Creative recipes needed to cure chef shortage

Unique benefits, great culture, partnerships can help recruit, retain talented food workers
By Karen and Ross Horton
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/02/2018
The biggest problem full- and quick-service restaurants are facing is experienced chefs are beginning to look outside the industry for new opportunities. Credit: sirtravelalot (Shutterstock)

The chef shortage in Canada has been well-documented in recent years, from British Columbia all the way to Newfoundland and Labrador.

But “shortage” is labelling the situation all wrong. In reality, there are many fiercely talented, hard-working chefs all across Canada. Employers just have to take the right steps to find and retain them.

Changing tastes

The biggest problem full- and quick-service restaurants are facing is experienced chefs are beginning to look outside the industry for new opportunities.

As the number of fine dining options continues to rise, so do alternative job options for chefs. Corporate gigs at tech companies, airlines, upscale nursing homes, grocery markets, hotels, casino groups, and catering are all too tempting for a chef who is looking for better hours, better treatment, and better money.

But restaurants can take steps to recruit and retain top talent. The biggest complaint from chefs is the lack of higher, more liveable wages. Cooks are working long, gruelling hours and are rewarded with pay that is usually lower than other skilled trades.

If there is any wiggle room in an employer’s budget to offer chefs and cooks a higher hourly wage or switch to a salaried system, that is the quickest way to cure the chef “shortage.”

However, this may not be an option for many restaurant owners and operators. So here are some tips from innovative restaurant owners and managers across North America on how to not only recruit, but also retain high-quality chefs:

Offer unique benefits

Depending on the type of restaurant and its location, an employer can be creative with the benefits it offers.

These can be simple, low-cost benefits (based on key performance indicators or KPIs) that allow a team to grow and stay educated or help them subsidize the cost of working in a kitchen.

In an effort to set themselves apart, creative restaurateurs are now offering new benefits, such as gym memberships, pet insurance or comfortable shoes.

These perks can also include a bi-weekly or monthly trip to other successful restaurants nearby to give the back-of-house team a chance to bond outside of an oft-stressful kitchen environment, and expand their knowledge of different types of cuisine. As an added bonus, this also supports other local business owners.

On a larger scale, offering star employees a fantasy food trip comparable to a sabbatical can aid in attracting top talent to a kitchen.

Cooking is a passion-based career, and employers can appeal to a chef’s desire to continue their learning and fulfill lifelong food dreams by offering a performance-based, long-term goal of a food-based travel incentive.

There’s also been an uptick in offering equity within the restaurant.

Create great culture

Not only will staff stay in their jobs longer when they feel valued, they will also recommend their restaurant to their friends and former colleagues as an ideal place to work.

Back-of-house leaders should always be included in weekly or monthly manager meetings, and asked about how they think the business can be improved.

A culture of respect and growth — one that focuses on professional development — can be cultivated by offering an apprenticeship or mentorship program.

Employers should work with back-of-house, seasoned veterans to create a program for growth and development. From dishwashers to line cooks, they can entice new hires by pairing them with a dedicated chef and providing a path to becoming an integral part of the team.

Employers can also provide staff with full or partial tuition reimbursement for obtaining their Red Seal designation, and paid days off for exams in exchange for an agreement to stay for a least a year after completion. With this, a graduation gift of a set of knives can be a special touch that will be remembered.

Finding balance between work and life outside of work is becoming a priority, particularly for the newer generation of millennial workers, so whenever possible, it’s also a good idea to offer two consecutive days off per week.

Work with available resources

For restaurant owners or managers, far too many things are piled up on their to-do list throughout the week. From scheduling, training, ordering food and equipment, to running the floor during service, recruitment and retention are never the only thing on their plate.

Thankfully, there are several resources restaurant owners can lean on to help fill empty positions.

First, find a professional hospitality recruiter to work with. They are trained in both crafting job listings that showcase how attractive a position is, and quickly bring in a pool of the best available candidates.

Second, it’s important to communicate information on a job opportunity through all available avenues. Discuss it with current staff, talk with connections in and out of the industry, post it on social media, and shout it from the rooftops.

Even further, employers should get involved at the beginning by working with local culinary schools and local colleges. Ask them if they need a guest lecturer and offer to create opportunities to mentor students.

Employers should stay in touch with the school so when it has a graduating class, an open position is put in front of the students. Partnering with high schools can also help identify young, emerging talent.

Passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Sharing your love of the hospitality industry will create positive change from within.

Karen Horton and Ross Horton are regional developers at hospitality recruitment firm Patrice and Associates in Niagara Falls, Ont. For more information, visit

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