A University of Queensland researcher believes “toxic kitchen culture” is partly to blame for a predicted shortage of almost 60,000 chefs in Australia by 2023.
About 80 apprentices interviewed in Brisbane and Melbourne, aged between 17 and their mid-30s, had experienced sexual violence threats, bullying and intimidation tactics that led to “fearfulness” in their job. Apprentices from Sydney would be interviewed in the coming weeks to add to the data being collected by associate professor and UQ research fellow Richard Robinson.
He had interviewed more than 40 chefs in the past year, including TAFE cookery teachers, for the ongoing analysis into the mental health and wellbeing of chefs. Robinson said the culture was partly to blame for high staff turnover rates and apprentices leaving the industry, following baby boomers retiring and the natural decline of enrolments.
His research, funded by William Angliss Institute, showed hospitality had one of the lowest retention rates of any industry.
“What we’ve increasingly discovered through our research is mental health and wellbeing with chefs, is they are extremely vulnerable and threatened by this toxic kitchen culture,” Dr Robinson said.
Pushing people to the edge
Dr Robinson said research from the Department of Jobs and Small Business labour market research and analysis branch this year showed there would be a shortage of 59,500 chefs by 2023.
Dr Robinson, who spent 18 years as a chef and food service manager, said mental health trauma being caused by this culture was “tipping people off the edge”. “It’s hard enough working in kitchens where employees are standing over a stove for hours and feeling hot, sweaty and time pressured,” he said. There are aspects that are never going to change, and the occupation is stressful enough so this toxic kitchen culture is only adding an extra and unneeded layer on top of that.” Dr Robinson said the culture needed to change to avoid a shortage of chefs.
The data is showing us that a chef leaves the industry about five years after getting their qualification and that’s a huge investment,” he said. “The other factor is the number of apprenticeship commencements is declining rapidly. The startling statistic at the moment is that about 30 per cent of apprentices who commence training don’t complete it.”
Industry says tertiary education expectations, not toxic culture, is the issue
Restaurant and Catering Australia chief executive Wes Lambert said the 60,000 shortfall figure was lower than he expected, but he did not believe it was due to a toxic culture.
“Hospitality will see a shortage of over 120,000 staff from front and back of house due mainly to the well-advertised national attitudes towards VET [Vocational Education and Training] and TAFE and funding, especially from the government, for people to go to higher education,” he said.
“This is how us, as an industry, are seeing and hearing from our members as well as all organisations that monitor it.
“The drop of students are just being misused and being directed to universities for other reasons unrelated to what the researcher may have noticed.
“It’s a stretch to go from 80 apprentices divided by the expected 123,000 shortages, which is the largest of any industry, is such a tiny sample size.”
Mr Lambert said there were fewer enrolments in TAFE, cooking and hospitality courses.
“The slowdown in immigration due to current immigration law is another reason why we don’t have enough skilled workers.
“To say a toxic kitchen culture is the reason for the decrease is not what the industry is telling us.
Mr Lambert said industry had improved in recent years and mental health was “certainly on the radar” of restaurant owners, HR departments and businesses.
Work pressures and bullying
However, Australian Culinary Federation Queensland president Bruno Gentile said a mixture of toxic kitchen culture, workload and personal challenges were ongoing issues that restaurant owners were battling.
“Pressures of work itself and individuals turning to drugs and alcohol and experiencing bad mental health are relevant issues that associations are trying to address,” he said.
I think people are now employing more chefs in the kitchen to reduce those crazy hours,” he said.
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