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Join the dinner party

By Stephen Lacey

Amid a chronic shortage of chefs, the search is on for fresh talent, writes Stephen Lacey.

Australian chefs such as Stephanie Alexander, Christine Manfield and Peter Doyle might be famous around the world - but unfortunately we don't seem to have enough of them.

The latest statistics point to a chronic shortage of chefs, so much so that, in the future, we may have to venture behind the stoves ourselves if we are to get a decent meal.

A recent study by Deloitte Access Economics showed that - in terms of accumulated demand for workers - cafe and restaurant managers, chefs and waiters representedthe top three occupations, together accounting for 33 per cent of all tourism labour demand. And, according to the study, the greatest problem is finding people who want to be chefs in the first place, with recruitment difficulties listed at 57 per cent, followed by skills deficiencies (50 per cent) and retention difficulties (46 per cent).

The findings come as quite a surprise when you consider the amount of exposure cooking gets nowadays on television. "There's no doubt cooking programs have raisedthe profile and interest level in food across Australia," says Helen McCready, the advertising and PR manager for HostPlus, the industry super fund. "But the research we undertook earlier this year showed that while many people are interested in becoming a chef, more than half felt they had left it too late and 15 per cent didn't feel they have had the opportunity."

Peter Doyle runs one of Sydney's premier seafood restaurants, Peter Doyle @ The Quay. He has been in the industry for 35 years and has never seen such a chronic shortage of apprentice chefs.

"There are about 208 vacancies for apprentice chefs in NSW at the moment," Doyle says. "That's a massive shortfall."

He says part of the problem is the unsociable hours. "Apprentices have to work when everyone else is having a good time and that's a shock for some young people," he says. "Plus there's the lure of the mining industry, with its very high rates of pay. A first-year apprentice at a mine might get $60,000 a year, while a first-year chef would be lucky if they got half of that."

Doyle has no regrets about his life in the kitchen. "It's a great job, because it allows you to travel the world and you'll never have any trouble getting work," he says.

"And you can even move from restaurant to restaurant while you are doing your training. It's a very transportable skill." Doyle is among seven chefs from the top restaurants in each state who are trying to address the skills shortage by supporting the HostPlus Cook For Your Career (C4YC) competition.

Launched in 2011 and supported by My Career, the HostPlus C4YC competition not only gives people the opportunity to realise their dream of a career in the kitchen but also endeavours to give the hospitality industry a helping hand finding and building quality chef talent, with the winners awarded a full apprenticeship in a leading restaurant.

"Australia is renowned for having some of the best chefs and gastronomic experiences in the world and it's important we keep it that way," the chief executive of HostPlus, David Elia, says."With our network of members and dedicated partners, C4YC was a natural progression to support the industry."

Candidates are selected from online entries, with the public voting for who they think shows the greatest promise.

The top two cooks then battle it out in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. This will take place in March at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

To date, nine C4YC participants - including the winners - have gained employment in the hospitality sector after completing the challenge.

"With the help of some of Australia's leading chefs and restaurants, we would like to continue to nurture those that are the future of the hospitality industry," Elia says.

Published: 01 December 2012

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