Cooking channels & chef apprenticeships

Tv killed the apprentice chef?

Remember the 80s pop hit Video Killed the Radio Star? In the chefs’ profession, it was TV that created the celebrity chef but at the same time, killed the apprentice.

I blame Ready Steady Cook and the likes

Cooking shows have been around since the early days of TV – you could watch a great French chef, or England’s Fanny Cradock or Julia Child in the US, cook in front of the camera with passion and great ingredients, and you could learn something – but the likes of Ready Steady Cook turned chefs into entertainers and game show contestants.

Cue an avalanche of TV cookery programmes, reality shows, cook-offs and competitions, dedicated food channels and networks, and enter the celebrity chef: stardom, newfound wealth and new avenues to generate income through cookbooks, appearances, endorsements and chains of restaurants.

The upside was that it made many chefs wealthy, in a profession not usually associated with money and early retirement. Before the celebrity era, even the best chefs were more likely to be working until they were 70, breaking their backs over a stove day in and day out.

The downside is it created a new generation of chefs who want to cut straight to opening a restaurant, getting a Michelin star, a TV gig and a Porsche. They’re in it for the wrong reasons.

Never mind cooking every day, deepening your skills, honing your craft, because you’ve a passion and a flair for cooking – now it’s straight to the money and the TV and forget about learning the craft. That’s bad for our industry.

Don’t get me wrong, it was great for a few years. TV chefs were respected, and they were very skilled at what they were doing, but then we hit the “boy band era” of the late 90s and if you were good looking, had a bit of personality and could boil an egg or grill a piece of fish, you got yourself a show.

Some of them were very good, others were an embarrassment and there’s no way they should ever have been trying to teach people how to appreciate food and to cook.

There’s a positive in more young people being attracted to cooking as a career and that’s potentially good for our industry, but not when they’re in it just to become famous.

Chefs used to aspire to train and move up through the ranks – and they knew that it could well be a decade of backbreaking, soul-crushing slog to earn your Chef de Cuisine title, and they were committed and dedicated to doing whatever it took to get there.

Now, they want to be chefs because they see getting onto TV cooking programmes as their route to fame and fortune.

That in turn has attracted a different kind of person to the cooking colleges and culinary schools. They leave college with a chef’s jacket and a set of sexy knives, and they’re not interested in summer jobs, they don’t think they need to start out as a commis or demi chef de partie – they believe they’ve somehow earned a jump straight to sous chef and their own TV show.

This isn’t a sour grapes rant over people who want to work seven-hour shifts, with lunchbreaks and days’ off, compared to the 20-hour, 7-days-a-week working like dogs to pay for staging or Cooking school fees and put in the time to earn your stripes that the older generation of chefs experienced.

It matters because it’s not good for the industry.

Firstly, it’s made filling the lower positions in the kitchen very difficult, as those fresh out of college want to skip the commis and demi jobs and jump straight to chef de partie even though they have no experience. Advertise a lower position and you’ll often have no applicants; but advertise a chef de partie or junior sous chef position and you’ll get people at commis level applying.

Quite simply, you can’t have a kitchen where most people are at the same level. The brigade system exists for good reason – you can’t have two chefs de partie running the same section; and you’re always going to need those who peel the potatoes, stock the pantry, plate the soup and, yes, wash the dishes. (And if they show their willingness to learn, their commitment, and grow their skills, they won’t be doing that forever.)

It also pushes your wage bill through the roof.

Secondly, a chef straight out of college likely hasn’t travelled, hasn’t eaten much in other restaurants, hasn’t experienced different types of cuisines and cultures – they lack the depth of personal experience, knowledge, insight, the things that enable a chef to innovate.

Lack of experience also means they’re less able to think on their feet, to handle the curveballs, the kitchen crises, the business ups and downs that this industry will always throw at you.

They’re also not equipped to train and mentor those coming up behind them, because they’re still on the bottom rung themselves.

Too many chefs and not enough workers and assistants means there’s not enough depth in the “talent pipeline”, and pressure on the wage bill results in possibly employing fewer people, running a leaner and less effective kitchen and, ultimately, compromising on quality to the customer.

And that all adds up to a less than sustainable business – and fewer opportunities for young chefs.

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