrays a very perfect world. Cooking a good meal at home is very different to the orchestration of doing it 100 times a day under pressure with. Sure, there's a great community, but at the end of the day, it's long hours, very repetitive and there's a lot of sacrifices.

In my opinion, the old training system is a big loss. What you get now are kids coming out of catering college who don't seem to have done much cooking. There's a big gap in what they've been taught and what the industry needs. The courses don't seem to be creating a real environment. Colleges are under-resourced and some are not always able to produce the kind of graduate that's required by the industry.

There's always been high dropout numbers in the industry. In my experience, kids coming from an apprenticeship are more likely to stick at it than kids coming out of a degree course where they seem to have spent 90pc of the time in the classroom and not the kitchen.

The Germans are brilliant at offering apprenticeships. Learning on the job is very important, especially where you've a hands-on skilled job. By the time you finish your apprenticeship you have all that base-level training done. Kitchens are about time and motion and organisation - it doesn't just come overnight.

It's too simplistic to only blame the educational system. At government level we need a campaign to entice people back home. We need a holistic vision for the food industry in Ireland that includes chefs. We're banging a drum about Ireland being a Food Island, with The Wild Atlantic Way etc, yet we're not thinking about the fact that we have no chefs.

Ross Lewis is chef-proprietor of Chapter One restaurant, Dublin 1

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