Dublin Restaurants Struggle to Keep Their Chefs

“Chef de Partie required – Minimum Two Years Experience.”

“Chef Required – Experience Essential.”

“Chef Required – At least two years experience required.” 

The signs are common in front windows of restaurants and cafés across the city. There’s a shortage of chefs in the city, and high turnover in the industry.

As some see it, tackling the factors that are pushing chefs to leave their jobs for new ones in the same or another industry should help address the shortage.

It’s in part down to the growth in “fast-casual” dining in the city, some say. But there are also other reasons, inevitable ones that come with the role itself.

A Changing Industry

In its report on the hospitality sector back in November 2015, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN), which advises the government on labour-market issues, identified chefs as being in short supply across the country.

Around this time the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) claimed that 5,000 trained chefs were required to meet this shortfall.

In its pre-budget submission last year, the RAI claimed that 3,200 additional chefs need to be trained up between 2017 and 2020 to help alleviate the problem.

The number of chefs in Dublin increased by 22 percent between 2011 and 2016, from 3,203 to 3,926, according to data recently published by the Central Statistics Office.

That increase is encouraging, says Adrian Cummins, CEO of the RAI. But more needs to be done. To reduce the shortage, the high turnover and people leaving the industry for other sectors must be addressed first, he says.

Cummins sees two main reasons for the high turnover of chefs in Dublin at present.

Firstly, there’s the issue of wages. If another restaurant offers a chef more money, it’s not always possible for their employer to match that and keep them on.

Secondly, professional chefs in Ireland generally train for four years: two as a commis chef and two as a chef de partie. But many restaurants these days don’t necessarily require chefs with four years training.

Because there’s a shortage of chefs, restaurants, hotels and bars have little choice but to take on staff who might work as “chefs”, but don’t have the necessary training or experience.

“They’re called chefs but they haven’t done the four years training,” says Cummins. “They’re not able sometimes to hack the work. So we’ve turnover there.”

In addition, although the industry has always been transient to an extent, chefs do leave it for other sectors and higher wages. “People move because of that,” says Cummins.

In Dublin, in particular, the proliferation of “fast-casual” dining spots has also contributed to a high turnover. These could be restaurants serving just a few items, and paying chefs low wages, he says.

Again, says Cummins, “chef required” doesn’t necessarily mean a highly skilled chef with four years training under their belt.

That’s something that chef and lecturer in culinary arts at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire and his colleague Hannah Allen noticed in the course of their recent research.

In their 2016 paper “Against All Odds: Head Chefs Profiled“, Mac Con Iomaire and Allen surveyed 170 head chefs in Ireland to get a better understanding of the challenges facing the industry.

Something they observed was that some restaurants in Dublin don’t have, and don’t require, commis chefs, chefs de partie or head chefs, even though they may advertise positions with such names.

In these types of restaurants, “there’s little variation or innovation”, says Mac Con Iomaire. As a result, some chefs can feel like cogs in a wheel, and they get fed up and leave.

As more fast-casual spots open up, the high turnover of chefs is likely to continue, says Mac Con Iomaire.

Certain restaurants do try to keep their chefs, breed loyalty and nurture talent, he says. But even so, it’s hard work, as head chef Killian Durkin has learned from experience.

Can’t Hack the Heat

Durkin, who previously worked at Chapter One on Parnell Square, says there is generally a lifespan for chefs working in kitchens that have a pecking order.

Firstly, some chefs simply can’t hack the heat, Durkin says. “They’ll move on or they’ll be moved on,” he says.

It’s always been something of a tough, chaotic gig, he says. With long, anti-social hours, you really have to want to do it, says Durkin.

When Durkin started working as a salaried low-level chef in the late 1990s, he recalls breaking his salary down into an hourly rate. It was equivalent to about £2.80 per hour for a 70-hour week, he says.

These days, most restaurants will pay per hour, offering between the minimum wage of €9.55 per hour, up to maybe €16 per hour for a chef de partie, he says.

Fast-casual dining in Dublin aside, fine-dining restaurants generally will try to keep good chefs and nurture talent. But even then you run into the progression issue, he says.

Some head chefs in Dublin might earn up to €40,000 per year. They may also have a stake in the business, says Durkin, and generally learn about the management side of things.

Head chefs are, therefore, less likely to up and leave. Commis chefs or chefs de partie training under these head chefs often see no way to move up so they move on, hoping to advance in other restaurants, he says.

“There is generally a lifespan that people will be there for, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for that,” says Durkin. “There’s always more to learn from someone else.”

To a certain extent, then, there is always going to be a turnover of chefs in Dublin. Something hotel, restaurant, pub and café owners could do to combat this is to simply pay higher wages, says Mac Con Iomaire.

“We need the industry itself to start paying better. We need the industry itself to actually have better conditions,” he says.

There must be a new covenant between chefs and their employers, he says.

The situation could be improved straight away, says Mac Con Iomaire, if employers promised higher wages and a better work-life balance. “The employer needs to ensure that they don’t work the arse off them,” he says.

In turn, more chefs might commit to staying in their job, reducing turnover.

The Right Stuff

Yet for small business owners rents and rates are often the priority, says Aisling Rogerson, co-owner of the Fumbally café off New Street.

She’s currently recruiting for a chef to join her kitchen team.

Rogerson says that, for the Fumbally, it’s about finding “the right person”. That’s the biggest challenge she faces.

Because the café’s kitchen doesn’t operate on a hierarchy, the new chef has to fit with the rest of the team, she says.

“Everyone’s on par with each other,” says Rogerson. “So you have to have a passion for food, with the right attitude and a skill set that is adaptable.”

But chefs, says Rogerson, often have a desire to move on, to grow or to open their own restaurant. “If they reach a point where they want to do that, we encourage them,” she says.

As for raising wages to keep good chefs for longer, Rogerson says, “It’s something we struggle with as employers, not being able to pay them what we would want to pay them.”

As restaurants and cafés continue to pop up around Dublin, says chef Durkin, the industry is becoming more and more competitive.

Durkin says this has led to overworked, under-trained, underpaid chefs. It’s not surprising there’s a high turnover at present as, he says. “There are much easier ways to make money.”

Although it is “a beautiful thing” to want to work with food, says the Fumbally’s Rogerson, there is always the reality of the kitchen. It’s a tougher job than some people anticipate, she says.

Not all chefs are the right fit, with the right skills. “I always think the right person comes along eventually, though,” she says. “But there isn’t five of them queuing up knocking on your door.”

For those chefs who do want to stick with it, who want to learn and grow within the industry, conditions must improve, says DIT’s Mac Con Iomaire.

Training courses and apprenticeships for chefs are important to reduce the shortage, he says. More are needed.

“But if the attrition and turnover rate within the industry stays high, well then we’re only treading water,” he says. “For every new chef we bring in, we’re only making up for the one that has been driven out.”



Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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