Chefs: 'We must address skilled labour shortage'

The shortage of skilled junior chefs could have serious ramifications
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Al Bustan Rotana Dubai's Christophe Prud'homme.
Al Bustan Rotana Dubai's Christophe Prud'homme.
Le Meridien and The Westin's Anston Fivaz.
Le Meridien and The Westin's Anston Fivaz.
Desert Palm Dubai's Lionel Boyce.
Desert Palm Dubai's Lionel Boyce.

According to top chefs, the ongoing shortage of skilled junior chefs is one that could cause serious problems for the industry in the long-term if it is not tackled now

Middle East chefs are facing problems recruiting competent junior staff, resulting in a skills shortage in the lower echelons of the region’s kitchens.

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Le Méridien Mina Seyahi and The Westin Dubai complex executive chef Anston Fivaz noted that the matter had seen a short-term solution thanks to the flood of economy-induced redundancies over the past year.

“Over the course of 2009 there were a lot of redundancies, resulting in a larger pool of junior staff with appropriate experience available in the Middle East; this made recruitment much easier,” he explained.

However Al Murooj Rotana executive chef Joachim Textor said that in general, the downturn had made it “more difficult to attract skilled people”.

“In Europe you still have good chefs, but because of [the exchange rate of] the Euro, it’s difficult to draw them over here,” he asserted.

Al Bustan Rotana Dubai executive chef Christophe Prud’homme agreed skilled chefs were in demand and for those with appropriate experience the world was “an open market”.

“Whether you can get them depends on what you can offer in terms of salary and benefits and on the working environment you create for them,” he said.

Aside from applicants having a lack of basic skills, Desert Palm Dubai executive chef Lionel Boyce said he had experienced two other recurring problems.

“I understand candidates will adjust their CVs to try and make them look more attractive to the employer, but I frequently find their actual skill level doesn’t resemble the resumé at all,” he revealed.

Boyce added that junior chefs “chasing pay packets” was another challenge.

“In the UAE, we seem to have built up an incestuous bank of chefs that jump from one hotel to the next looking for the extra AED 100 per month and a job promotion which they are not ready for — which is not good for the industry,” he said.

Despite the downturn, the region has seen many operators press on with new property openings — which has kept the recruitment market competitive, according to Mövenpick Hotel Bahrain executive chef Kim Gates.

“Unfortunately this means you often find younger chefs moving properties for a higher position with more money, as opposed to gaining better experience,” he said.

“In my opinion there are many young kitchen employees with senior titles that lack the experience to match.”

Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel and Suites executive chef Chris Baker agreed: “Dubai was very quick to promote junior chefs in the past; people got promoted too hastily, so when I’m hiring I make sure to look at their training from the beginning.”

This is a somewhat unstable image of the region’s lower-level kitchen staff and their capabilities — so is this issue unavoidably on course to negatively impact the industry?

According to some, in-house training could go a way towards correcting the imbalance.

Mövenpick’s Gates suggested: “Kitchen managers have to do their best with what they have and focus more on developing skills, so in a positive way they are forced to improve their training techniques to get better results, faster.”

Marriott’s Baker agreed that more chefs were embracing training in the current climate.

“We have always believed in that, so it’s not all bad,” he said. “If you get it right, it does of course mean that other employers will want to poach your staff — but if you want a certain standard from your employees, you just have to get on with it.”

However Desert Palm’s Boyce claimed that the skills situation was “slowing down the region’s progress”.

“This could have a hugely detrimental effect if we continue down this same road in future,” he said.

“It’s great to have all these fantastic hotels and restaurants, but as more come online the quality of professionals working in them will be diluted unless we spend more time at an industry level on training and building a more sustainable infrastructure.

“With no local talent pool to draw from, the equation becomes very costly,” he warned.

“I understand the training schools in Dubai have been developed by the larger conglomerates to remedy the skill shortage they are feeling. This is a band-aid solution for them, not the answer for the industry itself.

“We need instead a solid strategy for the life and growth of the industry on a macro level, thinking beyond 2010.

“This requires active government participation, through changing the immigration policies that allow people to reside over here long-term and not just come over for work.”

Le Méridien’s Fivaz added that “unless the Middle East as a region collectively increases salaries and pay packages to meet or preferably better the likes of Asia, Europe and America, it will always be a follower of trends instead of a leader”.

Commenting on salaries and benefits packages, Mövenpick’s Gates said he personally felt they were “lower than what they should be, especially at the lower level, for stewards and commis chefs”.

“Some would argue that a lot of people who come to the Middle East cannot earn such money in their own countries and that is why they are here.

“But I think everyone would agree that working in the kitchen is not easy — and long hours and six-day weeks can take their toll,” he pointed out.

Renaissance Dubai Hotel director of F&B Andy Kurfürst added: “We generally work all the times when everyone else is off having fun! It’s also a very physically challenging job.

“But in this region, I think we are doing OK [regarding salaries], as usually accommodation, food, uniforms, transport and airfares are included in the package and it is still tax-free,” he added.

Marriott’s Baker said he felt benefits such as housing had improved in recent years, “but not so much the salaries”.

“Traditionally, as a learning chef, you’d go to work at a place with a recognised name and a great reputation, and you went there for the opportunity and because it would be good for your career and development,” he said.

“But now people jump ship just for the money, and it upsets the market.

“It takes a lot of time to learn this job. I have travelled the world for years to try to learn and improve, but it’s like people now have sold out to the highest bidder.”

So how can the Middle East right this situation before it has a truly detrimental effect?

Renaissance’s Kurfürst said he believed it was on the right track: “Dubai should keep doing what it has been doing for the past 20 years — grow and boost publicity of the place as a great destination.”

Similarly, Al Bustan Rotana’s Prud’homme said that, despite the economic crisis, people still viewed the region — specifically Dubai — as “a dreamland to work in”.

“Having tax-free compensation, an opportunity to learn, the diversity of business and leisure activities and living in a cosmopolitan city make an impact on kitchen employees,” he reasoned.

“I believe re-emphasising these attributes to the whole world would encourage more skilled chefs to come and work here.”

But Mövenpick’s Gates felt higher salaries and better packages, as well as a five-day working week, were necessary to attract more young culinary talent.

Marriott’s Baker added that the region needed to find a true identity.

“When you come to Dubai, there’s no real identity — not like there is in the great culinary places like France or Italy or India. We need to give [junior chefs] a reason to want to come here.

“Also there’s been a lot of negative western press recently about Dubai, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to attract people from Europe,” he added.

Desert Palm’s Boyce agreed that the region was still young and lacking it’s own true culinary flavour.

“Dubai doesn’t need big-name chefs from overseas coming in — although good publicity is always helpful to the industry; it needs its own culinary scene to expand, and to become a destination for good chefs wanting to showcase their talents,” he argued.

“It also needs to create a decent pool of junior chefs who wants to live here and learn.

“This has to be facilitated with government incentives — and there has to be a change to the current immigration policies, to allow people to come here,” Boyce asserted.

“The criteria should revolve around whether they are employable, not whether they have a job to come to.”

According to Marriott’s Baker, the region would also benefit from greater transparency between chefs regarding salaries and the skill standards of their staff.

“I know some places pay more, some less, but trying to get some realistic idea of the overall standard would be good,” he noted.

“When people poach staff from other properties, all too often they take unqualified people into higher positions that they aren’t ready for. They triple their salary and the junior chef moves, then a week later they’re back asking for their old job.

“If we could all work together more closely, and just be realistic about where our staff are and how they are progressing, it would actually help the industry in the long term.”

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