Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front- and back-of-house about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments.
This time, we hear from a chef in the North West of England about how hiring staff through catering recruitment agencies means never really knowing what someone's culinary experience is, or if they've even stepped foot in the kitchen before.
I can't remember the last time I worked in a kitchen that was fully staffed and I've been in the industry for a decade. The problem lies with the working time agreement, where you "opt out" of the regular 40-hour week and commit to doing 60 plus hours. Unfortunately for a lot of low- and mid-level chefs on £14,000 or £18,000, it results in a rather sour taste on payday. Very few stay committed to the trade, leaving their jobs to work through catering recruitment agencies, where they're paid by the hour.
And in my opinion, it's having a terrible effect on kitchens across Britain.
Although I'm now a head chef in a busy gastro pub in Cheshire, I've been through the mill of agency cheffing and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I quit my job working as a chef de partie in a big hotel chain because I was never thanked for the extra hours I did for free, and after four years in the industry, the lifestyle was taking its toll on my relationships. So although I was giving up job stability, leaving just made so much sense at the time. The hours I was doing left me with virtually no social life, and in my early 20s, that was the most important thing to me.
But it's a path which made me lose my passion for cheffing. My recreational drug habit escalated, driven by my disillusion with the industry.
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Of course, chefs are known to let off steam through booze, but agency work, while giving you your time back or increasing your earnings, can be the catalyst for falling off the wagon altogether. Standards slip thanks to how easy it is to get another job when you fuck up. Agencies are loath to strike chefs off their books because they want the money, so when you take the piss, there are virtually no repercussions.
The flipside is that no one trusts you and no one trains you up. The mentality is, why should they when they don't know how long you're going to stay? So in the end, you just stop giving a shit.
Seeing it from the other side, I can now appreciate why so many head chefs are skeptical about their agency workforce. It really does attract the dregs of the industry. Take Simon, who arrived at a kitchen in a pub near Crewe when I was still doing agency myself. I was staying down the road at a B&B the owners were renovating and Simon was to bunk with me. He came from a different agency to mine and as soon as he walked in wearing brand new blue chef whites, you could tell there was something dodgy about him beyond the colour of his uniform. He had this toolbox that didn't have any good knives in it. Even his egg flipper was some novelty thing your mum would buy.
I asked him to make a cauliflower soup, then watched as he boiled it down with a whole bottle of wine and nothing else.
I asked him to make a cauliflower soup, then watched as he boiled it down with a whole bottle of wine and nothing else. We did about 50 covers and at the end of the day, I told him to count up the cheques. He thought chips, salads, and side orders were the same as main meals. Our alarm bells were massively going off by this point, but somehow, it didn't stop there. The next morning, he suddenly announced he was having an operation, but rather than going to a hospital, he would need to go back to the B&B to be seen by a private doctor at 11 o'clock. Of course, I didn't believe him, but seeing as he said he'd be back at work for five when evening service started, the boss decided to excuse the lie and just hoped he'd turn up as we were desperate for staff.
Suffice to say, Simon didn't have an operation. I found him overdosing from heroin. We later discovered he was on the run from his dealers and that's why he'd taken a job out of town, blagging his way to get on the agency's books. As I suspected, he'd never worked in a professional kitchen in his life.
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Another drug-related situation came about in my next kitchen at the Manchester Airport branch of the Radisson Hotel. An agency chef asked me if I could cover him while he quietly slipped out at 10 PM.
"Why can't you stay until 11?" I asked.
"I've got a tag for dealing, so if I'm not back by ten, I'm going back inside," he told me.
Now I hire agency chefs myself, I know how to weed out the good ones. If someone doesn't start making their Hollandaise sauce before 12, I assume they're not going to be great. I also look for people who run their own businesses because they're likely to be more responsible. Talking to friends in the industry in places like Australia or America, I know that the problem is worst here. But what scares me the most is that with Brexit likely to hit the catering industry, this employment crisis is only going to intensify.
As told to Kamila Rymajdo.