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How can we ensure our apprentices don't get 'burnt'?

I went to see the movie Burnt on the weekend with my daughters. Okay, I confess, there was an element of spending a few hours on a rainy afternoon looking at the searing blue eyes of Bradley Cooper involved in the decision making process. However, there was also the element of wanting to see a movie that puts the role of the chef at its core. Particularly while we are still in the final throes of transitioning the SIT Tourism, Travel and Hospitality Training Package.

There were some memorable lines that made me smile, like “being a Chef is like being a rock star” and “a one Michelin star chef is Luke Skywalker but a three Michelin star chef is Yoda”. I have conjured a lasting mental image of Neil Perry (and all of his Chef’s Hats) in white flowing robes brandishing a light sabre, his ponytail swinging in the wind.

It was heartening to see the acknowledgement and celebration of the enormous skills and extensive practice - indeed the craft of being a Chef. Something we know that our colleagues at the Culinary Federation of Australia are passionate about - the recognition of the role of Chef as the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world.

What was really sad, however, was the portrayal of the main character as the clichéd stereotype of a Gordon Ramsey/Anthony Bourdain combined. Complete with an abusive, aggressive style, throwing of pots and pans, screaming of orders and humiliation of team members. It was exhausting to watch. One can only imagine what it would be like to actually work for someone like that! The accountant in me sat and watched all the expensive seafood and choice cuts of beef thrown against the wall and became almost apoplectic about the restaurant’s cost of goods sold!

The reality is that this style of management is not what great chefs are made of. It may be great for cinema and TV, but to be great does not mean that you have to do so at the expense of others. Leadership and the ability to manage people to get the best out of them are all part of the skills needed to be a great chef.

As with all good movies (and quite apart from Bradley Cooper’s blue eyes), there was the regulation “happy ending”. Viewers were left with the life lesson about teamwork and how success comes from being part of a team that “has your back” and this loyalty is only gained by treating your team with respect and support. So a redeeming message to conclude the story.

We have seen a lot of positive publicity regarding the importance of cooking and the role of chefs over recent years, with reality TV shows like Master Chef and My Kitchen Rules and countless movies like Chef (my favourite) and The 100-Foot Journey. Despite this, we are not seeing an an influx in the numbers of young people on the pathway to become chefs – indeed we are seeing the contrary. A really big missing piece of the puzzle is - why?

Conclusions are drawn on such things like length of the course, unsociable hours, pressure of the job and pay rates, without really examining if the underlying issue is that learning a trade doesn’t mean you have the skills to mentor and lead others. Without adequate support and leadership, young apprentices have a hard road before them. That is why building these leadership, management and mentoring skills for our senior Chefs is so critical, as they are the key to retaining our young people in this profession.
Yasmin King