What can we do about the chef shortage?

You’ve probably seen the headlines in recent weeks and months about the global chef shortage… but is it really news? Kitchen CUT Co-Founder John Wood looks at what you can do to increase retention to avoid falling victim to depleting staff numbers.

All of a sudden there seems to be national and International press coverage on the shortage of chefs and people in the hospitality industry – as though this is a new thing that has happened in the last 6 months. This problem has been developing for the last 10 years and the industry has been very slow to respond to it. There are some great ideas and incentives that a number of global companies are trying in a bid to increasing staff retention and to avoid a chef shortage – from reducing days worked in a week, to paying more money than everyone else. Admittedly, the problem is getting worse for two reasons:
  1. There are less people choosing hospitality as a career, therefore less people coming into the industry from school and university.
  2. There is an International boom of hotels, restaurants, delis and diners opening and, more importantly, the high street brands are expanding so fast it is hard to keep up with them.

So who is to blame?

My thought is everyone is looking for someone else to blame or point the finger at, however there is no point as this will not solve the problem. Companies need to look at themselves and review: Why they are short staffed? Why do people leave? How long do they stay with you? Why are you not attracting new applicants?

We just need to have more people in the industry right?

Yes there is an element of that, however the number of people leaving the industry is probably greater than people deciding to work in the industry. In hospitality we need to address that issue first to avoid the “Pouring water into a sieve” approach to fill it up. We need to fix the problem of retention first before we try to attract more people into the industry.


Retention is more important than recruiting and resourcing. During my 35 years in the industry and speaking to many successful companies on how they retain staff there are some simple basic principles that people need to review:
  1. Respect: Respect the people that work for you. Consider them and talk to them about their needs. Value their feedback and comments.
  2. Listen: Take time to listen to your team and stop talking at them all the time.
  3. Train & Develop: Every member of your team needs to have a training and development plan so that they know someone actually cares what they learn and how they can develop themselves and progress within the company.
  4. Work-life Balance: Everyone talks about a work-life balance and the hospitality industry is the guiltiest over the years of not offering this.
  5. Fair pay: There is a pay war going on in the industry where everyone thinks that the more you pay the more applicants you will get and more people will stay with you – This is fundamentally WRONG.
Of the thousands of chefs/ managers that I have worked with over the years I have learnt that if you apply these basic principles, you can reduce your staff turnover to a single figure % per year  – which is a normal acceptable level for any healthy hospitality business. If you are in double figures you have an issue and if you are lucky enough to be in single figures don’t relax as you need to maintain this. I always worked on 5-7% turnover per year is OK. Here is some detailed advice on how to approach this:


You need to respect all of your colleagues and not think that you are above anyone. You need to lead by example and not be afraid to roll up your sleeves, no matter what position you hold (teams talk about this for years). You need to respect their thoughts and ideas and encourage them to think as well. Empowerment is a really powerful way to make your teams feel you appreciate them. When they ask if they can do something for a colleague or customer, reverse this and ask them “what would you do?” As them to bring you solutions and not problems. For example: If they come to you and say: “Mr Jones is not happy with his main course – what should I do?”, ask them. “What do you think Mr Jones would be happy with?” Then let them take this action and see it through. One top International hotel company used to tell every member of staff that they have $500 to spend during the year if they needed to improve or rectify a situation within the business. Most colleagues did not use this amount for the entire year but what happened was their customer satisfaction rates shot up and their staff empowerment rose and retention improved.


Listening is NOT just sitting down with someone and letting them talk to you. Listening is about turning off your mobile/cell, allowing no other distractions and potentially taking notes. Looking at the person that is talking to you and taking what they are saying and asking questions about what they are saying. Lost of managers and chefs say they listen to their teams but in reality – they don’t! Not just during service or in the corridor – you need to create the time to sit down and really listen to them. You can learn so much from doing this with someone different once a day!

Train & Develop

This is a big one. Many chefs and managers say, “Ah yes, we do on the job training every day” or “I teach my team all the time”. There is a core fundamental difference between ‘Teaching’ and ‘Training & Development’. Teaching is about someone just talking at you and you maybe writing something down or being given some notes and hoping that you understand it. Essentially, you are metaphorically trying to open up their mind, tip information in it and close it up then hope that they remember it! Training and development is completely different. Establishing a need in your business for a system, process, job, routine or skill. Putting together a list of exactly what training needs to be given. Then seeing if there a number of people that may benefit from this training. Then most importantly, putting together a plan for this training that is interactive, fun, informative and most importantly where the trainees can ask questions, do something that will inspire them and ensure that they remember it. Then you need to ensure that you record who has attended this training and keep a record for each person so that you can refer back to it when creating a development plan for each individual. Sound too much like hard work? Then spread this work load out to your managers and mid management to also do. Still sound like too much work? Then stop complaining that you have no staff and that people do not stay very long!

Work–life balance

Everyone thinks a work-life balance is just about getting your team to work 8-9 hours over 4-5 days and give them their holidays and bank holidays. Well, to a certain extent it is. However, many hospitality businesses cannot survive the increase in payroll costs to do this and if they tried to do this, something would have to give – either in service levels or quality. I understand this entirely, having run my own restaurants and also many other hotels and restaurants over the last 3 decades. If you can create a stimulating, exciting and innovative environment to work in, where your team is enjoying working with you and the team around them then you will create a positive and challenging, but rewarding atmosphere and feel to the business. People will stop wanting to watch the clock. They will be excited about coming to work, they will be far more productive and responsive, they will rise to challenges that you present to them and will not hesitate to work an extra hour here and there for you. Try it: change the way you manage your teams and the people around you today!

Fair Pay

Again, should you have to pay more than everyone else to get the right staff? No you don’t – start to work on the above mentioned things and you will quickly become the preferred place to work. Word will spread and people will want to come and work for you as you are a team of people that are positive and excited. Your retention levels will improve, keeping the people you have and they will tell their friends, who will tell their friends what a fantastic boss and place it is to work for.

So you have a choice:

  1. Moan how bad the industry is and that “they don’t make them like they used to” – and the blames the colleges, schools, parents and anyone else you can find to blame.
  2. OR do something about it yourself and take action now!

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