Hospitality is facing some massive challenges now that venues are reopening again. More than a year of lockdown has resulted in a flurry of staff departures: some have gone back to their home countries, a few have shifted careers, others have started their own businesses (look at the number of micro bakeries) and many have decided they never want to return to the industry.
When the pandemic hit, nearly all of my own kitchen work was called off. I made sure that I kept one job catering for a wealthy family in Greece, which reminded me how taxing the job is on your body. But I also spent a large part of the past year working in ways that I never thought would be possible, with much more flexibility. I started teaching people how to cook online through virtual classes, I wrote recipes and finished my second book. All of which led me to be able to fund the relaunch of my hospitality platform, Countertalk.
Reopening came with a glimmer of hope, but without the staffing to make things really shine. As such, Countertalk, which helps chefs find good workplaces, is making a lot more sense to people now. My phone is continually buzzing with restaurant owners asking if I know anyone who wants a job. Chef WhatsApp groups are full of chatter about who’s paying the most and, for those who have continued running their own businesses, asking for an extra pair of hands.
The importance of staff retention, and that of happy staff creating happy workplaces, has become clear; it’s much more profitable for a business to train its employees and treat them well. Not only does it reduce time spent finding, hiring and training new staff, it ensures consistency, which improves customer loyalty. It’s also just a whole lot nicer.
We’ve all heard about the horror stories that can paint a skewed picture of what kitchens can be like. Now these are starting to resurface in a bigger way, with anonymous Instagram accounts calling out well-known chefs via screenshots of anonymous DMs. On the one hand, this gives a voice to those who feel apprehensive about speaking out because of the potential repercussions. But it can also be problematic, especially when the stories have not been verified. This is something that recently led to the censure of a high-profile chef being rescinded.
In the court of public opinion, people want to believe that the chef has done something wrong, and there are also those who enjoy seeing another person brought down.
Yet call-out culture has proved time and time again that it is far from the most productive way to bring about change. Plenty of people use this narrative solely to further their own profile, and that’s not OK. We should always strive to couple problems with solutions. That’s the only real way to generate meaningful change. Talking is a first step, of course, but it needs to be combined with action.
Through the work opportunities I’ve had during lockdown, I also funded and launched Damson Jelly Academy, an online cookery school. The aim was to create intensive, informative and fun courses without the high fees that come with formal cookery schools. For every course we sell, we give one back to a child in a school who wants to learn. Slowly, through accumulating funds, we will be visiting more schools to talk about the viable and diverse career paths available in the food industry.
This is my small way of helping the food industry to improve its reputation and encouraging more people to want to work with us. There are, of course, some incredible employers who treat their employees well and nurture a happy environment. But we need more. Thankfully, owners of food businesses are waking up to this, realizing that the problem isn’t going to improve on its own. In London, people love eating out. For proof, you only have to look at the number of restaurants that were fully booked as soon as there was the slightest easing of lockdown restrictions.
To ensure consistency and longevity, though, work needs to be done to generate more staff for the industry. That means working with the government to figure out ways of improving staffing, and reaching out to schools and colleges to develop a generation that views hospitality as a dynamic career path. Plus, we need to figure out shift patterns that open up space for working mothers and people who need more flexibility.
There are so many fun possibilities in the food world. I’m grateful for the numerous opportunities that have come my way, which were only made possible through working and meeting brilliant people in kitchens and at various food businesses. When you work in something you love or decide to follow your passion, you want others to be able to experience that, too.