Autumn 2008: Tripling the efforts

08/10/2008 10:10
With full commitment to keeping the momentum going, supporters of the Applied Ability Awards programme are stepping up their efforts to raise skill levels and set benchmarks for the hospitality industry

Britain's chefs are being urged to “grow their own” in a bid to tackle the skills crunch facing the nation's hospitality industry. More than 20% of applicants for chef posts now lack the required skills and experience needed for a kitchen.

Staff turnover is estimated to be costing the industry a staggering £886m a year and there have even been warnings that the failure to entice new, able recruits could harm London's hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games.

Now a major drive to raise skills and set benchmarks for the whole industry is gaining ground, with chefs in the workplace taking the lead role. High profile companies across the UK are tackling the problem using the Applied Ability Awards – practical awards for professional chefs, designed and delivered by chefs. Organisations including Malmaison, Hotel du Vin and De Vere Luxury Hotels, have taken the view that the only way to raise standards and close the worrying skills gap is to “grow their own” talent – and it is an approach that is starting to reap benefits in the kitchen and in businesses.

The Applied Ability Awards – also known as Triple A – combines on the job mentorship with a final, independent practical exam and is a return to some of the disciplines and attitudes of old style apprenticeships that served the industry so well in the past.

The Triple A's development has been championed by top chefs such as its founder Prue Leith, who says: “I'm delighted to see the Triple A gathering momentum because it's all about chefs taking charge and putting their own house in order. It's no surprise to me that a number of hugely successful hotel brands are leading the way because the Triple A isn't a magic bullet – it's a purpose-built tool for those with the wit and gumption to get ahead.”

The scheme is now managed by the British Food Trust on behalf of a circle of chefs representing the professional associations of the UK and Ireland.

The Academy of Culinary Arts, Association Culinaire Française, British Culinary Federation, Craft Guild of Chefs, Federation of Scottish Chefs, Masterchefs of Great Britain, the Panel of Chefs Ireland and the Welsh Culinary Association have all joined forces to oversee delivery of the Triple A. The result is a professional qualification for chefs, designed and delivered by the industry for the industry.

Scott Antony of the British Food Trust says: “We're now into the second year of a set-up programme supported by the Edge Foundation and recently saw the 100th award achieved against an overall pass rate of 66%. We've also had our first candidate through at both levels, foundation and advanced, and he has now become a Triple A mentor himself.”

Growing numbers of companies see Triple A as an investment in the future – training staff to the standard they require, creating a structure for internal improvement and career development and tackling the skills and retention shortage that could threaten future growth and profits.

As well as “growing its own chefs” the industry is also setting benchmarks that are defining, developing and promoting craft skills. Sean Wheeler, group director of people development at Malmaison & Hotel du Vin, which has more than 20 establishments across the UK, is delighted his company adopted Triple A for its in-house training and with the benefits it is now seeing.

He says: “Our group was growing apace and we realized that we wanted to grow our chefs, attract talent to the business and retain them. We looked at what was out there and when we came across Triple A we liked what we saw. It is very practical and is designed for chefs by chefs. It hit all the right buttons. It is on the job, relevant and is going back to the apprenticeship approach.

“We also liked the fact that there was an end result in terms of the exams. There's a lot of back to basics about it, which was also important, and it has been really helpful in encouraging our head chefs to support and grow their people. I'd thoroughly recommend it to other groups developing like ourselves; they will really benefit from it.”

Keith Shearer, group executive chef for De Vere Luxury Hotels, is convinced of the benefits of Triple A and is working at introducing it into all 12 of De Vere's establishments. “Training and development in De Vere hotels is not a cost, it is an investment in the future success of our kitchen culture, he says. “I believe the single most important reason why we lose staff is through not developing our chefs and meeting their career expectations.

“Because of de- skilling and the fact there are fewer people, you can end up promoting someone because you are frightened of losing them, rather than because they have earned the right for that position. With the Triple A we can go back to basics and properly motivate chefs through a programme based on craft skills as opposed to boring paper trails.

“We see the AAA as being a big incentive to us in the recruitment of chefs. We want to try and get them at a young age and install a great passion for food and the skills of the kitchen. All our junior chefs promotions will be based on how they perform in their AAA exams.

“The message is that gaining knowledge and ability will bring greater rewards further down the line. Chefs are passionate about their subject, it is infectious and young chefs will be inspired by that through the mentoring they receive. We want to give every chef the opportunity to fulfil their passion by giving them a really good grounding.

“Some 20 years ago British Transport Hotels were a great place to start a career, a superb base to go on to Michelin restaurants or to work overseas. We want to try to replicate that training and the learning culture those great hotels had.”

Rob Dant, 28, who now holds both Triple A qualifications and has become a Triple A mentor, is a sous chef at Christ's Hospital in West Sussex, which is part of Chartwells. He says: “It was worthwhile and definitely a positive experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If I'm ever in the situation where I'm looking at people's CVs I'd definitely be looking for the Triple A. It sets the standard; you know what your are getting.”

Donald McInnes, group support head chef for Malmaison & Hotel du Vin adds: “The people who have established the Triple A in our company did so after coming to the conclusion that skills in the kitchen were becoming so depleted something had to be done.

“We have missed a whole generation of chefs whose basic skill level is not that of past decades. It just needs one or two guys in the kitchen to do it and become mentors then it becomes ingrained. They are learning how to teach and that has fantastic benefits. It boosts their confidence and it brings everyone's standards up.

“Others see what's happening and want to be part of it. They see that they need these qualifications in order to progress; it gives a healthy competitive edge in the kitchen. Basically we are telling new recruits who come into the company: we will train you and look after you and you will develop. The firm is hugely committed to this; it is important to our future. Things have to change because if they don't, in 10 years' time we will have people as head chefs who can't portion a chicken.”

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