Australia has a chef shortage. The completion rate for Aussie apprentice chefs hovers well below 40% and the government is tightening the rules for foreign food workers to contribute their skills. This is bad news for the hospitality industry, but it does make for a good time for an aspiring chef to get into the biz.
What’s caused this chef shortage? Some say lazy millennials – I say that’s an easy cop out for older chefs who don’t know how to motivate and teach.
It’s a tough gig
- Wages are low. Chefs earn the lowest of all trades. The hospitality industry does not lend itself to the same high wages as, say, the building industry does. It’s relatively easy to get a better wages elsewhere. Apprentices under 21 earn significantly less than apprentices over 21. This can add stress to young apprentices living away from home.
- Conditions can be challenging. The kitchen is a tough place to be. It’s hot, cramped and you’re standing on your feet for 12+ hours a day. There’s constant risk of burns, cuts and slips. This can scare away potential new recruits and is probably where the ‘lazy millennial chef’ myth comes from.
- MasterChef made it look glamorous. MasterChef took Australia by storm. I’m not ashamed to say it was what piqued my interest in food at the age of 19. I know that MasterChef is a fantasy land where magical chefs teach normal humans to rise to culinary God-like status – or something like that. A real kitchen is nothing like the MasterChef one, in that most of what you do, especially when you start out, will be monotonous or just plain stressful. It is up to the individual to find joy in hours of potato peeling, dish washing and chopping chilis (with gloves!!).
- The time it takes to become a chef is also misrepresented by MasterChef. There are various ways to become a chef – for me, ideally, I will spend three years in an apprenticeship at Crown, I will then travel to France and Italy to work in restaurants and eat good food, then I’ll return to Australia to work as a line cook for a number of years. Then, depending on level of hard work, skill and a bit of luck, I’ll become a sous chef – only then can I call myself a chef. Until then I am a cook – but MasterCook doesn’t sound as good does it?
- Sick days and holidays are a challenge to get off. Many chefs brag of not having a day off in years. But this does add to the stress of the job. Chefs feel pressured to cook through their sick days and this can prolong poor health (and pose a potential risk to diners).
457 Visas – Fear of foreigners adding to chef shortage
The circus in Australian Parliament has only added to the shortage, as tightening rules around our temporary working visas, called 457 visas, are pursued. These visas were granted mostly to chefs and cooks, who came from across the globe to toil in our kitchens and bring us exemplary dining experiences. The decrease in supply of good international chefs and cooks will force restaurants to consider lower skilled staff. Food is a global tradition we all share; the borders of cuisine around the world should remain open. The Liberal (conservative) government is effectively dismissing the importance of an international food culture by ignoring the international community and its pool of talent.
So what’s the solution?
The next generation of Aussie chefs
New apprentices offer a potential solution. As a younger generation of chefs rise up in the ranks of the kitchen there is potential for change. We each have the opportunity to observe the challenges a newcomer experiences in the kitchen, and then when we are in a position with more responsibility, try to make it a little easier on the next generation. As we rise in rank in the kitchen, we can change things. Something as simple as communicating clearly and respectfully rather than shouting or mumbling (mumbling kills me) can make all the difference to a new apprentices success or failure.
If I am lucky enough to own a restaurant one day, I will aim to foster a positive environment for the kitchen staff – one that focuses on team work, collaboration, work-life balance, creativity, passion and excellence. I don’t think these things are impossible; there is room for a reformation in the kitchen. Some naysayers may naysay away my ideas as silly and fantastical. To that I say, just watch me.
Sorry, I had to.
How to improve the apprentice chef completion rate
Apprentice chefs, especially in rural areas, are often left with little support throughout their apprenticeship. Some peers say they were forced to pay for training themselves, whilst others are employed for months on end without ever signing to a training provider. These are serious issues. Employers need to be held accountable. All apprentices should be given impartial training support from their first week of employment.
We also need to increase the incentives offered to employers and apprentices. A strengthening of the network of apprentice chefs and professional chefs across Australia would provide an incentive for apprentices to continue their training. Financial support for employers and apprentices needs to be increased to ensure apprentices can afford to train and employers afford to offer training.
We need to open our borders to chefs and cooks from across the globe
Rather than tightening the rules surrounding temporary work visas, we need to provide incentives for chefs and cooks from across the globe to spend time working in Australia. The international culinary community should be collaborative, exchanging talent, ideas and traditions. The influx of workers would lessen the strain on the hospitality industry.
Now’s the time
Because of the shortage, now is an excellent time to jump into a culinary career if you are able to in Australia. Provided you are passionate about food and willing to work in tough conditions, a career in food can be truly rewarding.
What do you think about the chef shortage? How can we attract more apprentices to the industry? Leave a comment below.