Appeal of the profession
There is a widespread feeling among chefs, restaurateurs, and trainers that the main barrier to cultivating the next generation of chefs is something deeply ingrained in our culture – a lack of respect for food and cooking. They think this is made manifest in our school system, where there is a contrast between domestic science and arts teaching – the latter being much more respected and pursued as a GCSE subject – but also in the advice that parents and schools give to young people. The result is that employers say they rarely see young people entering culinary education or training as the result of an active choice.
Almost all of our interviewees mentioned three common views that make the chef profession unattractive in the eyes of young people:
- Kitchen jobs are often low paid.
- Kitchen jobs are associated with servitude, and not held in high social esteem.
- Kitchen jobs aren’t “a proper career”, but a means to an end, a stopgap.
Yet younger children seem to like the idea of being a chef. A global study led by the OECD asked 130,000 British children aged between 7 and 11 years to draw what they wanted to be when they were older. “Chef” ranked at number 12 – though UK children were half as likely as young Swiss and Chinese children to express this preference. 1
As children get older, their ambitions change. Psychologists at the University of Surrey surveyed 3,000 young people in secondary schools and colleges across England about their perceptions of eight occupations with the greatest skills shortages. The survey identified factors that may push young people away from the profession. Only 14 per cent of young people described chefs as “creative”, and 44 per cent identified off-putting factors such as “working under criticism”, “pressure”, “rushing about”, “the long hours”, “fear of mistakes”, “stressful”, “long nights and long hours”, “hot”, “unhappy customers”, and “getting shouted at by people like Gordon Ramsay”. 2
Given the negatives associated with the profession, the importance of nurturing interest in food, and skill and enjoyment in cooking, becomes paramount.
These surveys shed light on the general aspirations of young people, but aspirations are shaped by lived experience. Interviewees pointed out how experiences of poverty and migration had an important impact on experiences of food outside the home: there is a gap between the profession they see and what is available. One interviewee suggested: “Very few young people from the Bangladeshi community are going into the sector. For them cooking is something their parents, or their grandparents do for a living, it’s the curry house. For them it is not an aspiration – because it is associated with migrants.” And with 40 per cent of the city’s children growing up in poverty, many are not introduced to the many flavours of London’s culinary scene.
Young people know about cooking, but the culinary profession is less visible. This is particularly true of the positives: the sense of achievement that comes with mastering a skill and seeing the fruits of one’s labour, or the camaraderie of working in a busy kitchen. Interviewees argued that the positives of being an “insider” in London’s restaurant scene don’t receive enough airtime.
There are plenty of perks in the sector but they’re not visible to young people who are 18 or 19. Like having encyclopaedic knowledge of food and wine, being greeted like a friend when you go out for food […] but it’s difficult to package it in an attractive way.
Former Chef, fine dining
The lack of prestige and prestigious schools is a significant problem. But it is also an opportunity: the sector isn’t dominated by the sharp-elbowed middle-classes. “There are people [in kitchens] who haven’t had the chance to train as anything else – it was their only opportunity. You can get a job with a criminal record.” The contrast with other cultural industries is stark: Centre for London’s Culture Club report found an urgent need to widen access to the city’s creative careers. 3 This report will make recommendations on how to raise the status of culinary arts and education, while ensuring that the sector remains accessible to all.
Cheffing is not often viewed as a career of choice. Too often, young people end up in culinary careers for lack of “better” options. In order to address skills shortages and cultivate local talent, London must inspire more children to want to work as chefs. But the city also needs to improve its culinary training offer.
This is a challenge common to all skilled trades. London boasts world-class higher education institutions – but has enduring weaknesses in vocational education,
as the final report of the King’s Commission on London showed. 4
The landscape of skills provision is complex and changing: responsibilities are shared between the government, which decides on policy and funding; regulators, who ensure quality of provision; and the many providers of courses and training. The latter include local authorities, further education (FE) colleges, private providers, and businesses (who employ and train apprentices). From September 2019, the Mayor will take over the Adult Education Budget for London from the government.
There are three routes to train as a chef in London:
- Many FE colleges offer culinary courses, and it is a popular route because the state funds the cost of training for most young people.
- There are also plenty of vacancies for those who are willing to learn on the job – apprenticeships with a small “a”.
- A third route is to work in a kitchen while earning a qualification – through a government apprenticeship.
National figures suggest that not enough young people go into culinary training to replace chefs leaving the industry. Industry experts People 1st estimated in 2017 that the UK loses around 20,000 chefs every year – approximately 10 per cent of the workforce. On the supply side, there were 9,000 young people in their first year of a chef or cookery course in UK catering colleges – with the number dropping to around 6,000 in the third year. 5 Add to that the 6,000 apprentices who started a chef apprenticeship last year (which an estimated 60 to 70 per cent complete), 6 and it is clear that, in the last two years, colleges and apprenticeships were far from meeting the country’s demand for chefs.*
Of course, these measures of headcount are blunt. And we do not know how many chefs train directly with their employers (our interviews suggest a lot do). However, on top of the annual 20,000 chefs needed simply to replace people leaving the sector, demand for chefs has been growing fast – and fastest in London.
There is little doubt that London must inspire more people in order to address its skills shortage. But the larger concern amongst chefs and restaurant owners is not the number of students completing culinary education (an industry-wide challenge), but that many young people coming out of training do not have the right skills to fit their needs or to thrive in the workplace.
*Chef apprenticeship starts have fallen from 12,000 in 2014. The main explanation for this fall is a change in government regulation, and the slow take up of the new system by employers. Still, there is a marked under supply of apprenticeships in London relative to the rest of the country (see Appendix).
1. College education
London has a large and diverse offer of training for chefs – out of 48 FE colleges, 16 provide catering courses. These courses were first set up by chefs to train future generations of chefs. Some students are highly ambitious chefs early in their careers, who want to accelerate development of their skills. But in general, culinary education does not meet employers’ needs, and does not prepare young people well enough for chef jobs. 70 per cent of our interviewees felt that culinary schools didn’t provide the chef training that the city needs, including several college course managers. Catering college graduates were, on the whole, in high demand. One course manager told us that “All students have a job before finishing the course, some a year before.” But chefs and restaurateurs were often unconvinced by culinary education in colleges.
A widespread criticism of college training was simply that it takes place at college. Catering courses usually do not include any work experience, even though they can last up to three years. After completing courses, joining the “real world of work” is a shock for most college graduates.
Trainees don’t understand what the sector is going to be, and aren’t told how to build the resilience that they will need… how to do 4 or 5 days of 15-16 hour shifts. They aren’t told how to deal with being mentally tired, when you’re on the edge of burning out, when you need help.
Former chef, fine dining
Employers are looking for aspirant chefs who have the resilience required to cope and can thrive in a constantly changing environment: filling in for colleagues, working around customers’ allergies, or cooking in a badly equipped kitchen. They also need to work under pressure – deadlines become real. Employers argue that that no matter how thorough college culinary education is, it cannot provide the “real life” experience that is essential to developing their craft.
Employers and college course managers agree on another point – that most catering colleges today are not able to teach some of the qualities required to be a good chef. Their primary focus is on teaching technical skills, “what to do” – for instance knowing eight vegetable cuts or how to prepare specific sauces – rather than “how to act and react” – that is having a deep understanding of how flavours combine and chemicals interact. The skills that make a good chef go way beyond technical skills. Courses do not so easily teach thirst for learning, flair, teamwork, entrepreneurship, which all our interviewees agreed were the skills that make a good chef (see Figure 1). It is also essential for aspirant chefs to understand how to interpret and develop the concept of a specific restaurant and its cooking, in a market where differentiation is key, and be adaptable enough to pick up techniques easily. And some employers regarded the teaching of technical skills as outdated: too narrow in style (mostly French) and too broad in craft (all the way from soup to pastry making).
Lack of differentiation
London is a global centre of education in many disciplines, yet its culinary colleges are invisible to young people and lack specialisation. In contrast to London’s art schools, who draw students from across the city, the country and overseas, catering colleges tend to recruit locally – often within a radius of a couple of miles. This means they lose in visibility to employers and specialisation what they gain in local focus.
One culinary school does stand out: Westminster Kingsway College has been a UK leader for a century. But none of London’s catering colleges – even the most recognised – are dedicated to cheffing. They are generalist colleges that offer chef or catering courses. Westminster Kingsway offers training courses in over 30 sectors – of which hospitality and catering is only one. Most of the chefs and restaurateurs we interviewed could name-check one or two colleges, but these are not household names. This means that some colleges struggle to recruit students, even onto their free courses.
The relatively low visibility of all but a few colleges (and the large number of them) also means that few businesses are enticed to work with them on shaping catering education – even though in London they may be just around the corner from one. It is revealing that celebrity chefs have preferred to set up their own chef schools for young people. But the shine of private culinary education is unavailable to most: courses at private culinary schools like Le Cordon Bleu London range from £18,000 to £35,000 for one year of study.
There also isn’t enough differentiation between elite and general culinary education. All but a few London catering colleges attract students with a real passion for becoming a chef, as well as a lot of young people for whom cooking wasn’t a first choice. This means that most catering colleges have to teach chefs with different aspirations – some wanting to work in high-end kitchens, others to become production chefs – often in the same course.
To some extent these are unfair criticisms. Colleges are facing strong headwinds: funding for further education is lower than for higher education and the sector has suffered greater funding cuts in recent years. 7 FE funding is also calculated per student, meaning their incentive is to “fill classrooms” rather than provide learners with a higher quality experience. Government funding is also focused on young people rather than adults – this is an incentive to offer courses that suit 16 to 19 year olds rather than career changers or businesses. However, the Mayor of London has expressed an intention to focus funding more on economic and social outcomes rather than throughput when he takes over adult education funding in September 2019.
Despite these challenges, some colleges have made significant efforts to bring their education closer to the “real world of work”, to excite young talent, and to build up their brand. They engage in regular cooking competitions to motivate students, some of whom have beat working chefs to the top prize. There are plenty of initiatives to build on, we suggest how they can be supported in the second part of this report.
2. Learning on the job
Most of the chefs and restaurateurs we talked to have learnt their craft “on the job” – and this remains an important route into the industry.
The advantage of learning on the job is that opportunities are easy to access: you can start with little knowledge but a lot of motivation and work your way up thanks to the mentoring of colleagues, while earning some income from day one. And the profession prides itself on rewarding hard work, team work, flair and entrepreneurship more than degree level education. Like other arts and crafts, chefs join a kitchen to learn a master’s technique, and employers tailor training to the needs of their kitchen: a chef told us how “you can learn so much on the spot if you find the right people willing to teach you.”
However, this arrangement does place the full responsibility for training on employers, and it does not work for everyone: internships in restaurant kitchens do not offer formal qualifications to young people who don’t have them. Training is also usually narrower in scope: all practice and no theory can be limiting and frustrating for young minds hungry for development and responsibility.
Throwing novices in “at the deep end” is also a problem for some – 18 can be a young age to enter a high-pressure kitchen without dedicated support. And career changers also face a rough start. In-work training is patchy and rarely built into schedules. One chef who started cooking as a second career told us:
When they take you on, they expect you to be doing more without training you, because they see that you are older. They forget that you have to go through the same learning process as everyone else.
Former pastry chef, restaurant chain, casual dining
Yet the industry should be nurturing these adult recruits, who have gained maturity from previous experiences, and have made the active choice of going into cooking – especially since learning on the job is the main option for them to become chefs.
Apprenticeships have been promoted by the government as a way of mixing the best of classroom and workplace learning for a variety of occupations. Aspirant chefs work near full time (80 per cent of full-time hours) for at least a year while earning a qualification. Apprentices are overseen by training providers, who oversee the quality of training, while independent assessors award the qualification. Apprentices can often stay on with their employer afterwards as employees. This seems an appealing route, given that an apprentice gets paid training, a qualification, and potentially a job at the end.
Yet take-up has been very slow. In England, only 5,700 people started a chef-related apprenticeship in 2017/18: of these, 2,000 trained as a production chef, i.e. reproducing standard recipes that have been developed in a central kitchen. 8 London is an apprenticeship dark spot. The city has the most chef jobs in the country (1 in every 5), 9 yet the city offers less than 12 per cent of the country’s chef-related apprenticeships. Only 660 chefs started a chef-related apprenticeship in London in 2017/18 (including 180 as production chefs). And remember that these are only starts – completion rates of chef apprenticeships are around 60 to 70 per cent. 6 Why are these numbers so low?
Part of the reason is cost, which falls overwhelmingly on the employer. They pay a wage to the apprentice, meet the costs of in-house training (as another chef shadows and mentors the apprentice), as well as paying the training provider and examiners.
To encourage employers to provide more apprenticeships, the government has introduced two funding schemes:
- Since 2017 an “apprenticeship levy” essentially requires larger employers (with a payroll over £3 million) to ringfence a small proportion (0.5 per cent of their annual pay bill to fund apprenticeships within the company – or must pay this levy to government. If a company chooses to use their levy by providing apprenticeships, government tops up the sum ringfenced by 10 per cent. As in other sectors, the employers we interviewed complained about the inflexibility of the levy: it only covers the cost of the training provider (that is, teaching time outside work), and the costs of the final assessment. The levy cannot cover admin costs, the apprentice’s wage, or the costs of shadowing the apprentice in the kitchen.
- Smaller businesses (with a payroll under £3 million) do not have to pay the levy, and government subsidises 90 per cent 11 of the cost of external training (if the apprentice is under 18 this rises to 100 per cent plus a £1,000 top-up). The small business pays the apprentice a wage, as well as the costs of shadowing her in the kitchen. Despite government support, several interviewees suggested that this is a less attractive option to small businesses than recruiting an employee who can work full-time, without having to commit to a 12-month contract.
These criticisms of government apprenticeships – cost and inflexibility – are not specific to restaurants. 12 Both seem surmountable over time, though the provision of chef apprenticeships is likely to remain particularly low in small businesses. However, there is a deeper issue around the appeal of apprenticeships.
Until 2017, it was possible to earn recognised qualifications such as GCSEs, A Levels, or NVQs by completing apprenticeships. This is no longer the case: apprenticeships now range from “Level 2 to 9”, with each level merely equivalent to recognised qualifications – and we were told that many employers don’t recognise the equivalence.
This is likely to affect who is attracted to chef apprenticeships. Several employers we talked to were demoralised by high dropout rates and noted that the calibre of apprentices put forward to them was on the whole not good enough (many lacking an interest in the job). However, it should be noted that the executive chef at one large high-profile restaurant was content with their apprentices: “In my kitchen 20 per cent of my staff are in the apprenticeship scheme or have been in the scheme – so that’s part of the foundation of my kitchen. Two guys directly beneath me have been through my apprenticeship scheme, through the Royal Academy [of Culinary Arts].”
Apprenticeships have a lot to recommend them: they provide structure and add formal qualifications to on-the-job learning. But they need to be made more attractive to employers. London also needs different and improved chef schools that match employers’ needs, prepare students for careers as chefs, and stimulate interest in food and cooking.
We should also recognise that training is only one part of the problem, and that we additionally need to look at restaurants’ ability to retain staff. Without retention, the industry will lose skilled workers as quickly as they can be trained. The following section sets out the details of this challenge.
The growth of London’s food scene has been a boon and a wonder for the city but it hasn’t always been so for its chefs. News stories are filled with testimonies of how difficult being a chef can be: chefs speak of working under constant pressure, 13 having to sacrifice family or social life, 14 and needing drugs to keep going. 15 Experienced chefs know this has always been the case – but younger generations of workers and diners are wondering why it still is.
Most restaurant kitchens have some difficulty retaining workers, and this is one of the main causes of London’s shortage of chefs. 16 We don’t have data on how many chefs leave (and when), but attrition is very high nationally (approximately 10 per cent leave the profession every year). Chefs also do not fare well on measures of life satisfaction and happiness – they are amongst the more “unhappy” professions on average, according to the Office for National Statistics (see Appendix).
This may come as a surprise given cheffing has most of the ingredients of a ‘good job’. Behavioural scientists find that three main factors drive fulfilment
at work: purpose (seeing the fruit of one’s labour quickly), interaction (working as part of a team), and work-life balance. 2
Cheffing scores well on the first two. Making a final product from scratch is a source of purpose, and so is fun and the adrenaline that comes with staging a culinary performance:
The reason you do cook is because you have a passion for food and want to bring joy to people. You can be creative and inventive, there’s no limit to what you can create once you’re a head chef, it’s your works of art.
Chef, fine dining
And the kitchen camaraderie has virtually no equivalent – in the words of one chef:
If someone is sick you come in and help. You feel closer to those people than your family because you spend so much time together – and because of that you’re willing to give up an off day to help that person.
Former chef, street food entrepreneur
On top of this, London’s eating out scene offers many opportunities to progress quickly, or become an entrepreneur, in a way that few sectors allow. Kitchen hierarchies have opened up and very few chefs are too young to lead or too old to create a business:
Now you can easily find head chefs who are 21 and haven’t had those 5 to 10 years of hard slog getting to know each skill individually.
Chef, casual dining
A lot of people are looking at street food for a career change where they get to combine their love of food with the ability to make money, and run their own business.
Street food market manager
But work-life balance is a major push factor and one of the main drivers of the sectors’ retention challenge, alongside pay and working conditions. There are many skilled chefs in London who have chosen to move on. This report finds that London loses chefs at three specific life stages:
- When moving from culinary education into their first kitchen job – they may experience intense pressure, long hours, poor mentoring, and harassment for the first time, as well as low financial reward.
- When approaching or reaching “burnout”, after a few jobs or in a bad job.
- When reaching a life stage at which the demands of family life increase.
1. The first job
Working as a chef is far cry from nine-to-five. Long hours, early and late shifts are a jolt compared to the 20 hours a week at culinary college, and most of these extra hours aren’t paid.
Long hours and routine tasks can be supported for some time, but not without career prospects, opportunities for personal development and mentoring. Anecdotal evidence suggests that workplaces offering all three are rare – though practices vary hugely from kitchen to kitchen. Some high-end restaurants offer extensive induction, fostering close relationships between employees through good HR practices and even field trips.
Nonetheless in high-pressure kitchens a bad or overworked manager can cause young people to leave the industry after their first experience. One of the big turn-offs is ending up working in a “bad kitchen”, where harassment, abuse and general disregard for staff is left unchecked. A survey of chefs by CODE Hospitality, an industry body, suggests this is not an isolated issue. CODE have surveyed over 500 chefs UK-wide online, but their sample heavily represents London. Nine out of 10 staff who responded said they had “experienced or witnessed abuse in their careers”.
Women are more likely to experience negative behaviour. From subtle forms of discrimination to outright abuse, most kitchens are tougher places for young female chefs, holding many back from thriving. Earning recognition and respect from their coworkers is so much more difficult for female chefs, particularly
in kitchens led by men or where men constitute a large majority.
Women are approached immediately as inferior – women are treated as assistants – always in [a] position of inferiority and always told what to do. It’s demoralising. I worked myself in a restaurant for some time and I decide to give up because I couldn’t stand the environment.
Former Chef, fine dining restaurant
Although a few workplaces achieve parity in their kitchens most of the time, the majority of professional kitchens are male-dominated. We know that this gap reflects work environments rather than young people’s career preferences: research has found that 95 per cent of teenagers see cheffing as a profession “equally for women and men.” 18 Whether there are women in positions of leadership is particularly important to making kitchen environments less hostile to women chefs. 19 But some say it is too easy to get away with abusive behaviour in kitchens, perpetuating a culture where women have to leave their job to escape it.
Food hasn’t been one of London’s high-paying industries. Some chefs are high earners but the bulk of chef jobs are paid the London average salary or less: in 2017/18, half of London’s chefs earned under £21,000 annually, and 80 per cent earned under £28,000, inclusive of overtime and tips, according to the Office for National Statistics. And, while cooking may have achieved greater recognition, the financial rewards are unchanged. Strikingly, after adjusting for inflation, the average hourly pay for London chefs, including overtime and tips, was no higher in 2017 than in 1997. 20, 21
At the same time, the cost of living in the capital has soared, with many workers trading off housing and transport costs.
When we started, our chefs could live in Shepherd’s Bush for cheap – now they have to commute from far out.
Manager, fine dining restaurant
The Living Wage Foundation, which calculates the cost of living in London, estimates that “a minimum budget for a single working-age adult is 47 per cent higher in Inner London and 35 per cent higher in Outer London than in the rest of the country”. Yet the kitchen porter and chef jobs posted on the website Indeed only pay 8 to 9 per cent more than the UK average (see Figure 3).
This story of living costs eating away at earnings is familiar to many workers in London. Chefs in London have lower purchasing power than their counterparts in the rest of the country – but they stay in the city for its job opportunities and for the prestige that these can confer.
2. Burning out
Some restaurant kitchens are very quick to promote promising young chefs, and similarly chefs may choose to progress by setting up their own kitchen. In both cases, however, working hours increase substantially.
National statistics only capture paid overtime – they show that only 20 per cent of UK chefs are paid for between 45 and 51 hours a week, and 10 per cent are paid for more than 51 hours a week. 22 But in restaurants, existing research and our interviews suggest that unpaid overtime is seen as “part of the job”: the average working week is 50-60 hours in most restaurants, and it is not uncommon for it to reach 80-100 hours at busy times of year or when a colleague is ill.
The key to success is whether you can arm yourself with resilience before you become more senior and reach the cracking point.
Former Chef, fine dining
And when chefs need support, it often isn’t there: the CODE survey found that a large majority of their junior chefs felt they lacked mental health support at work. The industry has not yet come to terms with its mental health crisis – as a chef told us:
A lot of chefs say they’ve struggled with school so it is important for them to do well in the kitchen. So people have very high personal standards because that is where your worth is reflected. When everything happens at such rapid pace, people take criticism very personally – you’re thinking, what’s wrong with me! I was struck by the lack self-worth and self-esteem amongst chefs, and they project this on each other.
Good chefs do not necessarily make good managers, particularly under pressure. 23
Long hours are rooted in the business model of many restaurants. In a sector of serial entrepreneurship, short-termism can be a big driver of pressure on staff.
Often investors drive rapid expansion and ‘move on’ economic models, but this prevents [them] from forming institutions that are really good to their people.
3. Settling down
Hard work pays off for those who make it, but long hours and evening shifts become a strain on family life when it requires most attention. Restaurant and pub kitchens are a great provider of full-time jobs, but they offer very few part-time work opportunities. Only 10 per cent of chefs work part-time – half the London average across all occupations. 24
This makes combining cheffing and parenthood particularly challenging. Women returning to their jobs in restaurant kitchens are exceptions. Alongside the culture of machismo, lack of flexible working opportunities is a major reason for the gender imbalance in kitchens. Strikingly, women make up 15 per cent of London chefs, but the majority of the city’s cook positions, which offer daytime shifts and more regular hours. One chef told us:
You love the profession so much – but if you constantly feel guilty about leaving your children behind you are not going to be a good chef – it’s going to prevent you from enjoying the industry. People are taking jobs for which they are overqualified, because they want to be home on Saturdays. They want a family life. It’s a shame because they are experienced and they could have helped young recruits.
Former pastry chef, restaurant chain, casual dining
There are career paths that do allow chefs to combine their craft with daytime or part-time work: street food, high-end catering positions, and entrepreneurship can give more agency over schedules. Some restaurants are also offering more family-friendly business models – these will be key to improve gender equality in restaurant kitchens.
Increasing efforts to inspire a new generation of chefs and provide them with adequate training will come to nothing if cohorts of chefs leave kitchens after a few months’ or years’ work because they’ve had enough. Young people may be dismissed as “snowflakes” by kitchen veterans – but in a time of full employment, kitchens already struggle to retain people with the talent and commitment that cheffing demands, because rewards and working conditions don’t measure up to those offered in other sectors. There is a lot of variation: the tightly-knit, family-like character of the sector allows for very poor practices, but also some really good businesses. It is worth noting that those with good practices did not have much difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff.