A group of chefs in a kitchen
Chefs being trained at 100 Wardour Street in London. The restaurant has started its own scheme in order to plug staffing gaps © Anna Gordon/FT

It is not normal for the kitchen of 100 Wardour Street, London, to have six novices stirring curried carrot soup at 11am on a Tuesday.

But this summer the high-end restaurant in Soho is hosting a training programme with one specific purpose: to plug an acute shortage of chefs.

The trainees are mastering the basics. Today, it’s bread-making and knife skills as they chop onions and carrots. “These are things they need to know,” said Lauren Polson, learning and development co-ordinator at D&D, the restaurant’s parent company.

Tola Fadiora, a 21-year-old trainee from north London, heard about the scheme while looking for part-time work. “Before [this], I was thinking how I would like to own a restaurant,” he said.

But D&D faces tough competition for recruits. Hundreds of restaurant, café and hotel businesses are facing critical staff shortages, both front and back of house, after long months of closure during the pandemic pushed thousands of hospitality workers to return to their home countries or to find jobs elsewhere.

The problem has been exacerbated by the NHS Covid app, which advises people to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

In the business of face-to-face hospitality, this has been common, with many remaining staff being forced to self-isolate.

Lauren Polson of D&D, owner of 100 Wardour Street, leaning against a kitchen range
Lauren Polson of D&D, owner of 100 Wardour Street: ‘We need to try every avenue possible to get staff’ © Alice Hancock/FT

On Monday, UK quarantine rules were eased for double-vaccinated workers but as many hospitality employees are under 30, and yet to receive a second dose, bosses say they do not expect much let-up.

UKHospitality, a trade body, estimated this month that two-fifths of hospitality venues have had to either totally or partially close owing to lack of staff.

Most scarce are mid-level chefs, many of whom came from Europe, or elsewhere, and do not earn enough to qualify for “skilled” worker status under the government’s new immigration rules that came into force after Brexit.

London, which relies particularly heavily on foreign-born workers, has been badly hit.

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The number of chef jobs advertised rose 62 per cent between February 2020 — a month before the UK’s first lockdown began — and July this year, according to recruitment website Caterer.com. The majority of vacancies are in the South East.

This week, more than 2,100 chef roles were posted within a five-mile radius of Soho alone.

A chef scraping chocolate from a bowl
D&D’s course aims to bring enough commis chefs into the business to free up experienced staff to train others into senior roles © Anna Gordon/FT

“It’s a nightmare at the moment,” said Aman Lakhiani, founder of Junsei, a Japanese restaurant. “Sometimes I just get in a kitchen porter and if they are any good I train them to be a chef.”

The aim of D&D’s course is to bring enough commis chefs — trainees who assist with preparation and process — into the business to free up experienced staff to train others into senior roles. “We are playing the long game,” Polson said.

According to Kevin Hurst, a chef and instructor, the skills shortage has “been going on for years” but the combination of Brexit and the pandemic has inflamed the issue.

Caterer.com estimates that more than 93,000 EU hospitality workers left the UK in the past year. Since indoor dining reopened in May, several restaurateurs have found their staff being poached by rivals.

“There are examples where people have been offered double the wage to move . . . somewhere else,” said Jyo Sethi, chief executive of JKS, which operates 14 restaurants across London.

Of the 93 positions JKS is recruiting for, almost 40 per cent are culinary roles. It is looking for a further 48 chefs to staff a food hall expected to open in November.

Another challenge for the industry relates to image. Shifts can be long and conditions, at least traditionally, have been tough.

Chefs working at a bench
100 Wardour Street does not expect staff shortages to ease much © Anna Gordon/FT

Luke Garnsworthy, a former chef, now runs restaurants in Henley-on-Thames, and Tring in Hertfordshire.

“I used to catch the 5.30am train to get to Euston for just after six. I started shift at 6.30am and finished at 12.15 at night,” he said.

The perception of hot kitchens and swearing chefs, popularised in the television chef Gordon Ramsay’s series Hell’s Kitchen, has put people off careers in cooking, say restaurateurs.

But there are signs that work conditions are improving. Some employers have reduced working hours and eliminated shifts split across the day. Mental health support and training resources are being improved.

“It’s a tough life . . . but there are plenty of us out there now who want to change it,” Garnsworthy said. To reduce pressure on his staff he has for now closed one restaurant and reduced hours at the other two.