What is the biggest challenge for kitchens when it comes to employment?
Staff retention. Young commis chefs are reasonably easy to get into a kitchen but it is very difficult to hold on to them for longer than around six months, which is about the time when you have trained them, got them up to speed and given them a good understanding of how your kitchen works. After six months they are probably complying with everything you have ever wanted out of them but by then their attention span has moved to the next stage, which is usually another kitchen.
Ten years ago you would get a young chef that would come from college and stay with you for years, sometimes through to head chef. These days you look at a CV of a young commis chef and they have spent two months here, six months there, three months somewhere else. I think we need to make a change to that.
Why are young commis chefs so keen to move on quickly?
I think there are so many opportunties out there for young chefs and with the internet and Twitter and Facebook they are exposed to all of them and tempted by them. They think the grass is always going to be greener and obviously everyone promises the world. Really all they do is move to another kitchen and start same process over again, before looking for the next opportunity.
What does the industry need to do improve staff retention?
There has always got to be time for development in any kitchen, if you can give chefs that time to learn and develop they will have an incentive to stay. I know that hours are probably on the top of every chefs agenda and it is an issue for young chefs in some cases. If you can give them something back for all the hours they put in and they have something to show for it I think it is a good trade.
What is Exclusive Hotels doing to tackle this issue?
We decided to take a step back and have a look at the problem and try to decide what we could do about losing chefs to other kitchens.
We are surrounded by so many Michelin-starred chefs and many talented chefs within the Exclusive Hotels group and we thought it is a no brainer really, we just need to expose them to all of the chefs within the group. That was how the Chef’s Academy was born.
We have developed a two-year programme whereby we train them at a higher level from what they have been learning at college and take them from commis chef to chef de partie. It is a kind of fast-track, grow-your-own chef de partie programme.
Talk us through the programme
We have 13 trainees on the programme. Training is two days a week and they spend three days a week in their respective kitchens across the group’s hotels.
The training is split into different segments such as meat, fish, shellfish, bread and chocolate. We take them right back to the source of quality ingredients so they have a clear understanding of where the food has come from.
We then deliver masterclasses with some of the Michelin-starred and other talented chefs within the group. After the masterclass the Academy chefs get to practise what they have seen in the training kitchens and in their own kitchens.
At the end of each segment we give them a written test as a bit of an assessment just to make sure that they have understood what we have taught them. We then sign them off and move on to the next segment.
Why do you think offering this sort of training will convince them to stay?
The Academy chefs have both a full-time job and the chance to learn, which is not available in every job. We are making a huge investment in them and we are exposing them to ingredients and learning they wouldn’t have in any normal kitchen. Rather than going off to another kitchen in six months time they don’t need to, because other kitchens and other chefs will be coming to them.
How successful has the programme been so far?
This is all new for us and we would like to think it will work but who knows. We will give it a shot and see where it takes us, at the moment the chefs are very excited about it and their development is coming along already. Hopefully we will come to the end and say we got it right. If all 13 chefs stay for two years we can definitely tick that box.
What is next for the Exclusive Chef’s Academy?
After this first year we will take on the next intake and do the programme all over again. The first year graduates will then move to year two, which is still in development stage, but will have more of a team ethos about it so we are going to be entering competitions and taking part in lots of different events so they can promote the Academy and show off their new skills and knowledge.
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