Focus on the Chef - Is the heat too hot in the Kitchen?
By Sarah Muxlow
Saturday, 7th July 2007
Like all the best creators; a Chef is an artist who pours his/her heart and soul into work -

Knife skills, preparation technics and cooking methods give the essential tools of the trade, by which experimental and passionate cooking can be expressed.

According to the US department of Labour, job openings for chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers are expected to be plentiful through to 2014 in the US, as a whole. Competition however, is still keen for jobs in the top kitchens of higher end restaurants.

However, whilst such a positive outlook for employment will satisfy the naturally born cooks, the overwhelming majority of job openings stem from the need to replace workers who leave this large occupational group. Many chefs, cooks, and food preparation workers are people seeking first-time or short-term employment, additional income, or a flexible schedule.

John Hart, the Chief Executive Officer for the Restaurant & Catering Association Australia, expresses a similar concern when looking at the Australian hospitality market. He comments that there is a real difficulty in attracting Australians to work in hospitality. The number of apprentices has dropped in Australia since the Olympic games. This year a mere 4400 students commenced an apprentice course indicating that the intake number of students has slowed right down. Whilst there are plenty of job vacancies, he says there is a failure to attract students to a career in hospitality. 30 000 students are currently in vocational hospitality training but only 10% then come into the work force.

With less than promising numbers of professional chefs entering the profession, it prompts the question as to why is the kitchen developing a reputation as the ‘no go zone'. In general, chefs are motivated by autonomy to freely develop a personalised menu. They embrace the opportunity to express their culinary arts using fresh quality ingredients. They need to work in an environment that is safe and hygienic as well as being rewarded by a good wage.

Long hours, hot conditions, starting pay, shift work aside, top Executive and head chefs who work in fine-dining restaurants, are required to undertake many years of training and work experience. Building on their intense desire to cook, they harness a lot of energy, personal savvy and drive to sustain themselves throughout the early years.

Today, Executive and Head Chef's note that the tools of the trade are challenged to be much more than good kitchen leaders. Sharpened and ready to use, is their eye for career advancement, their instruments are of international food knowledge, ethical purchasing decisions and an ability to keep up with mounting administration. This has an impact on their staff and the way they run the kitchen.

What are the reasons for the heat in the kitchen becoming too hot?

Looking at several current issues and trends in the hospitality industry today, it is apparent how many of the concerns that are on the kitchen hot plate detract from the very essence of the job.

Firstly, shortages in the international labour market mean more freedom for chefs to move around. There are great opportunities to advance careers within a cuisine or dining style, city or international setting. Seeking more autonomy means moving up. Whilst great for the individual, change means time taken to adapt for the team. For the kitchen as a whole, a change of head chef or other senior chef is a change of management style and personality. This takes time and attention away from experimental cooking for chefs, and the recruiting of new apprentices, monitoring of their work related training and mentoring. Good solid Kitchen teams takes time to build and need to mature to ripen.

In contrast, new apprentices can arrive in the industry with the expectation to learn everything over night. They want to travel the world straight away, rather than put the necessary time and hours into their initial training. A regular turnover of new apprentices also means a loss of motivation in mentoring from senior chefs.

Secondly, hygiene scares. Given the increased number of food poisoning outbreaks and tighter legislation, there has been a greater need for recorded kitchen management. The time of the head and executive chef is quickly eaten into; monitoring, controlling and recording standards on paper has increased kitchen administration.

Thirdly, consumer demands are challenging the kitchen in many ways. In terms of turnover, there is a need to turn tables for profit margins whilst maintaining high consistent standards of food. An efficient kitchen needs to be working well both in production and at the service hatch.

Moreover though, consumers and chefs alike are concerned by international food scares. This and ethical awareness, has jolted research into their sources and suppliers of produce. The best market price and quality in appearance isn't necessarily the best buy.

The current food climate is ripe with scares ranging from BSE to bird flu, chemical spillages that lead to intoxication to chemicals on the rise for mass production etc. Ethical practices, not only consider chemical usage in agriculture, but techniques used and time taken to transport livestock. Sensitivity has grown in recent years to the purchase of ingredients that could in any way sustain a child labour market or sweat shop.

Take chef's perspective, in many European countries, the last 100 years has seen the slow death of many a kitchen garden. Home-grown kitchen vegetable and herb patches which once flourished, were replaced by local, regional, national and internationally produced and grown crops. When the chef put down the gardening gloves and resigned from the position of cultivator, he/she took up the role as purchaser.

Whilst many chefs still give great importance to and take pleasure in knowing (and home-growing) produce, the new challenge created by the overflowing international basket of ingredients, is to keep track of the issues in the global fresh food Market. Rather than simply calling through an order, checking on the quality and quantity of produce on arrival at the kitchen door, there is pre-research to be considered. The core basic skill of knowing how to choose fresh ingredients has become a serious study, rather than an on the job gradual learning experience.

Whilst there are traditionalist putting a lid on the excitement of the global fresh food market,  in essence the problem highlights a stronger need now, more than ever, to be kept well informed. Knowing how the products are grown and harvested, stored and transported means purchasing has become a job in itself that is invaluable to sustain a healthy kitchen and satisfy the conscious and concerned consumer.

Finally, consumers are in search of a new taste. W are living in the era of the newly educated palette. There is an increasing demand to adapt menus to cater toward consumers who are seeking something new and original, authentic or fusion.

Expanding upon learning a base cuisine, such as French, Italian, Indian or Chinese, many chefs now needing to create more and more derivatives. As much as it is the chef's desire to cook consistently well and expand his creative repertoire away from standard menu choices, this experimenting requires continual learning and therefore takes more time on the chefs behalf.

The Ritz-Carlton, keen to benchmark itself against leading Michelin Restaurants, has been known to face the challenge of cross-cultural training head on. In response to the intensifying demand for authentic international cuisine, culinary leaders from the US visit some of Europe's finest restaurants, farms, wineries and manufactures to study European fine dining.

Alternatively for the entrepreneurial spirited, focusing on the basics, cooking without all the stress and paperwork means leaving the industry and setting up alone.

Chef Enrique is among many chefs providing in-house dining services. "I work as a Private Chef, catering for dinner parties, family functions etc Hospitality in the UK, well it is pretty good, all different restaurants from Spanish, to Indian, Mexican, to Japanese, you name it. People are crazy for Foreign dishes, the more variety I am able to cook the better. People try new things all the time. It used to be said that the Brits call foreign cuisine ''foreign muck'', it is not really true, Brits love cuisine from all over the world. That is one of the reasons I started to work on my own, I love hygiene, fresh produce and most of all quality. At the end of the day it is personal opinion and experience." Enrique from the Czech Republic

A half way house for establishments seeking solutions to ease the administration, is the introduction of Catering Managers. An administration position based on good working knowledge of the industry, cost control, hygiene laws and practices and requires an individual who deals well with research, paperwork, ongoing college, in-house and other training details and opportunities for all chefs. An administrator working alongside the chef is the perfect compliment rather than another layer of management.

Freeing the Chef from paperwork means putting the kitchen focus back on the basics. The Chef is overseeing cooking methods, timely preparation, good economics, hygiene and building enthusiasm for creating new dishes and menus. Staff and task management are still kitchen cornerstones and can be overseen within the kitchen.

This creates an environment that can attract and retain new recruits with the futuristic view of a rewarding career. Foremost is the offer of an environment that satisfies and stimulates their creative and artistic nature and ability. Secondly there is good employment prospects and earnings. Thirdly is the continual learning potential for all staff. And of course there is the additional vantage of ‘can cook will travel' but will come back.

SpotLight is the weekly column exclusively written for 4Hoteliers.com by sarah Muxlow, it is highlighting the challenges and issues which the global hospitality is facing today.

Sarah is writing for hotel and restaurant owners, hotel chain managers, producers/growers/sellers of food & beverage, restaurant associations, governing bodies and hotel schools. She is looking at the problems they face...competition, trends of branding, staff shortages, unskilled staff, turning out students who are looking for good in-house management training schemes with hotel chains, what makes a good quality training course at a hotel school and more... 


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