It’s hardly news to those who have spent any sort of time working within the industry, but the capital’s hospitality sector is facing a significant skills shortage. According to a report published by the Centre for London think tank earlier this year, chefs are leaving the profession in droves every year. And the Office for National Statistics has said that despite the number of chefs in the city tripling over the past 10 years, London’s kitchens are still struggling to recruit and retain them.
The report – which cited increasingly tough working conditions, stagnating wages, and a heavy reliance on migration as intrinsic reasons for the burgeoning crisis – went on to say that the growing demand for chefs in the capital has not been matched by an improvement of culinary education and training. At present, 16 of London’s 48 further education colleges provide catering courses. However, many employers do not believe these courses prepare chefs with the skills and experience needed to thrive in the workplace.
It’s a situation that the head chef of newly opened Hackney training restaurant OKN1 recognises only too well. “The figures are unbelievable, but I can certainly understand why they’re so high,” he says. “From the point of view of the worker, it’s all about finding that balance between work and life. And speaking personally, as a new father that’s one of the biggest issues currently facing the industry.”
Radoslaw Nitkowski (Rad, for short), who had recently taken time out of work to be with his new family, was initially sceptical about returning to the kitchen for that reason; the stresses of trying to balance his work and home life had eventually led him to leave his last job. However, after speaking to his friend Steve Tonkin, whom he previously cooked with at Dean Street Townhouse, he decided that OKN1 could be the perfect project for him. “The real appeal to me was the prospect of teaching the next generation of chefs,” he adds. “It’s a chance not only to shape their minds, but also prepare them for what’s to come. For me the main aim is to ensure that when the staff and students leave [the restaurant], they’re prepared for anything the industry throws at them.”
The 80-cover, open kitchen restaurant – owned and operated by New City College (NCC) and located on its campus – is designed to offer the college’s catering students the opportunity to get a head start in the industry. Having opened to the public back in June, the brigade currently consists entirely of former students cooking under the watchful eye of Rad and his sous chef Siphiwe Sipijo, who previously worked at Holborn Dining Room. Once the new term starts, though, all students who study catering there will have the opportunity to try their hand in the OKN1 kitchen.
Many of the students working at the restaurant will be in the process of completing their Diploma in Professional Cookery, and several of its current employees – with three years of catering college under their belts – recently graduated from the Level 3 course. Rad has designed the menu – which he describes as “modern European” and features flat-iron chicken with Isle of Wight tomatoes, fennel, capers and olives; a salad of chicory, pear and blue cheese with a grain mustard dressing; and hake fillet with Cornish dirties, chorizo and roasted peppers – using elements of the different dishes the students learn during their diploma, and hopes to help develop their training further while at the restaurant through butchery demonstrations and chef residencies.
The specials board, however, is where the students can hone their creative skills. ““I like to leave [the chefs] to explore their own creativity, especially when it comes to the specials,” says Rad. “It’s a chance not only to celebrate the foods and flavours that inspire them, but also get a greater understanding of how dishes are costed” – just like a commercial-run restaurant, OKN1 is profit driven.
A different mindset
What perhaps sets OKN1 apart from numerous other catering college restaurants is that beyond the practical elements, Rad believes it is an opportunity to address one of the key stigmas currently facing the industry. “For me it’s all about training our staff to be in the right mind set,” he says. “We need to help them develop a sense of urgency, and understand that this job is ultimately about customers, not chefs and ego. It’s about ensuring they have a professional approach; they can already cook, but they need to understand the industry.”
Part of that is about confronting the notion that kitchens work best as a hostile environment. The Centre for London cited this as one of the factors driving people away from the industry. Reacting to the report at the time, Iqbal Wahhab, co-founder of The Cinnamon Club, said: ““Restaurants need to break down the image of ludicrously long hours and aggressive work environments as somehow being character building when often the opposite is the case. It’s turning people away from our sector and is tantamount to modern slavery.”
Rad agrees, but doesn’t necessarily expect things to change in the near future. What he hopes, though, is that by creating a dialogue with his staff around such issues, he’ll be able to better prepare them for what the future may hold. “We don’t want OKN1 to be one of these rough and tough environments,” he says. “Pressure is part and parcel of working in a kitchen, and our chefs understand that, but there’s never any place for bullying as is all it does is create a disconnect between members of your team. And team work is fundamental in this industry; a brigade is only ever as strong as its weakest link.”
The atmosphere within the OKN1 kitchen isn’t sugar-coated: Rad is firm but fair with his charge, keen to nurture their talent, but not afraid to tell them when they make a mistake. By imparting this attitude onto the next generation of chefs, he hopes that, in time, the hospitality industry’s perceived sensibility towards an antagonistic atmosphere will begin to dissipate.
“OKN1 is a brilliant way for chefs to get a deep-rooted understanding of what life is like working in a kitchen, but at the end of the day it’s about how we as leaders within the the industry help to augment greater change too, by helping to stamp out the bullying that has been used by some for years as a means of ‘character building’. Sure, it won’t make the actual job any easier, but will make it more open and accessible, which is what we need it to be right now.”