Heather Kaniuk is a confident, outgoing chef who is in charge of running a brigade of 17 chefs in the pastry section at the highest hotel in the capital at the Shangri-La Hotel, At The Shard, London. Originally from New Zealand, Heather came to London on a scholarship programme and stayed for longer then she expected. The passionate rising star has worked across some of the most revered pastry kitchens in the capital and has observed some growing trends which may impact the sector more so then ever before.
“I’ve been with Shangri-La a short time, and like every kitchen in London we are missing a few chefs. We’ve been searching for people with the correct drive and attitude needed but we are struggling to find those with a passion and desire to learn. Many young chefs seem to be misled by fame, the promise of fortune and the celebrity chef lifestyle – what should drive them is the search for new skills, and a sense of teamwork which is driven by the right work ethos. There are young chefs out there, but not enough of them.”
Whilst working hours in kitchens have reduced for many from the eighty hours plus weeks that were once the norm. Heather, amongst others, is struggling to find candidates willing to go the extra mile, or work in excess of their contracted forty hours. During her formative years, Heather was driven in her learning and gained experience from working around the globe, spending time working on-board luxury superyachts that toured the world. She also spent time in San Francisco and Canada, working for Michel Suas, a renowned leader in French artisan baking. She believes that young chefs need to be pushed, taught and trained to become the best they can be, and whilst many have the ambition, some lack the drive needed to reach the top.
“There are colleges out there who are great at teaching the technical knowledge but not the practicalities of a working kitchen. The long hours, speed of production and service and the ability to think on your feet in a stressful environment all comes as a shock. We are finding people joining often come from a wide variety of backgrounds and ethnicities, and for many it’s their first job in the UK. We have to teach them about the kitchen but also life skills. I have found that my leadership style has had to change to adapt to this situation. You need to be able to wear many ‘hats’– that of the parent, the friend and the counsellor.”
“I am where I am by putting my head down and working hard pushing the boundaries of what I thought I could achieve. Today’s young chefs don’t want to spend ten hard years getting to this level.We are lucky to keep staff for more than one to two years.” The concern facing the sector is that a chef may work only six months and then move. This impacts those who are investing valuable time in teaching them. Although it can seem beneficial to the young chef eager to learn many new skills in a short term, it may also cause strain on an industry already struggling to recruit. The question to ask is why is this happening now?
“Social Media does play a role. People look on their platforms or watch The Great British Bake Off, recreate the dishes at home and think they’re a chef. Whilst they may be able to do one dish well, they lack any other techniques or knowledge.”
“When Iwas travelling Iworked in various kitchens with different set-ups and attitudes. In Europe we are very traditional, maintaining the classical hierarchy. Working in the States, I found it much more relaxed and laid back. There is an emerging culture of strong female chefs, with the likes of Dominique Crenn, Belinda Leong and Nicole Krasinski, who are changing the face of kitchens. I do find that many female chefs are precise, dedicated and have great attention to detail. We must look at ways to keep females in the kitchen longer – I’ve seen too many burn out or change careers to be able to juggle their family life with their career.”
Whilst the potential ideal of a relaxed kitchen may be in the distance for many hotel restaurants, Heather does believe that the chef culture is starting to shake off its reputation as a male dominated, aggressive environment. “There is less yelling and screaming.” Heather says with relief. “Whilst I was working my way up this was often normal. However this method, whether rightly or wrongly, did bring with it respect and an understanding of hierarchy.” “I’ve also found that many people are trying to enter the industry at a later age. However it’s a demanding space to work in – both physically and mentally. People may see it as a fun and creative job, but can they handle standing up all day, long hours versus the low salary, adapting to the fast-paced environment? Unless you’ve grown up with it, it’s very hard to adapt to it.”
“Like many other industries, if the person wants to learn, they can go far. Within Shangri-La we offer the opportunity to learn all aspects of pastry across our outlets – plated desserts, afternoon tea, event catering and private dining, amenities and also our retail offering – LÁNG, an artisan deli. This gives young chefs a much broader skillset than what you typically learn in a restaurant.
When Heather does bring on new team members, she needs to bring them up to speed quickly. “They need to understand allergens, dietary requirements and ingredients. This can be as simple as ‘where does honey come from, or what is an egg made up of ? The lack of basic knowledge is scary, but this is a reality for some.”
Heather proposes that we may need to reinvent what it is to be a chef and do more to encourage others to enter the industry with the right attitude. By focusing on hands-on training, motivating staff, working more efficiently, people should join who want to go far in a place of learning, not just working.