Don't exploit the new talent

Thursday 16th October 2008 00:00

The Michelin-starred chefs who ignored the placement requests of a catering student show just how far the industry needs to go in promoting skills, according to David James, creative director at contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell

An associate of mine recently finished his qualifications at Henley College and, to his delight, was offered one of only six places at Westminster College to do a professional pâtisserie scholarship.

This partnership between college and employers involves the student gaining a placement and working three weeks out of four, while attending college every fourth week, for two years. In return, the salary required was just £6,000. My associate - I'll call him David - was ecstatic.

On the basis of a personal recommendation from a chef, he rang a notable local restaurant and spoke to the head chef, requesting a meeting of 10 minutes. On hearing that a salary was required, he was met with the response of: "We have people queuing up to work here for free - why would we want to pay?"

Slightly deflated, but undeterred, David tried a different tack. He wrote a letter outlining his needs and hand-delivered it to seven restaurants, along with some home-made praline. The letter ended with a request for a 10-minute meeting along with the promise of more handmade treats.

The response was astonishing - on every level. One head chef rang and offered him a job on the spot: someone who was clearly unwilling to let such innovation and enthusiasm - as well as the ability to make great praline - pass him by. Three others rang him the same day and arranged interviews. All four offered him a job, all at more than the requested salary, including one who offered double.

But three other chefs did not bother replying, even to say no. And here's the interesting bit: all three are proudly endorsed by Michelin stars.

Clearly these top-named chefs do not feel the need to encourage new talent and, heaven forbid, pay for it. Perhaps their youth was spent in kitchens where hours and conditions were gruelling, working for nothing and certainly not expecting thanks - but I thought we had moved on from that.

Are we really prepared to be an industry that demands respect and admiration for our culinary efforts, but is prepared to exploit those who will be our successors to achieve it?

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