Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland restaurant bosses say chefs shortage holding back industry

By Rachel Martin

Hospitality bosses have said a shortage of chefs is among the biggest challenges to the industry here.

As the industry looks back on the 2016 Year of Food and Drink, business owners say future growth is being hampered by a lack of new talent.

Northern Ireland has more restaurants and hotels opening than ever before, but those to the fore of the sector say they are struggling to find enough skilled employees.

It comes as one of the region's five catering colleges says it has seen a 20% drop in the number of students enrolling on its courses compared to two years ago - meaning the real damage has yet to come.

Chef Simon Dougan MBE, who founded the Yellow Door Deli, was among those struggling to find the right people. He said that many careers advisors have the wrong impression about the industry.

The restaurateur, who has prepared food for Prince Charles, says at school he was encouraged to do metalwork instead of catering.

"I grew up in the country and was very lucky that I always knew what I wanted to do," he said.

"I was inspired by my grandmother's cooking and determined I would become a chef."

Now Simon tries to offer opportunities to those he sees potential in and says he has trained up some of his chefs from kitchen porters.

"You're trying to move your business forward - we want to grow our businesses and be able to go for big jobs, but sometimes you're nearly afraid to do that in case you're not able to get the staff.

"They also need to learn things they will actually use - a lot of courses teach old French recipes, but we don't cook like this here any more - cooking here has moved on from that and there's a great emphasis on local food at the moment.

"If you can't get students, then what else can you do? You train them yourself."

It comes as Barry Smyth, lecturer in Hospitality and Culinary Arts, Southern Regional College (SRC), said that the college had seen a drop of around 20% in the number of students enrolling compared to two years ago.

"There is a slight demographic dip and we do expect slight variation from year to year, but we really noticed it this year.

"It's a massive, massive growth area, but the problem is that if you tell people about studying catering they assume you are going to be a waiter or a chef when in reality there's so much more to the industry than that - there are delis, food production, accountancy, PR and food product development.

"Moy Park is one of Northern Ireland's biggest employers and we've got that right here in Portadown, yet many of the people who work there will never have done any qualification in catering and I think that's something which needs to change.

"We need to speak to children before they make decisions about what they want to do and let them know about what opportunities are out there.

"But I think in some cases the students' expectations can differ from the reality.

"They are going into an already stretched industry and being put under pressure to meet a certain standard in a kitchen or front of house team, and it can be difficult."

Over the next two weeks, more than 350 students are expected to attend Food Heartland Hospitality Forum's agri-food careers day at Craigavon Civic centre.

The fair will run over three days in mid-January and will include a mock shop stocked with ingredients, so children have to source, cook and bring a product to market to learn about the industry's different roles.

Chef Sean Farnan opened his award-winning restaurant the Moody Boar in Armagh four years ago, and has become a key advocate for other young professionals coming up through industry.

Sean started his career at 16 as a kitchen porter before going to catering college.

He went back to SRC around two-and-a-half years ago to fine-tune his skills and learn the latest techniques, while also running his business. He said he could do with an extra four skilled employees in his own restaurant, but struggles to find the right people.

Like Simon, he has also trained kitchen porters to become chefs and says two of his current chefs started off in this way.

He said: "I always say you've got to keep an eye on your KPs - if you see your KP always looking over watching the chefs with an interest in what they're doing, then you've got someone with an interest and that's good - they are often the ones who have that drive and passion for what they do - you can't teach that and that's what the industry really needs."

And he's not the only Northern Ireland catering boss to offer in-house training; Niall McKenna launched James Street South's apprenticeship in 2014.

In its first year, the programme employed eight young people aged between 16 and 24 - this year it took on 12 young chefs.

The programme is now endorsed by the Department for the Economy and offers young professionals the opportunity to study with chefs in the James Street South Bar + Grill, Hadskis, The Cookery School and Cast & Crew.

The year-long placement combines on-the-job training with two days' of education at the Belfast Metropolitan College.

Three of this year's trainees have secured full-time employment with James Street South.

Meanwhile, Nicola McLarnon, director of Belfast fine-dining restaurant Saphyre, is currently looking for a sous chef and pastry chef.

"It is difficult to find the right people," she said. "And pastry is an area which is particularly under resourced."

But she says she tries to inspire her existing staff and last year took employees to Paris to try some of the city's best restaurants.

"It's a pressured environment, so it's about motivating people and appreciating their dedication.

"We asked our chefs where they would most like to try, so we ended up taking our staff to George Cinq.

"It's great being able to cultivate excitement around food - to hear them talking about how things have been done and trying new techniques they want to learn."

Belfast Telegraph