The Catering Conundrum
Photo Credit: Duncan Longden
By Alexander Andrews BEng PGCE MIET MRes
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” is one of the founding principles of care; attributed to Hippocrates but often segued into obscurity. There is an admirable drive by Care England, spearhead- ed by Prof. Martin Green to improve the quality of chefs in care homes and therefore the quality of food, but it overlooks a critical factor in this equation. The job a care home chef doesn’t pay a competitive wage.
Of course, one would rightly argue that all jobs within care pay at an inadequate rate when one considers the responsibility of the job, the prerequisite training and the physically and emotionally draining nature of the roles. And one would right unless that one believes that a ‘care’ badge bears significant compensatory value.
At this point I should, I feel, introduce myself. I am a chef in a care home… and I’m in it for the money. I hold a first-class degree in engineering, I’ve just completed a masters by research examining how efficiency and co-creation in the NHS could negate the current deficit and I’m a qualified physics teacher. I’ve chosen to move away from all of this to work as a chef in a care home because I can earn more money. Before academia called me, I was a successful chef, a job I enjoyed and so have maintained it as a ‘side hustle’ through various agencies. Now In post-lockdown Britain hospitality workers are experiencing a worth renaissance. It seems that the deskilling of the industry is coming to an end.
Hospitality staff are now a high demand commodity and as such have seen an average wage increase equivalent to 18%. I have found myself eyeing, with increasing surprise, the vacancies which still arrive in my emails; head chef £32k, head chef £36k… head chef £46k! And these aren’t executive roles in big hotels or creative leads in starred establishments, these are what are known in the trade as Chef-al-a-Ding or microwave technicians. Stunned though I was I felt no temptation to apply. The memories of the stress, the heat and the antisocial hours still make me shudder. But I still enjoy cooking; I cook for my family most days and that can be a challenge with two vegetarians, another who avoids bird flesh, and fussy 6- and 7-year-olds. I suppose my ideal job, as a chef at least, would be making excellent food for about forty people with plenty of home baking. I would do a job like that very happily. The problem, as has been previously stated, is jobs like that don’t pay.
I, like so many other people, have a family to feed. As a result, I can’t afford to take on a minimum wage job as it simply won’t cover my bills. To be totally honest my teaching job wasn’t either but that is a whole other article for another publication. But, due to an unfavourable job market it has become very difficult to entice chefs away from high pay- ing, low skill jobs in hospitality and into low paying high skill jobs in care. As a result, homes are forced to use agency chefs, like me, at around 250% of the price they are willing to pay for a fulltime, employed chef. My current role is for an indefinite period- the home holds little hope of finding a chef in the foreseeable future.
I find the situation uncomfortable for many reasons. I know I am being paid more than many of my colleagues in the home who do a job I could not, nor would want to do. The whole scenario riles my social conscience. But the wage I am getting is a reasonable one for the skill set I bring. With twenty years as a chef, I have the skills and repertoire to manage the kitchen safely, ensure that food is of excellent quality and tastes delicious. I can also think on my feet for residents who require
something ‘off menu.’ My academic studies have made me a bit of an expert in the area of dementia care from a food perspective; I am well versed in the current research. I have studied texture modified food and enjoy the challenge of making visually appealing purée meals. I have an in-depth knowledge of allergens and fortified diets, diabetes, religious adaptation of menus, vegetarianism, veganism and pretty much any- thing else you can name. This is because I have both hospitality experience and academic study in my armament.
The first course of its kind, which will provide these skills, is being offered by Norwich City College and NACC. Fifteen students have graduated so far. To me this reflects the disinterest of the industry to invest in staff of quality or to provide food which does more than tick the ‘resi- dents-not-starving’ CQC box. Maybe, I’m just a cynic.
I believe that the residents in the home which has retained my talents, and all other homes, deserve exceptional food in their twilight years. This is their home, their last home in most cases, and they should expect good food- restaurant quality food, when each and every meal could be the last. This can be provided within a budget if there is a skilled operative in the kitchen. But that is the crux of the matter. How can you attract good chefs when even moderate chefs can command such high salaries in hospitality?
And that brings us back to Prof. Green. I wholeheartedly agree with his idea to build care chefs, to train them in the specialist skills required. But the point remains, what is the point? If the industry will not pay the wage the job deserves and that the skilled staff can demand what chance is there of filling these vacancies? Indeed, after the hellish eight- een months care staff have experienced through the pandemic staff in homes up and down the country are choosing to change careers and plenty are looking to the hospitality industry which has found the money to pay staff more. Unless homes are willing to pay a competitive wage, they will haemorrhage staff, be forced to operate at dangerous levels and, to add insult to injury, end up paying more for agency staff to fill the vacancies.
This problem will not go away. Honestly, thanks for the money but not for the moral headache.