Kitchen Talent: Training and retaining the chefs of the future


There seems to be an ever-widening range of options for eating out in London – and in recent years, the city’s food scene has expanded beyond all recognition. The number of places serving cooked food in London (including restaurants, stalls, cafes, gastropubs, and takeaways) has increased by almost 50 per cent since 2001,1 and for every year of the last 20 years there were more restaurant openings than closures.2

The city has been hungry for chefs: according to the Office for National Statistics, London now has at least three times more chefs than in 2009 (while the number of chefs in the rest of the UK has doubled).3 This growth has made hospitality one of London’s large industries: in 2016, 55,000 chefs and cooks worked in the city, alongside 45,000 waiting staff and 50,000 kitchen and catering assistants. In total there are more workers in front of house and kitchens than there are graphic designers, lawyers and chartered accountants combined.4 Once a byword for bad food, the city’s culinary scene is now a source of innovation, a creator of jobs, and an important export: visitors come to London to try its range of cuisines as well as to see its historical monuments.

Yet the “golden age” of London’s booming food scene may be drawing to a close.5 2018 saw a spate of closures, largely but not exclusively in “casual dining”, and reports of such closures continue.6 Far from the all-time high of 2015 when Harden’s Guide recorded 3.2 independent restaurant openings for each closure, in 2018 there were 1.4 openings per closure – levels last seen during the recession. Restaurateurs say all their costs are rising simultaneously – rents, business rates, more expensive imported ingredients owing to weak sterling, and a higher minimum wage.

This makes London’s restaurant scene particularly vulnerable to curbs in immigration and Brexit. According to the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics, around 85 per cent of London’s chefs were born abroad, compared to a figure of 50 per cent in the rest of the country.7 This should not be a matter of surprise: even when Britain was a byword for bad food, London’s French, Italian, Indian, Greek and Chinese restaurants were often the exception (even if some served ersatz fare that would have been unrecognisable in its “home country”). While London has recently seen a renaissance in English food, rooted in respect for local sourcing and traditional techniques, it is still a city whose culinary scene is as diverse and internationalised as its population. Almost anyone can find a restaurant in London where they can eat the food of home.

The profession’s internationalised workforce reflects this heritage, but also a chronic skills shortage that could be worsened by tighter immigration controls. Every year, the UK loses 10 per cent of its chefs due to attrition, and the best estimates suggest that the country loses chefs more quickly than it can train new ones in its catering colleges and through apprenticeships.8 Consequently, skilled chefs have been on the government’s Shortage Occupation List every year since the list was introduced in 2008, despite open borders with the EU. And, incredibly, the most in-demand job title across London on job search website Indeed (the UK’s largest) is “chef”: in the year to September 2018, over two per cent of all job adverts in Greater London were for chefs.

At the same time, only 15 per cent of chefs in London’s kitchens are female, even though women make up the majority of school, hospital or office cook positions.9 And many Londoners are seeking more meaningful jobs – roles in which they can see the fruits of their labour, interact with colleagues, or create a business of their own. The city’s higher-end kitchens are clearly missing out on a huge pool of potential chefs.

Brexit, and the tighter immigration rules announced by the government, will be a profound challenge for London’s culinary scene. In many regards, attracting and retaining chefs is a UK-wide issue, but it is one that disproportionately affects London, where one-fifth of the country’s chefs work. As a consequence, London should look at the issue of cultivating and retaining kitchen talent as a matter of urgency.

There are also new opportunities to build on. First, London is gaining more power over skills funding: from September 2019, the Mayor of London gains control of London’s Adult Education Budget (c. £306 million a year), which funds the provision of education and training for learners aged 19 and over. The Mayor has also committed to a £82 million Skills for Londoners fund between 2017 and 2020.

Second, the government has introduced a new incentive for businesses to offer apprenticeships. Since 2017 an “apprenticeship levy” essentially requires larger employers (with a payroll over £3 million) to ringfence a portion (0.5 per cent) of their annual pay bill to fund apprenticeships within the company – or face paying the levy to government. The total levy is expected to ringfence at least £2.5 billion a year to fund apprenticeships. The government has committed to a review of the levy by 2020, and this could address whether the levy raised within specific regions or sectors could also be ringfenced.

This report looks at the issues facing the culinary sector through the lenses of competitiveness and inclusion. It asks:

  • How can we preserve the dynamism of London’s culinary scene – which is both a magnet for Londoners and visitors alike, and a part of the city’s identity?
  • How can we create good and rewarding jobs in the industry?

Restaurants have traditionally offered social mobility: they have low barriers to entry (no need for a university degree), yet provide workers with an opportunity to acquire skills and become leaders. However, as this report shows, the sector must improve on how it rewards and cares for its staff.

Focusing on chefs

Centre for London’s 2017 report Open City: London after Brexit highlighted the particular vulnerability of hospitality and catering industries to reductions
in immigration.

Of course, hospitality and catering as a category spans hugely diverse careers and professions. This report focuses specifically on cultivating kitchen talent, and in particular creative food —”cheffing skills”. Creative skills have been defined as “the ability to bring to life concepts that are novel and valuable, as well as creating ‘unfamiliar combinations of familiar ideas’ in ways that require a rich store of knowledge.” These skills take time and effort to develop, but are also at less risk of automation.10

We chose to leave food production and front-of-house work out of the scope of this report, though some of our findings will have wider relevance. These jobs are also skilled and essential to the success of London’s eating out scene: for example, front-of-house service requires high levels of social perceptiveness, which is amongst the hardest skills to automate. Production chefs or cooks need “highly methodical organisational skills, energy, accuracy, [and] attention to detail”, but they are “likely to work with centrally developed standardised recipes and menus, producing food often in high volumes”, according to the Institute for Apprenticeships. There are big challenges ahead in these positions too, and we welcome further research on how these might be tackled.

There is a broad spectrum of culinary workers. And there are other ways of thinking about the field, from amateur to professional and those in between – the Pro-Ams, “enthusiastic amateurs, pursuing activities to professional standards”.11 The dividing line between a chef and a production cook will always be a somewhat arbitrary one – particularly in London’s fast-moving food scene – but for the purposes of this report, we focus on developing and retaining the chef talent that London needs.

Chapter 1 explores the possible reasons behind the shortage of chefs, at a time when eating out has never been more popular and culinary talent shows are watched by millions.

  • Section 1 begins with the issue of prestige – many chefs deeply feel that their careers are not as valued in the UK as they are elsewhere; additionally, London does not seem to inspire enough local talent.
  • Section 2 shows that the rapid growth in eating out hasn’t been matched by an expansion and improvement of culinary education and training.
  • Section 3 suggests that employers must do more to improve working standards in order to retain chefs, otherwise the industry will continue to lose skilled chefs as quickly as they can be trained.

Chapter 2 proposes solutions to these challenges – showing how London could be better at cultivating local culinary talent, and suggesting ways to raise work standards and make the sector attractive to all Londoners at a time of economic pressure.

Research methods

This report uses a mix of research methods. We sourced data on London chefs, their wellbeing, and pay from the Office for National Statistics, job search website Indeed, the CODE hospitality survey, and a review of existing literature. New data on apprenticeships and catering courses is provided by the Department for Education.

We then undertook 30 interviews with London chefs and former chefs, restaurateurs, food business entrepreneurs, and other industry experts. These interviews spanned fine dining, bistro and casual
dining, street food and contact caterers. We also interviewed senior executives of catering colleges to review their understanding of the challenges of recruitment and retention.