Desperately seeking chefs
Interest in hospitality is unprecedented, but so is overseas competition for talent, writes Amy Byrne
WHEN James Campbell applied for an apprenticeship at the top Melbourne restaurant MoVida, chef and coproprietor Frank Camorra was more intent on quizzing him about his personality and attitude than his cooking skills.
Five years later, Campbell, 29, now a sous chef at the restaurant overseeing kitchen staff of his own, understands why.
It is really hard to keep good staff, there is a shockingly high dropout rate among apprentices,’’ Campbell says. Most are gone in three months. It’s a hard job. It’s hot, it’s busy, you get $8 an hour when you start and you are on your feet for a long time. That’s why you have to have the right attitude. Frank’s way of thinking is that he can teach someone what to do in the kitchen, but the most important thing is that they have the right personality for the job.’’
Difficulties with retention of young staff are being felt by restaurants, hotels, resorts and commercial kitchens across Australia as an increase in industry turnover has exacerbated the country’s long-time shortage of chefs.
Despite a growing provision of apprenticeships we haven’t been able to keep up with demand,’’ says John Hart, chief executive officer of Restaurant and Catering Australia. We are seeing restaurants go out of business because they can’t staff their businesses.’’
Overseas competition is also biting into the chef pool, Hart says. Australian chefs have a good reputation, with internationally recognised qualifications, and subsequently the country exports about 2000 every year.
The shortage comes at a time of peak interest in the profession, fuelled by the cult of celebrity chefs. Hospitality is one of the most popular vocational training courses in high schools, with 38,000 senior students undertaking it.
But industry leaders say the celebrity chef phenomenon has as many drawbacks for the profession as advantages, because it gives young people an unrealistic impression of the job.
If they are getting into it because they want to be Jamie Oliver, they want to be a star, then they are getting into it for the wrong reasons,’’ Hart says. We need to clarify from the outset that it is hard work, it does mean working nights and weekends, but all that has its advantages down the track. It’s a great industry to be in if you are interested in opening your own business or travelling, and the hours do offer flexibility.’’
To address the attrition rate of about 65 per cent, Hart says the industry is developing an attitudinal assessment tool that will be used to gauge candidates’ suitability for the job at the front end of an apprenticeship’’.
New training initiatives are also being introduced. The traditional career pathway for a chef is to gain an apprenticeship and attend TAFE one day a week for two-and-a-half years of their fouryear training period. To expedite the process, some are opting to do the study component in blocks.
Increasingly popular, too, are non-trade courses, in which the compulsory training is done either full-time over two TAFE semesters or as part of a diploma course through a private education provider.
Graduates receive a qualification equivalent to the Certificate III in commercial cookery attained by apprentice chefs, but after that they must get the practical recognition.
Michael Mason, senior head teacher in commercial cookery at TAFE Sydney Institute, says the full-time course is popular with mature-age career changers who are not interested in entering the industry through an apprenticeship.
‘‘ We’ve had lawyers come through who want to retrain,’’ he says. ‘‘ But it’s a very popular course across the board. There are also a lot of school leavers who just want to get in and do it so they can get out in the workforce.’’
Jenny Jenkins, head of school at William Blue in North Sydney, says private study is attractive particularly to international students, who comprise about 90 per cent of the school’s intake.
William Blue students receive an advanced diploma in hospitality management and can proceed to a bachelor of business, which Jenkins says can be useful for those interested in working their way up to executive chef or a similar managerial role.
of TAFE has also introduced a degree-level course, a bachelor of culinary management, which director Denise Stevens says acknowledges the need for further professional development in a maturing industry.
The good news for those who persevere and finish their training is that the chef shortage has created plenty of job opportunities and pushed up the industry’s traditionally low wages. Restaurant and Catering Australia estimates that 60 per cent of employers are paying above-award rates.
Andrew Keating, general manager of the Queensland-based recruitment and job-matching agencies Hospitality Now and Chef Jobs, says qualified chefs have the luxury of choice in the current market.
‘‘ The chefs who are out there know they can move from one job to another without issue, so they are happy, but the employers are finding it extremely difficult. We get calls every two days from new clients looking for chefs,’’ Keating says. ‘‘ I’ve just got off the phone from a client who has four different properties in three states and they need chefs for all of them.’’ Keating says the shortage is most pronounced at junior levels — commis, demi and chef de partie — and remuneration in those positions has crept up.
‘‘ A lot of jobs would be paying around the $40,000 mark now for commis chefs (newly qualified) whereas a year or so ago they would have been around $34,000, which is closer to the award wage,’’ he says. ‘‘ Then it jumps up when you get to the sous chef, head chef jobs, which can attract anything from $50,000 to $150,000.’’
The experience of James Campbell shows rewards can come quickly to those who work at it. Dux last year of William Angliss, he is already a sous chef at a reputable restaurant after less than six years in the business and a contributor to a glossy recipe book.
But he laughs off suggestions he is on his way to becoming a celebrity chef.
‘‘ The crux of it all is that you have to love cooking,’’ Campbell says. ‘‘ If you don’t you are in the wrong business.’’
Job on a plate: Tom Harvey is confident cooking as a skill will always be in demand