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Fred Sirieix has some radical ideas to fix the hospitality jobs crisis

Fred Sirieix from First Dates is looking for inventive ways to tackle staff shortages in the hospitaility sector. He hopes to encourage both prisoners and school pupils to find a passion for the sector
Fred Sirieix appears on Channel 4’s First Dates and BBC Two’s Million Pound Menu. He was speaking to Steven MacKenzie @stevenmackenzie Image: Camera Press / David Yeo

The skills and staff shortage in the hospitality sector is getting bigger and wider every day. And there is no way it’s going to get better unless we change our tactics. It’s really a disaster. And I think that if we don’t get our heads out of the sand very soon, we will see the impact in the years to come.

There has been a staff and skill shortage since I arrived in the UK in 1992. And that problem got worse and worse.

Back in the day, a lot of the manpower would come from mainland Europe. Depending where you were in the country between 20 to 40 per cent – and some would say as much as 50 per cent – of people would be from foreign countries.

When I started to work with education, we had about 280 catering colleges in the UK. Now we have between 120 and 170

Then in 2016, Brexit happened. A lot of people who would have normally come to the UK didn’t come, a lot of good people left. Then Covid happened. On top of the people who didn’t come to the UK, a lot of people went home, and are not coming back.

We have an exodus of people from the industry, but also we are not bringing new people in. There is a huge crisis within professional and further education. When I started to work with education, we had about 280 catering colleges in the UK. Now, depending on how you classify a catering college, we have between 120 and 170.

There are no official figures on how many people go into catering college every year, how many find a job within the industry and how many remain in the industry after three or five or 10 years.

Also, there is an issue with the funding of catering colleges. It is going down and down every single year. For example, when I was at catering college, each one had a restaurant where people could practise cooking in a kitchen and running a service with paying customers. At the moment, there are a lot of colleges that don’t have a restaurant to practise in. So it’s very difficult for people to become proficient.

If we don’t invest in our own homegrown talent, the gap and the skills and staff shortage that we have is going to become even bigger than it is now.

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The right course

We need an influx of staff. If we are not doing anything within the catering colleges, we have to go where we can find the staff and prison really is an area that has been untapped.

I have worked with disadvantaged kids and troubled youths for a number of years, and four-and-a-half years ago I started a charity called The Right Course with the aim to open restaurants in prisons using existing facilities and existing equipment.

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High steaks Fred says developing discipline and reliability is as vital as culinary knowhow. Image: Camera Press / David Yeo

In prison there are courses: people will do hairdressing, carpentry, bricklaying – restaurants should be another. In any prison the staff have to eat, so let’s just turn their mess into a proper restaurant like you have on the high street. We can teach the offenders and when they come out, they can have a job. It’s a win for society, a win for the offenders themselves. And it’s a win for hospitality as an industry.

So far we are working in two prisons, Isis in Thamesmead and Wormwood Scrubs in London. We are in talks at the moment with the MoJ to open more restaurants. For us to make a difference within the community of offenders as well as hospitality, we need to scale this up, because there are possibly 30-40 prisons that will be suitable for the scheme.

There is a lot of stigma when you employ people who’ve been in prison. We need to give these people a chance

I’ve taken inspiration from the school I went to, which was number three in France at the time. It was just run by an incredible headteacher who had everybody fighting for his students because everybody wanted to employ them.

Of course, there is a lot of stigma when you employ people who’ve been in prison. We need to give these people a chance. And if you give them an opportunity and a challenge that they can actually accomplish – something that’s exciting like hospitality – people will succeed.

If you don’t have a job upon release, you’re more likely to reoffend. When you think about the cost to society, the court time, the police time, the custody time, all this costs money, and if you added up per offender per time that they are coming back into the system, doing the same thing, it costs a fortune. We talk a lot about redemption and forgiveness in society. We are not helping people to realise themselves.

It’s not just about the cooking, hospitality is about the confidence that you have as a person. It’s developing values, discipline, timekeeping, reliability, loyalty – all these skills and all these important principles that you have to have in order to get on in society.

I’m expecting the same level of service, the same level of quality as if I was in the Ritz. A service is all about the basics. And the basics are universal. It’s about the way you make people feel. It’s about a mindset as much as it is about the skill.

A common strategy

You can’t defeat the skills and staff shortage in the way that we’re doing it. We are working all in isolation. There’s no coordination, no vision. And there’s no point in pretending, anybody who will tell you otherwise is either lying or completely deluded or both.

One of the reasons not many people are going into hospitality is because it’s a forgotten industry. In 2012, I started National Waiters’ Day to raise the profile of the industry so that we could convince people that there were not only jobs but careers in the industry.

There has to be a vision to enhance the reputation of the industry. There are lots of organisations geared towards a very narrow-minded view. Somebody, for example, is looking at bars and the sale of alcohol, somebody else is looking at VAT cuts or rents, all firefighting people are doing in the time of Covid. 

If we go into schools, if we train people, if we excite them about what the industry has to offer, then I think that we have a chance

We have never taken actions that will have an impact 20-30 years from now. We need a coalition of the willing to speak with a united voice, working towards an agreed goal within a timeframe that’s going to allow us to put hospitality on the map.

If we go into schools, if we train people, if we excite them about what the industry has to offer, then I think that we have a chance. But, of course, the industry needs also to improve working conditions. We can’t change things without looking at what we offer to people who work in the industry.

It’s a battle that we are fighting on all fronts. And it is not fought on all fronts consistently and relentlessly for a period of time, there is no chance for us to win.

Fred Sirieix appears on Channel 4’s First Dates and BBC Two’s My Million Pound Menu. He was speaking to Steven MacKenzie

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