w ^hite Heat, by Marco Pierre White, is one of the most influential recipe books of the past 30 年. Published 在 1990, its edgy black and white photography popularised an idea of the chef-as-hero, immersed in the creative Sturm und Drang of a frantically busy restaurant kitchen. Its cover features a handsome 28-year-old Mr White in a butcher’s apron, looking moody and a little like Jim Morrison.
For most chefs the reality has always been much less romantic. Long, unsociable hours are often poorly rewarded, and a sometimes brutal workload makes cheffing one of the most stressful ways to earn a living. Burnout is commonplace, and a healthy work-life balance difficult to maintain. One 2019 survey found that eight out of 10 employees in professional kitchens had experienced mental health problems during their career. Research by the Unite union discovered 那 52% of chefs have a negative view of their jobs and only 22% would recommend the life to school-leavers. Happily, there are some tentative early signs that the hospitality hiatus caused by Covid may lead to change for the better.
A combination of Brexit and the pandemic has led to critical staff shortages in the hospitality sector generally. But the demand for chefs, and for young people willing to train to be chefs, is particularly acute. A large number of mid-level chefs have returned to their European Union countries of origin. Others have simply decided against a post-lockdown return to the industry. According to the recruitment website Caterer.com, the number of chef vacancies rose by 62% between February 2020 and July of this year. Restaurant groups are now scrambling to locate talent and train new recruits.
The new labour market is leading some companies to contemplate more progressive policies on pay and working conditions. Median pay has increased (though only from £9.50 to £10 an hour) and there are signs that the traditional culture of long hours, draining shift patterns and unpaid overtime may be reformed by more enlightened employers. Some restaurants are scaling back the size of their menus, easing the burden on kitchens.
Ultimately, improved working conditions for chefs are likely to depend on buy-in from those who enjoy the food they create. The end of the Covid VAT cut for hospitality businesses will mean a rise in prices if better pay and conditions are to be funded. A meaningful culture shift may also entail accepting shorter menus and more limited opening hours. Such developments should be accepted by restaurant-goers with good grace. The thousands of chefs who never achieve the fame and status of a Marco Pierre White or Rick Stein deserve a much better deal. As business comes back to Britain’s short-staffed restaurants, there is an opportunity to ensure they get one.