Getting young people in the kitchen is an imperative

Jonathan Harvey-Barnes is Senior Development Chef at Essential Cuisine. Having started kitchen life under the tutelage of the highly respected John Williams MBE at Claridge’s in Mayfair, he spent a further 22 years cooking in AA Rosette country house hotels until eventually swapping his whites for the blues of the north west manufacturer of class-leading stocks and sauces.

Jonathan now works as part of a team of three business development chefs, dedicated to inspiring customers and the next generation of chefs.

He told Footprint: With British Food Fortnight culminating this September, now is the ideal time to talk up not only the benefits of choosing British produce, but to also discuss the current health of British working kitchens and examine what can be done to attract more chefs into the industry. Here, Jonathan offers his take on both.

While it’s fair to say that the UK food scene has experienced seismic change over the past 20 to 30 years, something that has remained constant is the quality of British produce. I defy any foodie worth their salt not to be enticed by the crumble and creamy intensity of Dorset Blue cheese, a freshly shucked Manx Queenie or the superior succulence and flavour of Lakeland Herdwick. For when it comes to the bounty of Britain, our island is decidedly well stocked.

Of course, sourcing locally, where possible, and cooking and eating with the seasons not only makes perfect sense as a chef looking for the freshest and best tasting food, it’s also important from a sustainability point of view. But sustainable best practice doesn’t just end with farming and food. British kitchens are experiencing their own sustainability challenge in terms of recruitment and retention of young chefs.

Back in 2007 charity People 1st reported that, despite a surge in culinary excellence, UK kitchens were faced with a 6% rise in demand for chefs but a 10% drop in training places at catering colleges. The latest available figures suggest that, currently, 42% of chef vacancies are considered hard-to-fill with the industry needing to recruit an additional 11,000 chefs by 2022.

At Essential Cuisine we’re passionate advocates that a love of cooking and food should begin as early as possible. That’s why we work closely with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts – the organisation behind the Chefs Adopt a School charity – to go into schools and engage with kids at grass-roots level, delivering inspirational and fun cookery workshops, and helping them improve and hone basic kitchen skills.

This kind of outreach is not only vital in helping children understand the importance of their individual well-being, but, arguably, is also key to ensuring a steady stream of talent for the hospitality industry for years to come.

While the chef shortage persists, this kind of activity, allied to a slowly improving perception of the hospitality industry as a viable career choice, will, I predict, pay greater dividends in the long run.

We have, hopefully, seen the back of overtly macho kitchens ruled with an iron fist, and the long, gruelling shifts of days gone by. Hospitality pioneers like Jason Atherton now insist on total silence during service, helping the chefs focus, while flexible working hours, allowing for greater work/life balance, are now available in kitchens across many sectors.

So, the picture may be shifting, but there is one factor, crucial in attracting and retaining the very best young chef talent, left to discuss; chef mentors.

For the past 15 years Essential Cuisine has been at the heart of the North West Young Chef competition – the search for north west England’s most prodigious young cook – and in each of those years, we’ve seen the bar raised time and time again.

The intensity of cooking in the competitive spotlight and the levels of skill and concentration required, invariably mean that the cream rises to the top, but the common denominator for each eventual finalist is undoubtedly the presence of a trusted, supportive mentor.

During the live cook-offs you see them; observing, living each move and step in the process. They’re the first people to be thanked when their protegee takes the glory and the last to leave, staying in consolation, should they fall just short.

A shining example is someone like Paul Askew, Chef Patron of The Art School in Liverpool, who has done so much not only for the reputation of cooking in the north west, but also for his many fledgling chefs.

Paul mentored the North West Young Chef winner Edwin Kuk in 2019 and the very first female winner, Daniella Tucci, in 2016, while also stewarding finalists in 2019 and 2017, respectively. Chef mentors like him that give up their time to help others fulfil their potential are some of the best and brightest weapons we have in the fight against the UK’s chef shortage. We have many but need more.



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