In the UK, we heard last month about Mikael Jonsson of restaurant Hedone announcing he would be opening for just six sittings every week. Earlier, Sat Bains, chef of two Michelin star Restaurant Sat Bains announced that his Nottingham restaurant would be introducing a four-day working week for staff as from next month, with staff salaries and bonuses unaffected as a way of countering the chef shortage problem.
But why is this trend catching up and what are its consequences both for the industry and customers? It’s something we have been observing for some time now. When I moved to Belgium 10 years ago, I was surprised by the amount of restaurants that had ‘strange’ closing days or hours. I used to ask myself why would a top restaurant not open for Saturday lunch or even on a Saturday evening when you would expect it to be most busy. Nothing has really changed and this includes some of the best restaurants. There are restaurants which open from Monday to Friday for lunch and just Friday for dinner. They are closed on the weekends. But they have been at it for many years now and it seems to work for them.
One of the issues that has come to the fore in the UK is the case of chef shortages. But there is also another issue, well-being of staff, which is less spoken of but which also comes into play. There is no question that there is a correlation between well-being and staff-retention. And at a time when staff shortages start to become more pronounced it becomes essential to retain staff.
Sat Bains said that since he announced the four-day week the restaurant has received over 60 applications from chefs. “It might mean there are people looking for work but the quality of the applicants tells me that they are actually being choosy about where they want to work,” the UK Michelin starred chef said.
Meanwhile, Jonsson of Hedone will change his concept, moving to 22 covers from the current 40 and also decreasing the number of sittings per week.
The lawyer turned chef is a self-trained chef who rose to be one of the top stars of the international culinary scene over the past years. The reason for doing this, he says, was to feel liberated and also to ensure the well-being of the staff in restaurants.
Like Bains, Jonsson wants to create a work environment that will be more attractive to staff. He believes that today’s working hours lead to a high turnover. “I want my chefs to come back to work every week rested and full of energy,” he said.
There is no question that radical changes lie ahead in the way restaurants carry out their business.
While interest in food and restaurants could be reaching an all-time high, there is no question that the ‘glamour’ seen on TV programmes is also creating a problem. On top of the reduction of the number of working days, we are seeing more and more restaurants offering their customers the opportunity to experience the chef’s work without a menu. The number of restaurants with no à la carte menu is growing.
Hedone is only the latest high-profile restaurant to follow this route. We are sure there will be many more and this will come as a shock to industry veterans but is a sign of the times.
As someone who has worked very long hours, weekends and six days weeks, albeit not in the restaurant field, I can sympathise with what the chefs are trying to achieve here. At a workplace, I had experimented with a nine-day two week cycle for staff, i.e. that staff worked a four day week and a five day week to compensate for long hours.
I can safely say that this was highly appreciated by staff although it did put pressure on the company, given that we were working to a 7-day cycle. But if the restaurants are decreasing their services and closing days, there is no question that this is likely to have a positive impact on staff.
In an interview Sven Elverfeld told Food and Wine Gazette that “over the past 20 years, the field has become like a tree that continues to grow. In the past, there were a few great chefs but they have had lots of sous-chefs who have left to open their own restaurants. Everybody wants to be a chef in the top 100 or 2 or 3 Michelin stars but it is not possible to have so many restaurants. Don’t give yourself too much pressure as a young lady or gentleman. Don’t grow too quickly but just grow with love and passion for what you do and success will follow.”
We are therefore looking to these developments with interest because it is in everyone’s interest, not just the restaurant trade, but also the customers, to experience the chef’s work and that of his team at their best and most creative. Too much turnover of staff, in this case, is not healthy.