Tony Lewis, Chief Ambassador, North West
The answer isn’t simple, as a career in something isn’t easy I guess, and maybe that’s the difference between a job, and a career?
25 years in anything is probably the prime years that you would do in anything right?
I started in hospitality at 15, and between the odd interview here and there, and a podcast my story/career is sort of out there. But only up until the pandemic. And that’s where it changed quite a lot.
I started in the industry at the ripe old age of 15, I was so wet behind the ears, on my first day, I actually put the food delivery back ON the delivery van rather than run it up to the kitchen, looking back I’ve come a long way.
I saw my first GM- a passionate, driven, tower of a man's man, driven to the edge. It made me think how or why at the time - why is he SO loud, why does he have a fucking twitch? Later, I wondered what demands are that pushed him to that place. But now, from whe
re I have been to, what I have seen, opening after opening, menu launch after menu launch, hour after hour, hotel room after hotel, the let down, the drama, the screw over after screw over, and my god spread sheet after spread sheet, I get it.
Without sounding cliche, I love food. The smell, the colours, the textures flavours, sounds while cooking, the seasons, the effort of simplicity, the overwork of “complexity”, the symbol of love it represents, the reason to be around a table together, the ice breaker on a first date to Planet Hollywood - I love it, always will. But, I have to work at it every single day for other people's reward and sadly, my erosion. Why should we as chefs HAVE to sign the opt out working time directive? Well that bit I’m not so sure.
When I started in the industry, the influences around at the time were not people who inspired me, unless you had the opportunity to work with some seriously influential chefs in the UK, the ones on tv were not paving the way for a healthy mindset, I was impressed by the food or the venues they commanded. I wanted to understand the technique of cooking, style of plating, confidence of ingredients, seasonal produce, passion for product and its compliments. But, I wasn’t motivated to be them. Where was the message? The delivery or even the long lasting typecast it leaves behind?
College couldn’t really answer that either. Enrolling in a food tech local to me was the obvious route, I didn’t want to be a steakhouse chef forever, I wanted to learn, I found a course that suited me, part theory, part practical, and part time, at my pace could earn on the side, but who’s teaching me? A bitter ex military chef, underfunded, underpaid, broken by systems and old curriculum, that doesn’t really want to be there. It seemed he just shouted at kids with very little common sense that put deliveries back on the van rather than up the stairs, but fuck me, who learns by being screamed at? A few weeks in, I wasn’t learning, I knew absolutely no one there, had a tutor that couldn't engage, and was sadly a pupil that wouldn’t engage.
Jump forward to only a few years ago, 2019 offered my biggest role outside of celebrity Italian ones. A role that meant no isolation of train or travel, or feeling isolated even in a full restaurant, one that on paper seems around people and menu development, structure and forward thinking. I’m in love. It was heartbreaking to move on after five years as Exec chef of a brilliant multi site venue, daytime hours, reasonable work life balance, and menu creativity, but, I had been offered more, and felt there was no more to offer a business that wanted to stand still, I took on the role of group exec chef, financially a great position, and a food style I knew I could make a great modern impact with. I had the structure and controls to take the business forward, I couldn’t wait to start, it was like it’s too good to be true…
I was in the business only four months and I could clearly see the role was probably a mistake. It sadly sold something that just isn’t up for offer, the hours were incredibly long, not just shock one off week, or “get around this milestone” long, but relentless, six and even seven days a week to keep some of the pressure at bay. I was making headway in the structure and menu demands required and started to see the benefits, but the hours weren’t sustainable neither were the cultures of expectancy or relentless demand. It wasn’t going to go well, I had to make a choice.
March 2020 came and BoJo said his thing, we went into furlough and I was home, I would like to say recovering from the hours, but I was back at work, not just working from home, with spreadsheets, reports and more infrastructure, but now homeschooling, for three, all at different ages, all at different demands, I felt like I’d been put on ice, and set on fire, what was happening?
I felt lucky, grateful to the government for supporting me, I had a role post lockdown, I had a job paying me to stay safe, financially this is stable and doable, but what of the working from home? Should I? Do I agree to this for a greater good and future investment for my role, teams of chefs or just tell them no? Many of my fellow chefs across the UK are literally losing jobs that didn’t wait for furlough. I have a job, am stable and being supported, this isn’t a time to rock the boat is it?
But why is this relentless now from home under restrictions? I’m receiving 10-20 calls per day from chefs asking for work, how can I help? No one is “working” there are no kitchens open, it's just planning, building for the return, but why do I feel just as busy with a closed business as I did with an open one?
Meanwhile, my wife is working in a supermarket, a lot, making sure what happens round the corner we are financially stable, being screamed at on the daily, “why isn’t there a mountain of loo roll?” Or “This is a joke - why is all the pasta sold out?!” Running around trying to support the local community who quite frankly on the whole, went chaotic, aggressive and negative, and after a 12 hour shift of that, has 20 people an evening calling, texting and messaging on social media; find my son/sister/brother/Mum/Dad ANYONE a job - I feel helpless, she can’t help me in my demand of work or home schooling, or no break, will I have a job next week and what is happening to this industry, and I can hardly help her for her emotional stress, relentless hours and financial pressure. Something has gotta give.
Then I found something online. Who’s this guy on about mental health in hospitality? In kitchens? How can I be involved?
The Burnt Chef Project was starting to show on my social media, and immediately I got it. Totally on point with delivery, sharing peoples struggles eliminating stigma and offering training in mental health amongst the cool merch, I wanted to be involved. I saw it as an opportunity to share a burden, support a well needed cause and bang a drum that has been desperately needed for decades. Not only that whilst being an Exec chef for a group this could massively help all the chefs in my venues as we head in and out of lockdown madness. It could offer support and help recognise the signs/struggles I’ve understood of myself over the years. I’m in. This needs to be heard.
I trained in mental health awareness via TBCP, quite frankly I could have done with the rest bite rather than study, I’m proper busy, but this isn’t about me, it's about every chef over 25 years that I’ve ever met that said “last week was hard, but it's a bit easier now” or “I’m alright” when they really weren’t. “ I just need to get through the next x/y/z milestone, and I’ll be fine,” Including me.
After three months of the above chaos, open, closed, furlough, working from home, almost as many hours as a normal working week, the calls, the emails, the greater good mentality, the chef zooms, the management calls, the daily reports, the typing, the home schooling, the mathematic equations, the spelling checks, the Biff Chip and Kipper books, my wife working around the clock either on the supermarket shop floor, or on call at night, the relentless messages of desperation of those asking for work - fuck, can I just go back to work normally now?
My role was eventually up for review - I saw this coming, last in first out right? Hardly easy to hear, although it's not quite that short - I’m offered a Head Chef role in Leeds - Leeds!? I live the South side of Manchester that’s maybe 3 hours drive a day, plus my role, plus the HC role, I’ve been rinsed enough this past 7/8 months, It's not my message of delivery I want to portray for my chefs, or managers FOH - I think I’ll pass, surely there is something else out there, even if someone just wants a HC role at a decent venue I can find that at least, and see what comes up from that?
There is, and local, and sustainable, ok, seems logical then? Too good to be true maybe?
I start a role as HC, and clearly this place has dropped a Hc for a reason, the venue is lovely, menu seems straightforward, but the kitchen cleanliness, well, I can work on that, lets get that canopy silver instead of yellow, and get the fridges free of mould first…
This kitchen needs more than a wipe over, it's been in lockdown with fridges shut off for six months, it's not a pretty picture, one of the rational doors needs rugby tackling to close or it doesn’t cook, the fridges have all been broken internally so you can only store on the bottom of any section fridge, with no runners or shelves anywhere, everything is stacked (badly) on the bottom shelf, I’m no contortionist at 6ft tall so this is painful to say the least, but again, here we are, for the greater good, sort the kitchen, get it clean, have the kit repaired, it’ll look new in a month…
OK, so i'm a LITTLE optimistic to get it sorted in a month, but it's clean now, I’ve thrown more food away than I ever want to, but we all had to at certain points of lockdown, many found charities to send food too, some would take the items and break them down and distribute, there are plenty of companies now that sort foods for various charities everyone in hospitality had to find them, and there were only one or two that could come to you, and at times they couldn’t accept as they were overwhelmed with supply, and many shared meal pre-prepared with NHS across the UK, as it was the best way to share where we all could.
Not everyone saw it that way, and it's well publicised that many venues saw it as their product to choose what they do with it, covered by insurance many just threw it away as it was paid to be discarded, rightly or wrongly, it is their choice with their foods.
Six long months of, “are we open this week, or are we closed?” Rugby tackling the oven, going to the bottom of EVERY fridge 150 times per day at 6ft tall is taking its toll, I’m not 21 anymore, man my back is reminding me of this fact, on days off I can’t stand up straight, I look hunched, at best having 2 days off back to back I can stand strait by day 2, at worst, I have to ask my kids to put my shoes on to go to work, or get them to take them off when I’m returning home, now my shoulder aches, I’m doing 60-70hrs per week, only me and one other chef in daily unless it's Saturday, running 3 sections, including KP, who made all the sections SO far apart?! 20,000 steps per day isn’t high is it? Over a 13hr shift? I'm sure they will want the fridges and the oven in the best place when we come out of yoyo lockdown? Surely these will be fixed?
So a former recruiter I used in the past has called me - “why don’t you put your mind into better use? Join recruitment? The work will need chefs to get into the right place when it opens up, why waste it behind a stove?”
He’s not wrong, it's a sound idea, what could I bring to recruitment? As chefs we all do our own recruitment, but this is different, this is driving a new way forward for a recruitment company, make it my own, show them what it's missing, how we can get it right, different better slicker, does my suit still fit?
Chef perception has changed, over the past 18 months, we have always been talented, dedicated, passionate, driven, able to hold the pressure, deliver, constantly sacrifice something, either diet, sleep, family, relationships, we always are prepared to give, or give up something for the guest, that next tables order, that managers request, that last booking of the night, but what I want to give up giving something up?
Enough sacrifice, enough missing family, or even being able to stand, if it's not right for you, why let it take you too? Sometimes it's just about knowing your self worth, you know? I love this industry, immensely, but want to be able to enjoy it for a long long time, not end up a bitter chef trainer washed up in some college, or not be able to stand but still give my all at the stove, what if the promise you make to yourself is that a kitchen deserves you at your best, unless it can balance all of those things and keep you, you, then it's not worth it, but my recruitment role can do that, can give me balance, drive, passion, creativeness, ability to grow, progression, be able to develop the business, it's not all take, so this is worth giving it what I can.
But it's not just a change of job is it? My career, my lifestyle, what do I do if the change of pace doesn’t work? What if I hate it? What if they think I’m useless at it? One day at a time…
Has the chef perception changed? Yes, absolutely, have salaries changed, yes, I notice now that salaries coming out of lockdown last year were less than what was being offered going into it “due to covid” which was a huge mistake trying to capitalise on being closed hoping chefs were desperate enough to take roles backfired, its taught chefs over the past year that they are worth more, salaries are increasing, and that if they hold their nerve the value they demand will be recognised, but so are the hours, if its £2k more per year next door, but the hours every week are 20 more than agreed, are you worth only 48 pence per hour to a venue? Chefs choose wisely.
I have mentioned many times over the past three months as we get back to a new world normality, there isn’t a lack of chefs, yes Brexit happened, yes business fired chefs before offering furlough, but there isn’t an issue of a lack of chefs, it's a lack of integrity, the past 18 months has taught chefs they are going to be dropped, not thought of, demanded of an extra 20 hours per week more than contracted, without recognition or overtime, there isn’t a lack of chefs, we just need to make sure we care about them in a way that has actually never happened in my 25 years so far.
Its teaching them to take the same steps that has been taken to them, they now realise they DO hold the cards, the chef is needed more than the venue, now they know it, value starting to work in the chefs favour, and so it should, but be careful what you build, it's a flammable house of cards, with a banging plate of food at the table.
I love this industry, and giving my worth to ANY business or individual now is more valuable than ever, my choice is clear, grow into something that is rewarding, and not consuming, if it doesn’t see how to grow with you it's probably time to let it go, give yourself time and space to be creative, that doesn’t always mean on a plate, that can also mean in life, a personal project, building your own business - choose your hustle right, your time you have is more valuable than any venue you think you can gazump for an extra quid, so be open, clear and up front, it's your only chance to hold your own values not just what you want as a financial value.