The Unsavoury Truth About Catering, from Jamie Oliver 3

Outrage erupted on various social networking sites this week after Jamie Oliver did an interview for The Observer newspaper to promote his new television programme. The quote which seems to have caused the most offence is probably a hard truth for the catering industry to accept, let alone swallow. Below are the sections unedited taken from the interview done by The Observer newspaper.

The Interviewer: That sounds like an argument for bringing back grammar schools…

Jamie Oliver: Grammar schools are old-fashioned. You can achieve the same effect with the schools we have now. When you’re unleashing students into an economy where there’s trouble with jobs, the ones who haven’t got academic verve, they need to have a basic approach to physical work. You need to be able to knock out seven 18-hour days in a row – you need to know what real fucking work is… I had that experience. By 13, I’d done 15-hour days in my dad’s pub. If I hadn’t been a chef, whatever I’d done, I’d have tried my hardest.

The Interviewer: Is that what you look for when recruiting staff for your restaurants?

Jamie Oliver: I am an employer of 350 chefs, and when it comes to the 16- to 20-year-olds we see at the moment, I’ve never experienced such a wet generation. I’m embarrassed to look at British kids. You get their mummies phoning up and saying: “He’s too tired, you’re working him too hard” – even the butch ones. Meanwhile, I’ve got bulletproof, rock-solid Polish and Lithuanians who are tough and work hard. Physical graft and grunt is something this generation is struggling with.

This may open a whole can of worms on several fronts not least the catering industry which is trying to shake off the Dickensian image which Mr Oliver seems to reinforce.

Firstly he may be landing his own family in hot water. The child labour laws were put in place to stop a slide back into exploitation of children during the Victorian era. Although Mr Oliver may take the stance of ‘I did it and it ain’t done me no harm, guv’, but fact of the matter is it’s wrong. Restrictions on where, when & for how long children work for are highly restricted, especially children which are still at school. So to say that by 13 he’d done 15 hour days could ask some questions at his parents pub, The Cricketers in Clavering, Essex.

Many people we have met from within the catering industry are highly critical of Mr Oliver & his brand (because that is what he is now). The blog however takes a more balanced view. Yes, the Jamie Oliver brand has signed up with many lucrative deals, Teflon pans, gardening seeds & plants, books, barbecue-ware, tableware, grocery shopping, iPhone app, the list just keeps going, but in our view most of these over shadow one of his greatest contributions back to society, which was the ‘Fifteen’ restaurant concept. He took 15 youngsters from various difficult social scenarios (convicted criminals, drug users & those generally abandoned by society) and installed them in a commercial venture called Fifteen. They spend an intense 18 months being tutored by experienced chefs on nine sections, with there being special events held were the students take over the entire running of the restaurant. As a business model, any financial backer would laugh at anybody who would propose such an idea. But Mr Oliver put his money where his mouth was and ploughed on. The concept was rolled out, starting in London with Cornwall, Amsterdam & Australia (now sold) following. The blog has to stipulate to those people who seem to think that it is an easy ride for the students, it isn’t. They have to stay clean and/or out of trouble to remain on the course, there is a support network including being given a direct line to Jamie himself.

So for Mr Oliver to endorse such barbarian practices as repeated 18hour days is somewhat disheartening, especially if you are considering applying for a job at Fifteen and wondering what lies in store for you. The reality of catering is that margins are tight and if a business is reliant on it’s staff consistently working excess hours then it’s just not viable. This was just one of the reasons why the blog included a question about this subject in our ‘5Questions’ to chefs. Here is just some of the replies;

Wylie Dufrense (WD-50)

Nobody at wd~50 works 100 hours, I’m happy to say.  We’re always trying to build a better mousetrap in terms of making the work day more efficient, but you can’t skirt the fact that you will work long and hard in this industry.  We encourage cooks to work smarter, not merely harder, if you become more efficient you can arrive later as you will get your prep done more quickly.

Dominic Chapman (Royal Oak, Paley Street)

I think it is completely unrealistic to expect young people to do those sorts of hours, I am sure that any kitchens making people work 100 hours per week do not get the best out of their employees and I also can’t see people remaining in their job that long.

Tom Aikens

I think its very important that chefs get to rest as much as they work, I cannot believe chefs still work 100 plus hours! I had presumed that that was only when I was training. At Tom Aikens they get 2.5 days off and at Tom’s Kitchen the chefs get about 3 days a week off. Chefs need to get proper rest when they are working long hours. We used to start at 7am at Tom Aikens but we now start at 8am then they are normally out by 11.30 pm.

So why would Mr Oliver say such an outlandish comment? Has he been talking to his Channel 4 stable mate Gordon Ramsay on how to conjure up PR? After all the interview was part of a PR push to raise awareness for his latest programme. Doubtful, after Jamie rolled his eyes at Gordon’s contribution to ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight

…And Gordon’s going swimming with sharks [with rolling eyes motion]

Maybe Mr Oliver feels that he isn’t getting enough of the limelight, after all his latest venture Barbecoa has had many critics and has clearly been over shadowed by the opening of ‘Dinner by Heston Blumenthal’.

Jamie Oliver’s outburst maybe born out of the frustration in recruiting staff & yes he may be right with a preference to eastern European employees. Any of the chefs which have done the 5Questions will all tell you the same thing, there are no shortcuts. There may be more talent but a lot of it boils down to plain hard work.

What is needed in the catering industry is a total revamp of the education system which feeds students into professional kitchens. Full time education is a pure fantasy environment, yes there are the token nights where college restaurants open to the general public for a night’s service. That’s not enough. There are plenty of glory hunters in the industry already and it doesn’t need more coming in. Whilst programmes from Heston Blumenthal are aimed more at entertainment, some young (& not so young in some cases) chefs clearly view them as educational. What they fail to understand is that the likes of Mr Blumenthal, Mr Adria & co are very rare talents and they challenge the norm, much in the way Picasso or Pollock did with art. But, like Picasso & Pollock they both have their foundations in classical techniques and know the basics.

So how do we, as an industry correct this situation?

As a proposal this will require more people to be open minded. Colleges aren’t failing students or the industry, they are teaching the curriculum to students so they pass their exams. That is their job. Many derided the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) from 20 years ago, but the results now speak for themselves. You have a generation of chefs that did their exams & theory 1 day a week & 4/5 days a week were spent doing practical work in a professional kitchen, earning a wage (all be it a meagre one at £30 a week).

Why can’t the industry do it again?

This time, take the Jamie Oliver ‘Fifteen’ blueprint of 18 months training on 9 sections around a kitchen and expand it. Give the students 4 different kitchens (banqueting, fine dining, brassiere & pastry) in a town or city not just in one hotel or restaurant, and then 6 months in each one. Give them assignments to complete which can be applied to those kitchens. In the mean time the employers could receive tax breaks as an incentive to take part & help with the wage costs.

Ultimately, despite what the industry says publicly, long hours are part of the game and privately the attitude is that if you aren’t prepared to do them then you aren’t a team player. As displayed by the stance taken by the HR department of Gordon Ramsay Holdings when fellow blogger Lennie Nash of Chef Sandwich fame applied for a job at Royal Hospital Road.

Saying that, there are the Head Chefs to throw in to the mix, to which invariably a young commis will be cannon fodder. They have to care about their junior staff and nurture them, so when a Head Chef puts on Twitter:

used to remember all my commis quotes, dont listen anymore guess just too old to care ‘cue hovis music’

It just says it all.

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3 thoughts on “The Unsavoury Truth About Catering, from Jamie Oliver

  • chumbles

    Well argued, cogent sense. Jamie O’s comments are a bit daft – I worked up to 80-90 hours a week at one point and I know that there is a tipping point where more physical hours actually means less productivity; and in the dangerous environment of a kitchen the exhaustion end of it is just asking for mental and physical trouble. But he’s right in the sense that those doing the job need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done. My long hours were often a result of someone else committing me to a deadline, but that didn’t matter – all of us looked like idiots if we didn’t meet or beat that time. It’s just that it’s counter-productive to predicate your working environment on the presumption that everyone will or can work those hours week in, week out.

    And you’re absolutely right about the educational side of it; the fact is that the education of chefs is positioned around the needs of the educational establishment and not the industry. Time for someone to revive the apprenticeship model, but across a lot of different establishments so that young learners can go across all aspects of the profession.