A career as a chef is appealing to so many people due to the exciting and challenging work environment. Most newcomers entering the trade are prepared for the hard work that will follow, but can be caught off guard by the unexpected challenges which chefs have to face.
That’s where this article comes in! We highlight the biggest challenges faced by chefs, so we can be better prepared when they come our way; after all we all know that prior preparation prevents poor performance!
Modern chefs face many challenges such as high competition levels, a knowledgeable customer base and high staff turnover to name just a few. We will look at these issues and others in more detail
I have focused on the career specific challenges rather than the personal challenges a chef will come up against. If readers are interested in a compilation of the personal challenges, such as long hours and maintaining relationships, I will link to our article 12 disadvantages of being a chef which covers these topics in detail.
So without further ado, here are the top challenges faced by chefs.
Today’s customers are far more knowledgeable and aware of what constitutes good cuisine. Gone are the days when a restaurant was able to make a customer feel like they were the uneducated one if they didn’t enjoy their meal.
Have you ever been in a restaurant and sent the veg back because it is too hard? Only for the waiter to return with instructions from the chef that it is ‘Al Dente’. Some rogue chefs would play on the fact that they could tell the customer what they should be enjoying!
Now however, with so much access to information, and people going out to eat far more often, the general customer base is a lot wiser, and a lot more demanding, when it comes to what they expect for their money.
This is generally a good thing, the rogue chef who did a poor job and tried to tell the customer they were wrong harms the industry. However, there can now be a situation where every customer feels they are a food critic and a damaging online review is only a few clicks away, even if it is unfair.
Trip Advisor, Google Reviews, Yelp. These are all great places where the general public can share reviews about the meals they have enjoyed, or not enjoyed in some cases.
For some restaurants building a strong presence via reviews online can be beneficial. However, this does present some challenges to chefs.
- Customers can be quicker to write a bad review than a good one, leading to an unfair overall impression of a restaurant.
- Reviews can be fake. Fake reviews take the form of getting friends and family to post positives about a restaurant, or in more sinister cases, posting fake negative reviews about a rival restaurant.
Generally, online reviews can be very helpful to elevate the status of the best restaurants, but it is challenging for chefs knowing that every customer is only one poor dish away from a scathing review.
Anyone who has spent anytime in a customer facing role, whether in person or via the phone, will know that the customer is definitely not always right.
We have all experienced those customers who’s complaints or expectations are completely unreasonable.
A common example in the food service industry:
- A customer will eat their entire meal before complaining the steak was not cooked to their liking and demanding a refund.
This can be very challenging for chefs as they have worked hard to provide a good product and service to the customer.
If the customer is being genuine, then returning the dish as soon as possible allows the chef time to put right any mistakes. More often than not though in the above situation, the steak was perfectly well cooked (or else why would they eat it all?) the customer just wants a free meal and is willing to upset everybody just to get it.
High Staff Turnover
As mentioned on many occasions here at ChefWord.com, the transient nature of the catering industry is a huge benefit for chefs. We will typically work at one place for a few years before moving on to gain experience at another venue.
Whilst this is a benefit for the chefs moving on, it is a huge challenge for the Head chef trying to run a busy kitchen.
All work places benefit from a high staff retention rate and kitchens are no exception. Constantly having to interview and recruit new staff takes time and resources that could be better used in other areas of the kitchen.
Head chefs will do all they can to ensure their kitchen staff are as content as possible to try and maintain some consistency.
A career in the catering industry can be very demanding, and takes a huge toll on the personal lives of those working there.
The Chef’s job is to maintain a happy work force so that staff are positive and providing great customer service. This can be hugely challenging when the staff are exhausted from long hours and little down time with friends and family.
Part of maintaining a high staff morale is the need to keep the chefs happy, which can be a big challenge at times.
Chefs are known for being a hot headed bunch who are not afraid to speak their minds. Part of this is due to the fact they know there are lots of other kitchen jobs out there.
The Head chef needs to balance the various egos and personalities within their kitchen so that everyone comes to work in a positive mindset.
Challenges such as shift patterns and different wages within the kitchen staff can make this very difficult at times. For chefs, it can sometimes feel like we are constantly putting out fires when it comes to keeping the brigade focused on the cooking tasks at hand.
Making A Profit
Perhaps a rather obvious challenge, but by no means an easy one, is the fact that a chef needs to make a profit.
It is not enough that a chef needs to produce great dishes balancing flavours and seasonality, they also must ensure that the finished product, which is served to the customer, can actually make a profit!
This is by no means easy when we have so many factors such as wage and energy bills to take into account.
Many subtle compromises have to be made between the quality of the ingredients that make up a dish, and their monetary cost. This is a fine balancing act that all chefs must be aware of if a restaurant is to thrive
Serving amazing food that doesn’t produce a profit is a luxury only reserved for celebrity chef’s flagship restaurants!
Everywhere we turn there seems to be a new restaurant or eating venue opening. Keeping ahead of the competition is a challenge that a chef cannot afford to loose.
A new venue will open, often near to our own restaurant, and will attract customers due to the novel nature. A chef’s job is to rain those customers back to our place by convincing them that the new venue is all swanky style and no substance.
It can be especially challenging if a new venue serves the same cuisine style as us, and is in direct competition. The important thing to avoid at all costs is a price war. This only results in a race to the bottom that doesn’t end well for both parties.
Building a strong repeat customer base is the best way to ride out any storms caused by a new venue opening, but this is definitely a challenge that has a chef looking over their shoulder a little more than they would like.
Modern Cooking Techniques
Keeping up to date with the latest cooking techniques can seem like a full time job in itself for many chefs.
There has been an explosion in the different cooking techniques and gadgets that a kitchen needs to have in order to keep up.
This video from celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal highlights the challenge perfectly
If a restaurant doesn’t have some sort of foam on their menu they can seem like a dinosaur!
Knowing these new methods and the correct way to implement them takes time. A chef is busy trying to carry out all their daily tasks whilst also reading up and training on the latest fads.
For chefs the challenge of keeping a restaurant’s cuisine modern can seem like running on a treadmill, even if it is ultimately enjoyable, it’s still very hard work.
Chefs can often find a large part of their day taken up dealing with suppliers. This can range from placing orders to negotiating the best deals. For some this presents a huge challenge as this business side to the industry is not the reason they chose a chef career in the first place.
More often than not, we will endeavour to order produce from local suppliers, but this can present challenges as well.
By nature, local suppliers are smaller and operate with less staff. Local suppliers are more affected if their staff members let them down in some way and the effects are knock on.
For example, I would always try to use local veg suppliers. However, on many occasions I found my morning being taken up making phone calls asking where my delivery was. It would usually arrive around lunch time with lots of apologies about staff shortages, but that doesn’t help the immediate situation.
Larger companies can cover for any staff shortages a lot easier and the timings of deliveries are more reliable. That being said, I will always favour the local supplier as I believe the standard of the produce to be higher quality.
Anyone who has stood in front of their open fridge, hoping that a bolt of inspiration will jump out and indicate what they should cook for dinner, will know the feeling that coming up with ideas for dishes is not always easy.
Of course, chefs are professionals and have a wide range of previous dishes that they can draw on, but coming up with new dishes all the time is a challenge.
Venues such as hotels, which change their menus on a daily basis, are especially challenging for chefs. Being creative and being able to produce dishes on demand is not a certainty, as chefs suffer from creative block the same as any other art form.
A restaurant will know when it can expect a busy period. Friday and Saturday evening, as well as public holidays are always prepared for by allocating extra staff and ordering in more produce.
However, chefs can often be faced with the challenge of busy periods that seem to come from nowhere!
All chefs will understand the great challenge. The kitchen is happily working away on an average Wednesday shift, when all of a sudden a bus load of guests seem to appear from nowhere without reservations.
The kitchen is suddenly expected to go into overdrive and dishes need to be produced at a rate simply not prepared for.
Not matter how long we spend working as chefs there are instances which just catch you off guard. The challenge is making the customers feel comfortable, even though all hell is breaking loose in the kitchen!
To Sum Up
Those are the main challenges that face chefs on a daily basis. The media likes to portray the image of a chef strolling through a market picking the freshest of ingredients for the day, but the reality is somewhat different.
As in any career there are many challenges and these are all part and parcel of a career as a chef.
Whilst these are challenging parts of the job, the best chefs manage to take them in their stride, and concentrate their focus on producing great tasting food for happy customers.