London’s food scene has boomed over the last ten years, establishing itself as a destination for global cuisine. Between 2001 and 2017, its wide variety of restaurants, takeaways and street food businesses increased from around 10,000 to just under 20,000. Staff numbers also doubled during this period, to around 200,000. What’s most striking is the rise in the number of chefs, which has tripled since 2009. Food, and the production of food have rightfully earned their place in London’s cultural profile.
But the city’s eating out scene isn’t thriving anymore. Restaurant closures are on the rise as businesses are seeing all their costs rise simultaneously – from rent to labour costs and of course the cost of ingredients. Businesses old and new say they face a recession more serious than in 2009. Our Kitchen Talent report highlights the long-term vulnerability of our eating out economy to a shortage of skilled chefs. 85 per cent of chefs in London were born abroad, compared to 50 per cent in the rest of the UK. This leaves the capital exposed to reduced migration. And despite free movement within the European Union, skilled chefs have been on the government’s shortage occupation list since it was introduced in 2008.
With the government captivated by Brexit, there are steps that the Mayor of London can take to help plug the skilled chefs gap: raising the status of the city’s cooking courses, changing perceptions of chef careers, and improving working standards in catering.
Raising the status of the city’s culinary schools
Investing in training that meets the employer’s needs and attracts learners in greater numbers will be key. In September this year the Mayor will gain control of the city’s Adult Education Budget. London’s further education colleges have some of the best culinary courses in the country, but they struggle to equip learners with the skills they need as a working chef, including resilience, creativity, sustainability and entrepreneurship. And while London’s food scene and higher education system are shining, its culinary training lacks the profile to attract investment.
Changing perceptions of chef careers
The Mayor can also help raise the status of chef careers by including the culinary arts as part of London’s cultural and creative industries. Like most creative occupations such as craft design, fashion and filmmaking, creative food skills take time and effort to cultivate, and are less likely to be automated in the future. And like London’s museums, people are attracted to the city, because of its enticing restaurant and street food scene. Therefore chefs – the “culinary creators” – must be recognised by the Mayor as one of the city’s cultural assets, given their amazing ability to contribute to the everyday life of Londoners.
Improving working standards in catering
Last but not least, the experience of working in London’s professional kitchens needs urgent attention. Too many chefs experience adverse working conditions – sexism, racism and inflexible working hours, just to name a few. The Mayor’s Good Work Standard could be used to encourage the industry to adhere to guidelines on pay, flexible work opportunities, zero tolerance of harassment, and the provision of in-work development opportunities.
These are difficult times for restaurants, but London does have examples of good practice which show it’s possible to move towards business models where professional kitchens are good places to work. With a boost from the Mayor, London’s eating out scene could be even more exciting for diners, rewarding for its working chefs, and inspiring to the future generation of cooks.