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Chefs get poached (Sunday Times 22 Nov)

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The chance to work in various F&B disciplines and ‘orchestrate a group of chefs’ was what made Mr John Sloane (foreground) leave his post as executive chef at the Singapore Airport Terminal Services Catering to be the vice-president of F&B and culinary operations at Resorts World Sentosa. With him are some of Resort World’s other culinary staff: (from far left) John Sim, Li Kwok Kwong, Ong Soo Wan, Matsuura Toshihisa, Alan Orreal, Edmund Toh and Danny Zhuo. — ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Nov 22, 2009

Chefs get poached

Established eateries are feeling the manpower crunch as the integrated resorts roll out hiring

By Huang Lijie

If you love dining out, remember to ask Santa Claus for more cooks and wait staff this Christmas because restaurants here are bracing themselves for an acute manpower crunch next year.

Hundreds of cooks, bakers and waiters are required for the opening of no fewer than 90 dining outlets at the two integrated resorts (IRs) – Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands.

This overwhelming demand for skilled labour from Singapore restaurants will strain the industry, which has been struggling with staff shortages for a while, say restaurateurs and educators at culinary and hospitality schools whom LifeStyle interviewed.

The pinch of this labour crunch will, in turn, be felt by diners as they will be attended to by overstretched cooks and servers.

Already, some restaurants – both independent outlets and hotel-operated establishments – have had employees leave them to join the IRs because of the prestige as well as the attractive remuneration.

And this exodus will escalate, according to restaurant industry players, once workers receive their year-end bonuses and dining outlets at the IRs gear up to launch in phases from the first quarter of next year.

Resorts World Sentosa was unable to say how many food and beverage staff it needs, but Marina Bay Sands has said upfront that it is looking to hire about 350 kitchen staff and ‘hundreds’ of service staff to operate its F&B establishments, including in-room dining, banquet catering and six celebrity chef restaurants.

Three Michelin-starred chef Guy Savoy, who is opening a twin of his eponymous restaurant in Paris at the Marina Bay Sands, says in an e-mail interview: ‘We have received resumes from Singapore and all around the world for three months and we will start interviews at the end of January.’

He adds that the executive team for the 90-seat restaurant will come from his Parisian restaurant but he is looking to hire another 40 to 45 staff.

Premium foodcourt Makansutra Masters, a joint venture between foodcourt operator Koufu and F&B consultancy Makansutra, plans to start hiring in March for the approximately 350 staff needed to open the more than 900-seat outlet by the third quarter of next year at Marina Bay Sands.

Mr Ang Kiam Meng, 47, president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore, which represents more than 1,000 restaurants here, says: ‘The lack of restaurant staff is an existing problem because Singaporeans shun jobs in F&B, and it will worsen with the IRs pulling experienced staff from restaurants since it is an efficient way to fill their positions.

‘This makes it hard for independent restaurants to compete with the IRs because we do not have the huge revenues to offer similarly high salaries.’

He adds that some members of the restaurant association have already lost about 5 per cent of their staff, mostly restaurant managers and chefs, to the IRs.

Both IRs decline to say when they began hiring staff for their F&B operations, but restaurateurs and chefs say the search would have kick-started a year ago, beginning with top-tier positions such as F&B directors, followed by executive chefs and restaurant managers.

Last week, the IRs each launched two-day recruitment drives with openings for lower rank F&B positions, including service captains, wait staff and line cooks.

They decline to reveal the salaries they are offering F&B recruits, but according to restaurateurs and new recruits at the IRs that LifeStyle interviewed, the pay increase is between 20 and 30 per cent on average, or from about $1,200 to more than $1,400 for an entry-level employee.

Mr Eric Teo, 46, president of the Singapore Chefs Association, says: ‘Even if the IRs do not poach staff from other restaurants, there will be cooks who will want to join them because it is something new and it lets them learn from more chefs.’

Jason Tan, 27, chef de cuisine at the fine-dining restaurant Julien Bompard at Finlayson Green, who was approached by an IR a few months ago but has not received a formal offer, admits that the allure of being a chef at an IR is hard to resist.

He says: ‘The IR is now the big thing and if I miss the opportunity to be a part of the opening team now, there might not be another chance. It would also be an eye- opener to work with Michelin-starred chefs at the IRs.’

Indeed, these were the reasons that pushed Singaporean Louis Forn, 30, a former junior sous chef at a five- star hotel restaurant, to join one of the IRs earlier this month.

He says he was approached by a chef at the IR whom he knew to apply for a position a few months ago. His job title is unchanged, but he has greater responsibilities at work and gets a 30 per cent pay rise.

For New Zealander John Sloane, 49, vice-president of F&B and culinary operations at Resorts World Sentosa, the chance to work in various F&B disciplines and ‘orchestrate a group of chefs’ was what made him leave his post as executive chef at the Singapore Airport Terminal Services Catering to join the IR in February.

On the industrywide movement of staff to the IRs, Ms Edith Lai, 38, co-owner of the Julien Bompard group of restaurants, including Le Saint Julien in Fullerton Road, says: ‘One of the service staff in our group was approached to join the IR and after we had an open discussion with him about the offer, I encouraged him to make the move because apart from an 80 per cent increase in pay, which I cannot match, he will also gain better learning opportunities there.

‘If a staff member has the chance to develop his career elsewhere, I do not think restaurateurs should be selfish and hold the employee back, even if it is a loss for the restaurant.’

There are, however, those who prefer to stay on at their current posts.

Mr Rocky Chu, 47, general manager of Chinese restaurants Majestic Restaurant in Bukit Pasoh and Jing at One Fullerton, for example, declined offers from both IRs early this year for senior management posts, despite a potential 20 per cent pay rise. He says he treasures the good working relationship he enjoys with the restaurants’ owner, Mr Loh Lik Peng.

Similarly, Edward Voon, 34, executive chef of the members-only Tower Club, who had a ‘casual chat’ with a headhunter about six months ago on his ‘opinion on working at the IRs’, is happy to stay put.

He says: ‘The IR is not a place for me because there, I will need to follow the establishment’s dining concept, which might not suit my style of cooking. Where I am now, I have full creative control over the cuisine and I can showcase my skill.’

Indeed, because independent restaurants cannot afford to match higher salaries given by the IRs, they acknowledge that good retention strategies are crucial for tiding over this crucial period of labour shortage, which they predict will last until a few months after the IRs open.

Mr Ignatius Chan, 46, owner of modern European restaurant Iggy’s at The Regent hotel, says: ‘We have not had staff leave our establishment yet, but we do not react only when they have made up their minds to leave the company.

‘We reward them through ongoing professional enrichment programmes such as attending accredited courses and sending them on overseas trips to expose them to top restaurants around the world, including El Bulli in Spain.’

To retain his staff, chef Willin Low, 37, owner of modern Singaporean restaurant Wild Rocket in Upper Wilkie Road, Relish in Cluny Court and Wild Oats bar in Mount Emily, gives them shares in the eateries he opens.

He says: ‘It is my staff who help me achieve my restaurant dreams and I don’t want to lose them, so I told them that if I could help it, they would not be employees all their lives but partners of the new restaurants I open.’ Eleven of his staff have shares in his restaurants today.

Hotels are also looking to boost staff loyalty. Royal Plaza on Scotts offers flexible work schedules to accommodate the lifestyle demands of its employees, while the Shangri-La Hotel recently improved its staff facilities, such as changing rooms and staff restaurant.

The IRs and the restaurants opening there are also looking at other ways to fill their vacancies.

The Tung Lok group of restaurants, which is opening three eateries at Resorts World Sentosa and will require at least 100 staff to run the outlets, is leveraging on employees from its more than 30 outlets to fill some of the new positions.

Its executive chairman, Mr Andrew Tjioe, 52, says: ‘Because of the large number of restaurants within our group, we are able to identify the best performers, offer them promotions and transfer them to these new outlets.’

Hiring graduating culinary students is another popular option.

Chef Tetsuya Wakuda, 50, who is opening an offshoot of his acclaimed Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s at Marina Bay Sands, for example, says in an e-mail interview that he has just started looking for the 45 workers needed to run his 70-seat outpost and he is partnering with culinary schools here.

Indeed, hiring fresh culinary school graduates is a solution to the systemic loss of existing staff at restaurants. It is an industry norm for a restaurant that has had its staff poached to do the same to another to fill vacancies.

Almost 1,350 culinary and hospitality students will graduate from schools such as At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy, Shatec Institutes and Temasek Polytechnic this year. These institutions are working with IRs to hold career fairs on their premises.

Culinary school grads fill the gap

The Dinex Group of restaurants owned by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, who is opening DB Bistro Moderne at Marina Bay Sands, for example, has successfully hired nine students and alumni from At-Sunrice during its recent recruitment fair at the school.

These institutions also increased their classes, diploma options and enrolment figures a few years ago in anticipation of the demand for labour from the IRs.

Chef Christophe Megel, 40, chief executive officer of At-Sunrice, says: ‘Since the integrated resorts were announced a few years ago, we have been working with the Workforce Development Agency to fill the vacancies.

‘We have attracted more talent to the school and our student enrolment has grown by more than 30 per cent year-on- year to almost 600 students this year.’

At Temasek Polytechnic, diplomas in leisure and resort management, and culinary and catering management were launched in 2006, with annual intakes of up to 200, to complement its diploma in hospitality and tourism management.

The schools, however, say they are not the cure-all for the lack of restaurant staff that is plaguing the industry.

Mr Tan Hsien Wei, 41, course manager for Temasek Polytechnic’s diploma in culinary and catering management, says: ‘The sheer scale of the IRs poses serious challenges to trained manpower. While institutions like us do our utmost to fill this gap, it will take a concerted effort by all players to manage this situation.’

Indeed, the restaurant industry is hoping that regulations on hiring foreign staff will be relaxed to lessen the manpower crunch it faces.

Mr Ang of the restaurant association, says: ‘This staff shortage is imminent and will worsen in the next two to three months. I do not know of another solution unless quotas on foreign workers in F&B are relaxed, because Singaporeans complain that the hours are long, the work is tough and they refuse to do it.’

Mervin Goh, 37, chef-owner of restaurant chains such as Akashi Japanese Restaurant and Grandma’s Restaurant, shares the same frustration, but says: ‘At the end of the day, a good restaurant will do everything it can to fix a staff shortage quickly so that its customers do not suffer.’

While his restaurants have not been left shorthanded due to the hiring campaigns by the IRs, he says that if it happens, he will set an example by taking on more duties and motivating his staff to work harder until the vacancies are filled.

Mr Ang adds that the staff shortage caused by the many eateries opening at the IRs is ironically hurting the industry’s overall growth, because restaurateurs who are eager to expand do not have the manpower to do so.

Chef Low of Wild Rocket, who is opening a fast-food burger joint at Cathay Cineleisure Orchard next month, agrees.

He says: ‘I have three other opportunities to open eateries with new dining concepts and the landlords are offering good rents, but I am cautious about it because I have no manpower.’

A spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower says it meets with industries regularly to obtain feedback and monitors the labour situation closely to fine-tune its manpower policies.

He adds that a productivity taskforce led by the Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Spring Singapore and Singapore Tourism Board is working with various sectors including F&B to help companies improve their productivity and deploy their manpower more efficiently.

Beyond the looming labour crunch, which might translate into patchy service, however, there are goodies in store for diners.

Mr Sloane of Resorts World Sentosa says: ‘We are offering an extensive variety of everything from fine dining to the best of street gourmet and we are catering for everyone with any kind of wallet size.’

Mr Solomon Chow, 34, a stockbroker, is excited about the chance to dine at Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne without splurging on a plane ticket.

He says: ‘I have watched Daniel Boulud on TV so I am really curious to try his food.’

Mr Raymond Lim, 30, spokesman for the Les Amis group of restaurants, says: ‘With more players, every restaurant will be compelled to work harder to maintain high standards and this will benefit diners.’

Chef Roberto Galetti, 39, owner of the Garibaldi group of restaurants including the fine-dining Italian eatery Garibaldi in Purvis Street, says: ‘The celebrity chefs opening here might be able to push suppliers to bring in more high-quality ingredients that are not available because the demand is not strong enough at present. So diners might get to enjoy top-end produce.’

In the long term, the culinary standard in Singapore will rise too, says Mr Teo, president of the chefs association, because cooks who learn from overseas chefs opening restaurants here will impart their skills to future generations of cooks.

Restaurateurs, though, acknowledge that the dining outlets at the IRs might draw curious diners away.

Chef Travis Masiero, 30, owner of the casual European restaurant, Spruce, in Tanglin Road, says: ‘A lot of people will try out the new restaurants, including myself, but no matter how good the food, if the place lacks soul and personality, then the lust to dine there diminishes very quickly.’

Food lover Diana Tan, 35, a general practitioner, says: ‘I have been to Tetsuya’s in Sydney, but it will be nice to be able to enjoy its food in Singapore.

‘And even if I dine at the restaurants at the IRs, I will still continue patronising restaurants such as Garibaldi and Ember, because it is nice to have variety and these restaurants are tried and tested favourites.’

lijie@sph.com.sg

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