The world of cheffing is considered to be a glamorous one; with gourmet fayre, TV chefs and lucrative book deals on the horizon for those who make it into the public eye. However, life as an executive chef is no easy feat. It’s a lifestyle choice, which requires juggling multiple responsibilities, including hiring and managing a team of kitchen staff, training and building menus, all the while ensuring profitability for the kitchen.
This week, we hosted an intimate roundtable discussion – where 20 of London’s brightest culinary masterminds came together to discuss the common challenges facing the hospitality industry today. With Tottenham Hotspur’s brand spanking new stadium as a backdrop, the chefs covered a plethora of important topics. Below are just some of the collated highlights:
How can we support mental well-being in professional kitchens?
With 8 in 10 chefs reporting to have experienced poor mental health during their careers and almost half (48%) believe not enough is being done to support their mental well-being in the workplace, it is the responsibility of the industry to ensure enough is done to not only raise awareness for mental health but to ensure the necessary measures are put in place to prevent and treat sufferers of mental health.
Mark Reynolds, Executive Head Chef, Compass Group:
The size of my team varies from 12 to a team of 225 on a match day. Whether it’s an agency worker, full time or direct chefs, I always have an open door policy. It’s out there – people are suffering behind closed doors. I’ve just started a course through Compass, to become a mental health first-aider. For me, the most challenging part has been breaking down the barriers between me, an exec chef and the front of house members. It’s never been seen before that a front of house worker would go and talk openly to a chef about their problems. But it’s important for me to make them aware that chefs can have compassion, all staff can openly talk with us and it goes no further. Mental health is something we all need to be mindful and aware of. We are finding new ways to deal with it every day.
Barry Nichols, Executive Chef at Grayson’s:
There’s been a historical lack of empathy between exec chef level and the juniors. If we’re not getting youngsters into the industry, then it’s the industry’s challenge to overcome that and show them that we are human, we breakdown, we fail, we face challenges every day. It’s recognising when someone is showing signs of having a problem, changing it and putting measures in place for the younger generations coming into the industry.
Mark Reynolds, Executive Head Chef, Compass Group:
I make sure I learn the names of all my staff. I always make the effort to go round the kitchen and say good morning to everyone. There could be that one person who’s suffering that day. And by me saying good morning to them personally, it perks them up for the day. It’s important to consciously make time for everyone, even when you don’t think you have the time.
Jeremy Ford, Director of Food, Gather & Gather
Our industry and the environments we work in are highly pressurised, it’s tough. I think there’s a lot more to be done to equip us with the skills to have those difficult conversations.
Pip Lacy, Executive Chef & Founder of Hicce
Working in a professional kitchen is a stressful environment. One thing I’ve found to be very effective is having an open kitchen. It’s reduced my stress levels massively. If you put people in a hot box all day it can send you to boiling point. It also helps to reduce the notorious divide between front and back of house employees.
Rohit Shenoy, Head Chef, Sanderson Hotel
At Sanderson, we have an anonymous call line where workers can speak with professionals. We also have yoga sessions, mental health awareness sessions and other activities to make sure our staff are well looked after.
Dan Kelly, Executive Chef at Vacherin:
There’s a fundamental problem with mental health as a whole. Dealing with it is very reactive. We wait until there’s a problem before dealing with it. And actually there are so many elements that come into play. Working, working conditions, the people, outside pressures. But also the environment people are living in now with social media. You used to be able to go home from the kitchens in our generations and nobody would know. There’d be no pictures of the food, or of us for that matter.
As businesses, if we still want to employ the younger generations, we need to adapt. At Vacherin we’ve created a resilience programme whereby we teach people how to best look after themselves and cope within a stressful environment. Everybodys different. People can be pushed to different levels. We have to accept the world has changed and that the people coming through the doors have changed. The resilience programme should enable them to be ready for that environment.
How can we attract and retain new talent to our kitchens?
The hospitality industry as a whole can struggle to attract new talent, but the cheffing sector, in particular, has challenges of its own. It was commonly acknowledged amongst our chefs that what it means to be a professional chef is relatively unknown to those outside the industry, and even those actively looking to enter hospitality are told very little by advisers.
Adam Bateman, Group Operations and Development Chef, IHG:
It all starts with the government, schools and universities. There isn’t enough that schools do to support kids going into hospitality.
Barry Nichols, Group Executive Chef, Graysons:
Schools seem to have little idea what catering involves, the hours, the stress. It’s not communicated very well. As an industry, there’s more to be done with educating the educators.
Dan Kelly, Deputy Managing Director, Vacherin:
I think the question should be “how can we attract and retain the right talent to our kitchens?”. There’s a lot of people that think they want to become chefs, but they want to do it for the wrong reasons. We have to stay true to what our industry is about, and that is the right people in the right places doing the right jobs.
Jeremy Ford, Director of Food, Gather and Gather:
We need more high profile ambassadors saying you know what this is a really cool industry and you can have a good time in it and you can do well, it is rewarding.
What are the reasons to love working in hospitality? How can we change the potentially negative public perception?
Pip Lacey, Executive Chef and co-founder of Hicce
If you like being on your feet, manual labour (to an extent) and being around other people all day, it might be the right industry for you. What I love about being a chef is just being around people who have the same mindset as you.
Barry Nichols, Executive Chef, Graysons
For me, it’s the comradery. People in the kitchen bond very quickly because they’re fighting the same battle. That level of comradery, you rarely get in any other industry. Because you’re working under high pressure, to high standards, as a team. You have to bond very quickly or you don’t make it. It’s as simple as that.
Dan Kelly, Deputy Managing Director, Vacherin
When I was a chef I didn’t think there was anything else I could ever want to do or want to be.
The perception of the industry has to change as a whole. It’s the only career I know where you get a taste of everything. You have to be able to relate to people, you have to be able to deal with situations under pressure, be a good accountant, a good business manager, you have to do absolutely everything and you get to be creative at the same time.
The UK is probably the only place in the world where the hospitality industry is potentially looked down at. In other countries, it’s an honour to be a chef and a waiter.
Jeremy, Director of Food, Gather & Gather:
I think it comes down to how much we value food in this country. Us round this table, very highly. But how many people grow up truly valuing food? If you don’t then the last thing you want to be in is the food industry. That’s the fundamental problem. In schools, it’s a second rate profession as far as most schools are concerned, even now. It’s considered subservient.
However, I don’t think any of us would swap it for the world.
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