Like a soldier in wartime, Ellie Gray quickly rose through the ranks of her profession.
At only 20 years old, Ellie is already a chef de partie in the Fetterangus kitchen where she works. The role is a critical position that puts her in charge of the lower-ranked commis chef and just below the sous chef.
It’s a lot of responsibility, especially as Ellie is a student still learning her trade at North East Scotland College (Nescol) in Aberdeen.
“It’s an important task to undertake,” she admits. “But I have the most building experience, and everyone was…absent.”
By ‘far’ Ellie means her former colleagues have left the industry, part of an exodus from the hospitality industry that has changed the face of the profession and is pushing young chefs rapidly up the career ladder.
As attrition increases, the losses are clear.
Staff Wanted signs, already common in the windows of restaurants and cafes in the North and Northeast, are giving way to those that say “Business Closed.”
Delivery jobs make ‘more money than sitting in a kitchen sweating all day’
Underlying causes of worker flight include Brexit and the subsequent departure of experienced staff overseas.
Covid has exposed the precariousness of many kitchen jobs, and the pandemic’s rise in online food delivery has both squeezed restaurant margins while giving downed chefs a convenient – and better paid – escape route.
As Ellie says, “Chefs who have been in the industry for 10 years take delivery jobs that make them more money than sitting in a kitchen sweating all day.”
It is this turbulent environment that Ellie and her classmates will enter when they leave Nescol late next spring with a Level 3 Diploma in Advanced Professional Cooking.
The qualification recognized by City & Guilds has the power to propel them towards a successful career as a professional chef.
But it hasn’t been easy.
The training is rigorous and includes long hours in Nescol’s highly respected on-site kitchen. Built to look like a fully functional professional kitchen – and attached to the working restaurant Gate 63 – it offers crucial first-hand experience of cooking in a live environment.
As the students approach the end of their training, their future looks – in some ways – bright. The labor shortage put their skills to the test. Kitchen staff have seen wages rise and conditions improve.
“It’s an employee market,” admits intern Ken Paterson, 50, who returned to school after giving up a job as an oil and gas welder.
“At the time, I didn’t quite understand who this madman was”
But talk to this next generation of chefs, and it quickly becomes apparent that few of them are in it for the money.
Yes, the work is tiring.
They will be expected to work long shifts at unsociable times of the day. And maybe someone will yell at them for getting the order wrong.
But inside each of them hides a passion for the profession.
“Yeah, everyone has days when you just want to go home,” says 19-year-old Adam Hunter, who learned to cook from his mother but now admits he’s the best chef. “But even at the end of it all, I can still say – I love my job.”
Ken says he worked as a kitchen porter when he was 18 and watched the chef walk out at the end of each shift with a smile on his face.
“At the time, I didn’t really understand who this crazy guy was,” Ken says. “But after getting that training, I’m doing it now.”
Will the restaurant industry collapse?
Behind the passion is a realistic understanding of the industry they are heading into. For some, cooking may be a calling, but it’s also a calling that pays the bills.
Kerry Adam, 27, lives in Inverurie with her eight-year-old daughter.
Before joining the course, she worked for £10 an hour in a care home kitchen. His qualifications will allow him to earn 20% more.
In the long term, his goal is to be an environmental health officer, responsible for classifying kitchens according to their hygiene levels.
“We’ll see how far I go,” she said.
His classmates are lucid about the state of the profession they have chosen. They may love to cook, but recent hardships in the hospitality industry haven’t passed them by.
“It’s going downhill,” says Ellie of the restaurant business. “The industry will collapse if it is not supported financially.”
Adam sees the damage that rising costs have inflicted on restaurants in Aberdeen. A number of outlets have closed in recent months, due to inflation and massive increases in energy prices.
“Union Street now, there’s nothing left,” he said. “That’s one thing that’s discouraging the future of hospitality.”
Fighting the brain drain in London
Indeed, Adam is tentatively considering using his degree to leave Aberdeenshire and take up a job in London. He sees the capital as a testing ground for a young chef, a place to immerse himself in different cultures and culinary styles.
The plan makes sense. But that’s bad news for a northeast hospitality industry that desperately needs dedicated chefs.
“There are more than enough jobs in the region, and there are not enough good jobs in the region,” explains Michael Murray.
Michael is the owner of the Dowans Hotel and Restaurant in Aberlour. He deplores the brain drain of newly trained local chefs to London.
He argues that the Northeast has everything an aspiring chef needs for a meaningful career.
“The kinds of dietary challenges you might face in this area would be as interesting as any other kitchen in any other part of the UK,” he says.
Michael has a vested interest in retaining talent in the North East as he has felt the impact of staffing shortages first hand. A year after the opening of the Dowans’ sister restaurant, Hotel 1881 in Archiestown, it has only one chef on site.
In a perfect world, he would employ nine.
Therefore, to feed the local hotel business, Michael wants people like Adam to stick around.
He also wants those who are already working as chefs to show more persistence. The hotel owner has recruited two chefs at Hotel 1881; the first lasted three days and the second showed nothing at all.
“The last time we heard from him was on a Sunday night saying I’ll see you tomorrow,” Michael recalled.
“If you meet him on the road, it would be helpful if you could give him our address.”
A dropout rate to rival the Royal Marines
At Nescol, interns say they have the commitment that Michael is looking for.
After all, the 16 students in the third-year course are what’s left of a first-year admission of 64. That’s an abandonment rate that rivals the Royal Marines.
“We’ve lost a lot of people,” says Ellie, who admits kitchen work attracts a lot of young school leavers who may not understand how difficult the job can be. “But we are still here.”
Meanwhile, students are aware that no matter how many hours they spend in the Nescol kitchen, life outside the educational bubble will be different.
“There you have the speakers to make sure my food is good before it’s sent out,” says Adam. “But in the industry, you have to use your own judgement.”
Kerry, on the other hand, is eager to get started.
“I’m looking forward to implementing the skills we’ve actually learned,” she says.
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[Aberdeen’s future chefs talk hopes and fears amid seismic changes]