It was Hilton National chefs who came up with the idea of attracting raw recruits to their kitchens whom they felt they could groom to become future employees.
The nationwide dearth of newcomers willing to put on whites has not passed Hilton by and it too has suffered the tensions that labour shortages can bring. As the group's director of training and development Maria Bannon explains, the pressures produced a pragmatic solution. "Earlier this year, we were showing 84 unfilled chef vacancies across our hotels. This was affecting morale and standards. Our chefs thought the best way would be to 'grow' our own trainees. We then had to decide on a method of communicating to young people that job opportunities exist for them here."
A working party of four senior Hilton chefs was set up and they created what has now emerged as the company's Chefs' Apprenticeship Programme. By coincidence, the Government revealed its Modern Apprenticeships scheme at the same time. However, Hilton sees this as complementing rather than conflicting with its project. Bannon says: "Our scheme needs to be structured and we're using the Government initiative as a sort of umbrella."
Those invited to take part in Hilton's programme for "baby" chefs are 16- and 17-year-olds (although there is some flexibility), with a minimum of four GCSEs or equivalent. It asks that only "committed young people" apply. In return, they will receive a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ).
The company literature inviting applicants promises: "Starting as an apprentice chef you can follow a career path to become a commis chef, chef de partie, a sous chef and maybe even a head chef one day."
Throughout the 30-month programme the appprentices earn while they learn and gain useful and transferable skills. The programme can be extended a further six months for those who do not proceed at the set pace. Continuous assessment and regular feedback are hallmarks of the programme.
The pilot scheme began earlier this year and has been limited to selected hotels such as those at Edinburgh, Milton Keynes, Cobham and Bristol. By next September's start date it is hoped there will be at least one trainee chef placed at each of the 25 Hilton National hotels and at its eight associate properties.
The programme was promoted to schools within the relevant catchment zones and yielded 80 applicants. These were invited to an initial, informal interview. Assessors were looking for basic criteria such as ability to communicate and desire to work in a team, as well as evidence of commitment to becoming a chef. This might sound obvious, but it is necessary to weed out time-wasters or unfocused applicants.
From this, 39 were summoned back for a second interview. This was when assessors were given the chance to quiz applicants over their experience of teamwork. Contact with the public is also judged as important and interviewers looked for those with Saturday jobs to gauge attitudes to dealing with paying customers.
As Bannon says: "We wanted to get a feel for their ability to work with others. We also tested attitudes toward food and knowledge of the food industry. Many mentioned that they watched TV cooking shows such as Masterchef and most mentioned Gary Rhodes. A lot said how such glamorous images made the world of chefs look fun."
Hilton National's food and beverage director Mark Staples was closely involved in the recruitment drive and agrees that television exposure has had a significant impact on raising the kitchen's profile among applicants.
He says: "TV has really made the food world much more accessible. We found from applicants at the second interview that the main attractions for them were tied in with the possible glamour, the excitement, the team work, the high sense of achievement. Our task is to channel their mix of passion and expectations. Because of their exposure to the media chefs, this has created a certain image."
The structured interviews gave the opportunity to clear up nitty-gritty questions such as hours and pay and their informal atmosphere encourages applicants to ask questions.
Many expressed interest in working for Hilton National's international big brother, and were told that if employees win their spurs with National, it's easier to cross to Hilton International than if they were outsiders.
Most applicants were concerned with more immediate needs, however. As Bannon recalls: "The majority wanted to work locally and that's understandable given that they are all quite young. They did ask about salary and we could tell them that it was a nationwide rate of £120 per week for each apprentice.
"We were also looking to test them on a deeper, more technical knowledge of food. We also had to find out about attitudes to working weekends or times such as New Year's Eve. A lot of young people are unaware of the job's unsocial element. So we tell them in detail about all aspects, including the fun side."
From this second batch of 39, just 15 were offered places on the apprenticeship scheme. Most were 16- and 17-year-olds, although there was one 18-year-old and a 19-year-old. There were just two females and one of these has already been poached by another employer.
For those considering applying for next year's scheme, Staples has some tips on what potential recruits should be doing in the interim. He says: "They should be trying to cook different dishes at home. They should take a real interest in what working chefs are doing.
"They should buy Caterer & Hotelkeeper and know what's happening in the industry, and should try to get some work experience. They could even apply for a Saturday job at their local Hilton National!" n