A panel of five Young National Chef of the Year (YNCOTY) alumni shared their experiences of working in the UK’s top kitchens at a panel at The Restaurant Show on Wednesday (5 October).
The chefs agreed that there needed to be more visible help for younger cooks facing ‘burnout’ from working 18 hour days.
“The work rate in UK kitchens is brutal, you don’t realise how bad it is until you go somewhere else,” said YNCOTY 2016 winner Danny Hoang, who now cooks at Momofuku Ko in New York.
“In New York every kitchen is like heaven…chefs never do more than 13 hours. I think there are a lot of UK restaurants that are trying to improve work/life balance as you get so much more out of your staff, but in London it’s more difficult - the rents are so high you need to stay open to make a profit.”
April Lily Partridge, of The Clove Club, suggested the creation of a dedicated helpline that struggling chefs could call for support.
“Chef hours are incredibly demanding and really intense, and how people deal with it is very personal,” she said.
“A lot of people’s release is drink and drugs but it’s something everyone brushes under the carpet. I would like to see more support for chefs…especially youngsters who don’t know how to deal with it.”
Change in culture
Though the culture in restaurants is moving away from the ‘shouty chef’ stereotype, the panel agreed that a change in attitude was needed both from newcomers and veterans in the kitchen.
“I would like to see more young people coming in to the industry with great ambition and drive,” said Partidge.
“A lot come in wanting to be famous and realise the reality and leave…but it’s such a rewarding job.”
Charles Smith, head chef at Alyn Williams at The Westbury and YNCOTY winner in 2011, said social media was a ‘distraction’ to many young cooks who needed to focus on building a foundation of skills.
“The most important thing is your relationship with your mentor,” said Smith. “You need to motivate staff and look after them and guide them and not put them down.
“I try and encourage my chefs to look after themselves. They won’t eat the right foods and don’t exercise. I try to encourage them to get out and have a break. When you eat well you have much more energy.”
Ruth Hansom, who became the first female YNCOTY winner on Tuesday, warned that the long hours expected of chefs would ‘definitely’ have to change to improve recruitment.
“People need to be happy in their jobs,” she said. “If people are happy where they are they will be more likely to come in to work with a good attitude.”
But Hoang said that in order to truly tackle the skills shortage the negative perception of the industry had to change.
“There’s still a stigma against being a cook,” he said. “You don’t have to go to university to be smart. Being a chef is one of the best jobs out there, you build great friendships with people from all walks of life.”