Why Teaching Butchery Is the Secret to Keeping Good Chefs

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Why Teaching Butchery Is the Secret to Keeping Good Chefs

These guys might know how to butcher but they’ve never cooked on live fuel.

It's hard to comment on what other restaurants do and don't do. What we know is that when people come to us applying for jobs, they don't have the skill set that you would expect them to have at the level that they're currently working. I would assume then that there are a lot of people out there not training people very well.

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There's a skill shortage in London at the moment. There are more restaurants than there have ever been and there's a lack of qualified chefs. You can sit back and complain about it, which a lot of people do, or you can actually do something about it. We very much have the mindset that we don't need to staff every kitchen in London, we just need to staff our kitchen. In order for us to make sure that we have a well-motivated team and well-skilled team, we just need to make sure that we have a better working environment than the guys down the road.

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A chef at Smokehouse restaurant in London prepares cuts of meat. All photos courtesy Smokehouse/Little Smoke.

Everything that we do is to ensure that we can attract the best people. Do we have the nicest working environment? Do we have the right tools for the job, not just the cheapest? Does the equipment get fixed when it breaks? And, more to the point, are we investing in people?

The nature of what we do, which is cooking over charcoal and wood, smoking, and sourcing and butchering whole animals, means at every level we've never been able to find chefs who have a background in everything. So it means training is even more important.

We try to take quite inexperienced chefs at the lowest level in the kitchen and train them in all the aspects that we do. Most of the time, that's butchery but then we have a lot of chefs moving over from very fine dining restaurants who like the idea of cooking over charcoal and wood as opposed to cooking on gas. These guys might know how to butcher but they've never cooked on live fuel. We also like to promote from within because it's good for the culture and good for morale to see you and your colleagues getting promoted.

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It's also about giving someone the opportunity and showing faith in people. If we're seen to be giving people opportunities and promoting people when we could go external, it means that they're less likely to look elsewhere because they enjoy working with you and are able to grow and develop.

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My background is in front-of-house but I still have a huge amount of respect for the person who gave me my first promotion. Even though I felt like I deserved it and had worked for it, I'll still buy that person a drink and say thank you whenever I see them. If I wasn't given that chance, I wouldn't be where I am now.

I think kitchens have changed a lot since I joined the industry in the late 1990s. Chefs nowadays are much more professional and a lot have degrees. Our kitchens are full of chefs who have chosen to be in the kitchen and if they weren't in the kitchen, they could be doing a number of other things. A lot even have Masters degrees. About 20 years ago, the average kitchen didn't have any chefs with a degree.

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The "Tomapork" steak at Little Smoke.

A lot of these guys also have aspirations to do it for themselves. They are going to find the place that has the best training, that does the most interesting thing because that is where they're going to hone their skills so they can go and open their own place. We take that as a huge compliment. Over the last two years, we've had about ten chefs leave to go and open a restaurant. That, for us, is actually a huge pat on the back.

As told to Daisy Meager.

Scott Hunter is the co-owner of meat-focused restaurants Little Smoke and Smokehouse in London.