Securing and retaining experienced kitchen professionals is a long-standing challenge for the Middle East, Hotel News ME finds out how regional F&B professionals are working to overcome this culinary hurdle.
Over the past decade, the Middle East, particularly the GCC, has gained significant prominence under the global travel spotlight. The region has become a byword for hospitality excellence, with a wide variety of stellar hotels, seemingly limitless entertainment options and of course, a mouth-watering array of food and beverage options.
What’s more, with numerous new properties in the pipeline, this development is set to continue at a cracking pace. But the F&B scene in particular is seeing swift and exciting progress, as it feeds off growing demand not only from tourists but also local residents – a situation which puts the region’s hotel outlets in an unusually strong position. And yet despite this, culinary recruitment and even staff retention remain a challenge, especially in the more skilled sectors.
At hospitality recruitment consultancy Bin Eid Executive Search, managing director MD Warrier observes: “There are continuous requests from UAE and GCC countries for skilled chefs. Demand has drastically changed over the past decade, and is definitely still on the rise.”
Warrier adds that in addition to numerous new hotel openings, both kitchen and front-of-house staff are in demand for the plethora of independent outlets in new mall projects and mixed-use developments. Michael Kitts, director of culinary arts at The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management (EAHM), points out that staff recruitment and retention has been a hot topic for the past decade. “Ten years ago, recognising potential and having a career plan would have helped stem the job-hopping scenario that was going on at the time,” he asserts. “But today, Dubai is a very different place; the growth and vision for the future is fantastic, and I’m sure it will draw the next generation of hospitality professionals.”
It certainly seems that regional F&B opportunities are better today – with employers offering improved salaries, benefits and development prospects – as well as being more numerous. Why, then, are so many operations having problems finding the necessary F&B staff for their teams?
What’s hampering hiring?
In a region packed with hotels, plus many more in the pipeline, a huge number of staff is required and competition for the best individuals is an issue, admits Peter Drescher, vice president of food and beverage – Middle East and Asia with Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts.
“In the past, we only had a few international hotels in Dubai… Now, we have every hotel player on the planet, and naturally it is more difficult to attract talent as there are more opportunities for chefs to choose from,” he comments.
Despite this competition, hotel groups are still prepared to be picky in their hiring. Bin Eid’s Warrier says that employers are asking a lot of their new recruits. “It’s a formidable challenge to find suitably qualified, experienced and competent chefs with just the right attitude and skills,” he says.
What’s more, Warrier points out that with the hospitality sector is doing increasingly well in traditional source markets such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, more F&B professionals are finding satisfactory employment at home.
“In Sri Lanka recently, I came across some employees who’d returned from the Gulf and are now working in the local hotel sector – and their current salaries are reasonably healthy. [They explained] they were only interested in returning to work in the Gulf region if better salaries and benefits were offered,” he reports.
Even for F&B professionals actively seeking roles outside their home countries, the Gulf faces stiff competition from other historic dining destinations, predominantly in Europe and the USA. Uwe Micheel, director of kitchens at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek and president of the Emirates Culinary Guild (ECG), says this poses a particular challenge when recruiting mid-level staff.
“I don’t think it is a challenge to get a good chef for a top position, a well paid position, but in junior management or lower the salaries are low in comparison with other countries, considering the lifestyle in Dubai is so expensive,” he observes. However Roger Marti, executive chef at Grand Hyatt Dubai, thinks that the region is competitive when it comes to salaries and benefit packages, although he notes that this “depends on the company and level you are working for”.
“From my experience, the Middle East offers generally good packages for the employees. I always compare the final, net amount the employee would get to take home. Looking back to Europe, the taxes and accommodations are highly charged,” he says.
Meanwhile EAHM’s Kitts agrees that “the UAE certainly doesn’t have a problem attracting the big guns”, but appreciates the problems of attracting and retaining young talent.
“The thing they will ask is, ‘Do I feel appreciated?’ I think that is sometimes the most important aspect when it comes to retaining staff,” comments Kitts.
Salaries aside, veteran international dining destinations hold significant appeal for talented young chefs and F&B staff looking to learn and climb the career ladder. How can Middle East hotels compete with history?
Mövenpick’s Drescher points out that in this part of the world, staff will find themselves working with a superlative product. “The design guidelines and specifications, kitchen, stewarding and front-of-house service areas are amongst the best I have seen in all my travels,” he asserts. “I honestly think that we have some of the best physical working environments.”
Radisson’s Micheel agrees: “In terms of kitchen equipment or products, we have everything that could be required.
“The big difference [between us and western operations] is when it comes to developing young talent,” Micheel continues. “We are opening new hotels and restaurants at a much faster rate than we develop talent, which reflects on quality of service.”
Within this maelstrom of F&B hiring, there are certain positions that are traditionally tricky to fill.
The most difficult kitchen roles to recruit for are pastry and bakery, according to Mövenpick’s Drescher. “I think it has to do with the fact that it is very hard to find someone who works hands-on all day long, and who is an artist and manager at the same time,” he explains. “These are the expectations today, since we need to control overheads. In the past, we had specialists. Today, there are many cases wherein the pastry chef is also expected to be an expert baker, although these two jobs are very different from each other.”
Hyatt’s Marti says specialists in a specific regional cuisine are also particularly tough to find. “It takes more time and effort to secure such a person. We have to travel around and look for specialists, not always very successfully.”
And adding to the challenge of finding this elusive niche professional, who wants to work in the region and is happy with the remuneration on offer, is that fact that several other hotels are after him as well.
Time for change
As Radisson’s Micheel puts it, there is “no secret advice or recipe” to make regional F&B recruitment easier. However there are things that operators can do to ensure they are as an attractive an employer as possible. “We need to look after our talents, and offer the right package,” he states. “And as mentioned earlier, development at the junior level has room for improvement.”
Bin Eid’s Warrier agrees: “Scope for self development and career advancement in a vibrant learning environment and a healthy work culture is what will encourage chefs to stay committed. They need to feel that they are an integral part of the process.” At Hyatt, notes Marti, every new associate goes through an initial three-day orientation “to understand the basic hotel standards”, after which the individual outlet or department takes over. “We conduct weekly training based on our yearly goals, incorporating schedules and topics are based on the individual related outlets,” he explains.
Continuing training and development is vital not only to retention, continues Mövenpick’s Drescher, but also preparing the brand’s next generation of leaders. “Chefs, especially young ones, need to gain experience to be able to grow and become confident, strong, assertive leaders,” he points out.
“It is our responsibility as chefs or F&B directors to nurture, encourage and advise our team members. Human resources or learning and development departments can only do so much; the rest is up to the head of that particular outlet or division, and most importantly the drive and energy of the people themselves.”
The need for regular training, career development opportunities, brand involvement – these are things the F&B industry has understood for some time. Indeed, the vast majority already incorporate suchelements into operations.
Ultimately, it appears there are two factors which could draw specialist culinary talent away from the ‘old guard’ of dining destinations: a superlative and respected culinary environment, and a large salary. With so many outlets coming online in the next few years, the region’s hotels will most likely have to bow to the latter to compete. The former is simply a matter of time.