Will the furore surrounding Gordon Ramsay affect the whole sector? If so, how can it rehabilitate its image as an employer of choice? Chris Druce reports
Gordon Ramsay has been called many things, but being accused of racism in a national newspaper probably still prompted a few choice F-words from the usually thick-skinned chef.
A tribunal will now rule on whether there is a case for Ramsay to answer, or if he and an employee at his eponymous London restaurant should be exonerated from the claim that they racially abused kitchen porter Tama Siby.
It's an ugly situation that will live on in the public's consciousness long after the details, and even the outcome, of the case have faded away.
But for a public often happy to accept the tough image of kitchen work sold to them via TV to win ratings, will it be yet another black mark against the idea of hospitality as a sector in which people want to work?
Long and tough
Long hours, tough conditions, split shifts, low pay, abuse and discrimination seem to be accepted by many as what working in the hospitality industry is all about.
But, for every person happy to work 18-hour days in the hope of catching the eye of a Michelin-starred chef, there are probably many more who will opt for a more comfortable alternative, despite having skills and a passion for the industry.
This is a problem for an industry that needs hundreds of thousands of new employees in time for the 2012 Olympics. The question now is whether the "employer brand" of hospitality can be rehabilitated in time.
Sara Edwards, vice-president of human resources at the Maybourne Group, owner of Claridge's, certainly believes so, arguing that the kitchen as ordeal by fire is now something of an anachronism.
In fact, she told delegates at last week's Hotel and Catering Personnel and Training Association awards, the quality of hospitality staff is now such that rival industries are actively attempting to poach them.
If the financial services and telecoms sectors recognise the high standards of training the hospitality industry is delivering, why do these still appear to be a well-kept secret among the public at large?
Edwards admitted that there remained a problem of how hospitality markets itself, and argued that the industry needed to learn lessons from retailers, airlines and cruise line operators about how to compete better in the job market - for example, by improving internal communications.
"One of the first things I did when I joined Claridge's in 1999 was to introduce an employee satisfaction survey to find out the issues that needed addressing," she said. "Simple enough, perhaps, but many employers in hospitality remain afraid of asking staff what they think, fearing some sort of Pandora's box consequence."
Karen Black, partner and head of employment law at solicitors Boodle Hatfield, agreed that the perception was somewhat different from the reality, but insisted that there was no evidence that hospitality was any less respectful than other sectors in its treatment of staff.
She said that you would hear as much if not more swearing on a City trading floor as in a kitchen, and that discrimination was far more prevalent in other industries, such as construction.
"I think the image of working in hospitality is certainly something that needs to be addressed in the run-up to the Olympics, especially as bad press can have a direct effect on a restaurant or hotel's bottom line, much more so than a scandal at an investment bank," Black said.
"The problem, demonstrated by the Ramsay case, is that - as we have become obsessed with celebrity, and chefs have become part of this - the media has naturally looked at running chef stories, which paints an unfair picture of the industry as an employer."
But it is not only the image problem that hospitality must tackle. Research in all sectors by City & Guilds has found that chefs are among the unhappiest workers in the UK by vocation, with the lack of recognition and training cited as major factors.
This did not surprise Edwards. "The industry still struggles with investing in staff through training," she said. "Too many employers don't want to do it, as they fear employees will leave to go to the competition, which is so short-sighted. In my view, staff stay, and it boosts your reputation as a good employer no end."
It is up to employers to send the message that hospitality can be a great place to work, according to Darrin Sinclair, product manager for City & Guilds Catering and Hospitality. He pointed out that, with a shortfall of 60,000 qualified chefs in the UK, they could progress very quickly and expect to earn a wage comparable to those in other vocational industries at an early age.
"The hotel and catering industry has suffered from an image problem for years," he said. "The common belief is that all chefs, except the very best, are badly paid, badly treated and they work horrendous hours. The reality is a lot more positive. Fully qualified chefs, front of house staff, baristas, sommeliers and waiting staff have never been more in demand."
Have your say
Click here to e-mail your comments.