Skills shortage or is it just the modern way?


The chef shortage is widely reported and often blamed on colleges, but is that fair and does the industry have more of a role to play?




I was reading an article recently by a well-known chef patron who was complaining about the lack of skills within the industry. The article focused on his concerns that some colleges were not teaching their students the correct skills required to work in the hospitality industry. In particular, he commented on the lack of skill in junior staff applying to work in his establishments. He commented that in terms of skill he sees in kitchens today, few chefs knew how to fillet fish or cut a chicken for sauté (eight pieces if done correctly!). He then went on the rampage about the lack of understanding of how to produce freshly made stocks. The article then moved on to the lack of skill in front-of-house teams including the lack of understanding of the dishes some waiting staff serve when asked what they comprise of.

Having read the article a few times, it was interesting that the majority of the blame, according to the author, lies at the door of colleges and how they train the students.

Now I don’t want to get in to the age-old debate about whether colleges are good enough, but having trained at Thanet Technical College in Broadstairs, taught  at West Kent College in Tonbridge and visited Westminster College on several occasions, I think they do a good job all things considered. I guess the point the writer was trying to make, was the training offered at colleges today, is not what is was when he was at college. I understand this to an extent. When I was at Thanet Technical College, there must have been over 20 chef lecturers including a Swiss master pâtissier, a larder chef who had worked at Buckingham Palace for many years, a butcher, not to mention a lecturer whose lessons were just about fresh fruit and vegetables, a lecturer in commodities and a restaurant that specialised in not only silver service but gueridon service as well. To cap it all, during restaurant service, we even had an aboyeur in the kitchen whose sole task was to call out the checks for the kitchen. Skills and techniques were drummed into us and looking back, it was a great time, but times move on.

Today, the hospitality industry seems to grow on a daily basis and this brings its own challenges, including making the businesses viable and successful. As such, labour-saving ideas such as pre-butchered meats, prepared fish, prepared vegetables, stocks and sauces, as well as many others have a huge role to play in the industry, but so too do those working in it, such as the author of the article I was reading. Perhaps the author is right in some ways, but surely the way forward is to find a little time in the day to impart the skills he describes to his team. What a great sight to see your boss show you such skills – demonstrating butchery techniques, fishmonger skills, how to make crystal clear stocks, even ‘turn’ vegetables.

With regards to front-of-house teams not knowing what they are selling, well surely that’s down to a pre-service brief as well as giving the staff as much information as possible? In my most recent post, when we had a menu change we cooked all the dishes, then got all the staff to try them along with suggested wines, got their feedback and then we did a quick quiz afterwards to make sure they got it. I remember an ex-colleague of mine at Graysons, Tim O’Neill, telling me that in a previous job they would get the staff to try the daily special each day so they could really sell it to the customer.

I have seen some amazing training schemes and techniques within the industry, not always complicated and with some quite obvious benefits, both financial and motivational, just by taking time to work with and enhance the skills of those who work for us. Colleges aren’t perfect – and I guess they would be the first to admit that – but blaming them for the skills shortage in the industry is very harsh. We all have a role to play in developing, encouraging and motivating our employees and indeed our colleges as well.