Agency chefs: kitchen heroes or mercenary zeros?

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

Agency chefs: kitchen heroes or mercenary zeros?
With good chefs in short supply, there is top money to be made in temping right now. But what does that mean for wider recruitment? Who will benefit? And will agency chefs ever shake off their reputation as kitchen cowboys?

For the past 18 months, York restaurant Le Cochon Aveugle has been trying to recruit a chef de partie (CDP). Yet despite its stellar rep (The Guardian​ critic Marina O’Loughlin described it as “a small work of art”), its chef-owner Josh Overington has not found one. He laughs, ruefully: “In four years, I can’t ever remember being fully staffed.”

That will surprise no one in hospitality. The industry is suffering an unprecedented skills shortage where good chefs are like gold dust. But could a new trend – the increasing numbers of chefs taking up lucrative agency work – be an aggravating factor?

Overington thinks so: “The conversation [with candidates] is often about money,” he rues. “Usually they don’t have any experience but they’re an agency chef and what I’m offering, the chance to learn, means nothing. They think, ‘I’m 20, earning £35,000 a year, why bother?’. It’s the hours, too. If you can work a day shift, why would you do five 14-hour days with me? It’s a hard sell, unless you really want to be a chef and are willing to work your arse off.”

There is no concrete data on how quickly the agency sector is growing but, anecdotally, everyone that Restaurant​ has spoken to – chefs, owners, agencies – agrees that it is. And the reason is obvious: the demand for chefs massively outstrips supply. Earlier this year, a KPMG report for the British Hospitality Association, Labour Migration In The Hospitality Sector, showed that job postings for the sector increased by 60% each month in the two years to December 2016. This puts chefs in a very powerful position and, increasingly, they know it.

A vicious cycle

Restaurants are desperate for staff. They are often forced to fill crucial positions temporarily, and they will pay a premium for relief cover. Consequently, chefs can earn far better money (up to £18 per hour for head chefs) doing permanent agency work, rather than taking full-time positions. It is a vicious cycle. More chefs are doing agency work. Fewer are taking permanent jobs. And so a growing number of owners are reliant on agency staff.

Now head chef at Cumbria’s ambitious Cottage In The Wood, Rich Collingwood did agency work for six months in 2016 before taking the role. “Some agencies that were recruitment-led are now focused on providing relief cover,” he says. “It’s more lucrative. Their permanent recruitment is on the back burner. It’s funny. At 23, I was doing 100 hours a week earning £13,000. The industry almost took advantage of young people. Now it’s coming full circle.”

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Pan handling: some businesses find the flexibility offered by agencies essential

Working through an agency, a CDP will typically earn between £11 and £14 an hour. Doing a 50-hour week, they can pull £30,000 a year; and there is no shortage of extra hours for those who want to earn more. In contrast, a full-time CDP position normally commands a salary of £20,000 to £25,000.

Some businesses (high street chains that can accurately predict weekly takings, event-led and seasonal restaurants, etc), find the flexibility offered by agencies essential in managing staff costs. Others see agency staff as a stop-gap. Mary Willcock, managing director at the almost 60-strong pub group Brunning & Price, says that ideally it would not use agencies. The company maintains its own in-house team of ‘roving chefs’ to step into short-staffed kitchens.

Even so, Brunning & Price does use agency staff: “It ebbs and flows,” says Willcock. “It can be a very small proportion and, at other times, we might need a number of agencies to support our pubs. We’re an expanding business and having access to a good network of agency chefs provides a sensible safety net in a tricky market.”

Elsewhere, however, some observers warn that the industry’s over-reliance on expensive agency staff will have dire consequences. Stories abound of venues employing, for example, a sous and head chef but then staffing kitchens largely, if not entirely, with agency staff (whose wages typically include a 20% agency commission; a £12.50-an-hour CDP will cost an employer £15).

A chef for 36 years, and now running Carrwood Catering’s three Cheshire dining pubs, David Mooney thinks this is madness. “It massively hits staff costs,” he says. “I’m hearing stories about bills of £110,000 a month on agency chefs. You can be the busiest place in the world but, at some point, that will bite you on the arse. I think we’re heading towards a bit of a bloodbath.”

A question of skills

Further down the food chain – financially, at least – small independents find themselves hit twice. They are unable to recruit at commis and CDP level because of the lure of agency work among young chefs. Then if they have to use an agency, they are paying top whack for often mediocre staff. “I’ve used [agency staff ] five or six times, but the level is never very good,” says Overington. “You’re paying a lot for chefs who often can’t chop a carrot properly, never mind run a section. They don’t need to be good. If I sling them out, they’ll get another job tomorrow. That’s the industry right now.”

Mooney describes these young chefs as having never worked in one place long enough to learn their craft, bouncing from one event, contract catering or restaurant gig to another. But, essentially, they cannot cook, he believes. “It’s a lot easier to hide in an agency than a small kitchen brigade. In a place like this that does real cooking, where it’s not all manuals, they struggle. It’s a massive issue.”

There are some capable professionals who temp by choice and, given the money involved, more talented chefs will gravitate to agency work. A chef but also a former farmer and charcuterie-maker, Peter Lias has done agency work since 2009. It enabled him to pursue those other interests part time and, nowadays, allows him to take two days off each week and be around for his kids. He mainly works as a head chef, usually for several months in the same place – currently a four-star hotel with a two AA rosette restaurant – and he takes his work seriously.

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Many chefs are choosing to leave full-time employment for agency work

“It’s an unfortunate solution from [the owner’s] point of view and I’m very aware of that. If people need teaching, I try to [teach them]. I’ve gone in as a CDP before and ended up, basically, running kitchens. Wednesday to Sunday, I’ve no issue with longer hours. At the weekend, we were a guy short so I was in at 7am both days.”

That said, even Lias is scathing about the prevailing standard of agency chefs. He will only work for or employ chefs from select agencies, and he regularly refuses to take chefs (regulars on his local circuit) who he knows to be dead weight. “I’ve surrounded myself with temp chefs I trust. Genuinely, I’d say 50% of agency staff are numpties. In five weeks, I’ve had four chefs flake on me. They don’t have pride in the job, their appearance, their hygiene. Many of them don’t drive – there’s a lot of drink-drive bans with temp chefs – I’ve noticed. And then you go to pick them up, they’ve had a few beers and you’re like, ‘what are you doing? You can’t work’.”

Even among skilled agency chefs, there are common bad traits, such as a lack of teamwork in pressure situations or, for instance, a reluctance to do prep work. “People doing temp work have ideas that just aren’t realistic,” says Lias.

Career prospects

In this fast-moving, unregulated market, agencies vary massively. Some are scrupulous in vetting chefs. Others recruit chefs remotely online and do the absolute minimum. They will ask for passports or right-to-work documents, but qualifications are not verified or CVs relayed to clients. “I’ve never seen a CV when I’ve needed an emergency chef,” says Overington. Lias goes further. “It shocked me, but I recently found that some agencies don’t have any records of hygiene certificates, allergy awareness and such. Basically, they don’t have any background documentation to support the chefs they’re sending out.”

Such haphazard deployment can rebound on chefs themselves. Good agencies diligently place chefs in suitable roles. Others will send chefs anywhere to generate commission. You need to set clear ground rules, says Collingwood: “I did a few jobs then I said I’m only interested in rosette-d work. One agency sent me to a racecourse and it was monotonous. On the second day, they wanted me on the catering van, flipping burgers – and I flipped my lid. Some people are happy to get their head down and say, ‘it’s a wage’, but this is my career. I’d find it hard to look myself in the mirror if I’d spent all day balling a thousand melons.”

By taking the fast buck of agency work, moreover, young chefs may fatally undermine their future career prospects. They are earning but are they learning? “If you’ve got a mortgage and kids, I can understand it. But when it’s young lads, OK, the wage is attractive but I wonder where their career is going? Will they always be CDPs going from pillar to post?” asks Collingwood.

Overington echoes that. “Harsh as it sounds, if you want to be a really good chef you have to work somewhere full time,” he insists. “You’ve got to put in the hours. It doesn’t matter what level it is at.”

On the upside, this volatile jobs market is forcing restaurants – particularly those independents that pride themselves on local sourcing, real cooking and fresh dishes – to think creatively about how they can attract and retain enthusiastic staff. Indies cannot match agency wages so, says Ben Wright, co-owner of Chester’s Joseph Benjamin, you have to impress in other ways. “Job security is no longer a perk and that generation inspired by White Heat and Gordon Ramsay, where doing 100 hours a week was cool, is coming to an end,” he says. “The onus is on us to create attractive working environments and – although the industry is not going to start paying average chefs £35,000 a year – being competitive on salary.

“A four-day week is one way of doing that or you say categorically, at interview, it’s a 50-hour week. We do generous paternity packages and, basically, say ‘we’ll look after you’. You’ll work hard, but in a friendly kitchen where no one’s shouting.”

Not that any of that – structured learning, a nurturing workplace, shorter hours – is a silver bullet in recruitment. Attracting good staff is hard. It will inevitably get harder. There is an ongoing skills shortage and now agencies are draining that talent pool. Brexit will make it even more difficult, predicts Overington. “Over the next decade, the number of restaurants will go down because of massive staffing problems. The industry will begin to eat itself.”

If that is true, then one thing is guaranteed: agency chefs are in for a huge pay day. Whether good, bad or indifferent, they will be in ever greater demand.

Model agency: How Off To Work​ sets the bar in temporary staff provision

Every chef on Off To Work’s (OTW) books a seven-stage recruitment process that costs the company £250.

Chefs must provide two written references, proof of qualifications (CDPs need at least NVQ Level III), and then they are assessed at one of OTW’s six national academies.

That assessment includes an interview, observation of appearance and hygiene practices, and various quizzes and practical tests, covering everything from the candidate’s knife skills to their ability to cook a béchamel.

Candidates must also complete various e-learning modules (OTW is also a Chartered Institute of Environmental Health premium accredited training centre), and due to the security demanded by some of its clients – these include Michelin-starred restaurants and high-profile events – OTW takes airport-style scans of employees’ passports.

Note that word: employees. Most agency chefs are self-employed. They set themselves up as limited companies or (controversially, as chefs have to pay for the service), they may be compelled to work through an agency’s nominated ‘umbrella company’.

Instead, at OTW, all of its workers are employees. It pays employer NI and holiday pay, and staff are paid weekly. “We don’t have any self-employed chefs. We don’t think it’s ethically correct,” says director of operations, Robert Persson.

Naturally, OTW is not the cheapest. But says Persson: “The long-term benefit is that when we deliver chefs, we tend to be asked back. We’ve grown organically. We don’t have a big sales team. We look after our clients by sending them the right people with the right accreditations and training.”

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the October issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here. 

Related topics: People, Recruitment & training

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