Newcastle and the Hunter’s hospitality venues are amid a staffing shortage, with stakeholders attributing the crisis to lifestyle demands, workplace conditions and immigration issues.

Australian Government data projects a national shortage of 60,000 chefs by 2023, despite Australia’s burgeoning restaurant and hospitality industry.

For Shinya Dalby, whose family owns a Japanese restaurant in Newcastle, operating a small business over the past few years has not been easy.

As a result of a skills shortage and undersupply of staff, her family’s restaurant has been forced to close its doors on occasion due to “severe staff shortages”.

“My mum, who runs the restaurant, has been struggling with getting staff for a long time,” Dalby said.

“For years, she relied heavily on Japanese international students to flow through, so staffing was never an issue.

“Then COVID-19 happened, which forced people to leave the country.”

After posting a plea for staff on Facebook, Dalby said she learned it was a bigger issue that affected many local businesses.

According to the Australian Government’s job outlook data, which was released before the pandemic, figures predicted that there would be a national shortage of 60,000 chefs by 2023.

Former chef paints a bleak picture of local industry

One former Newcastle chef said he had left the industry after 19 years, despite having executive experience in award-winning restaurants across Australia.

After relocating from Melbourne, the man revealed that the Hunter region, in particular, presented more toxic work environments than Victoria, so much so that he worked at two venues for seven weeks before quitting the industry altogether. 

He attributed it to the industry’s dramatic change after COVID-19, where workplaces were transformed from an “enjoyable environment” into high-pressure ones.

“We saw the industry change so much —it once was a culture of enjoying life, spending time with your colleagues and mentoring young staff,” he said.

One former chef said the lifestyle and hours demanded by kitchen staff and chefs had caused many to become disillusioned with the profession.

“We need to remember that kitchen staff were on the frontline during COVID-19, and during that time, the hospitality industry was treated very poorly by the general public.”

Aside from customer pressures, he said businesses weren’t given adequate support from the government.

As a result, he said, “businesses took it out on employees, and a lot of us jumped ship to a different career”.

“Inflation prices have hit businesses so dramatically…maybe a year ago, you were buying a box of lettuce for $40, and you’re now paying $75 to $80 for the same box,” he said.

“Businesses are cutting down on labour costs to make ends meet and survive.

“There’s a lot of anger there, especially from the lack of government support.”

The former chef failed to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I didn’t see a solution, and that’s why I jumped ship…I took a significant pay loss to do something I find more rewarding.”

He conceded that lifting immigration restrictions and improving workplace cohesiveness might help attract chefs and other kitchen staff back to the industry.

“Mutual respect is the biggest key from owners to the operations team,” he said.

“It’s about treating people how you want to be treated.

“Kitchens, unfortunately, have aspects of the old Gordon Ramsey, chefs still behave like that, and you can’t in 2022 … staff shouldn’t be scared of their chefs.”

He said improved pay and a better work-life balance would also contribute to hospitality appeal. 

“The pay is not great, although depending on your position, the pay can be quite rewarding, and you can get up to six figures—however you’re working 50 to 70 hours a week,” he said.

“Those hours are not sustainable for relationships, and it’s not sustainable for friendships; you have to let your social life almost die.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Hunter Culinary Chairman, Gus Maher, agreed that there was a “significant shortage” of hospitality workers at the present moment and said the chef profession, in particular, had experienced a shortage for several years now. 

“In our dealings with TAFE, we’ve found the number of apprentices starting their apprenticeship in cooking is diminishing, as well as the number of chefs who are actually finishing their apprenticeship,” Maher said.

He said shortages were exacerbated by the pandemic and COVID-19 isolation rules, wherein at any given day, business owners were uncertain if they would have sufficient kitchen or waitstaff to operate.

Maher said that more favourable wages and conditions for apprentices would hopefully be seen as an incentive for more to take up the profession. 

Speaking recently to a chef, he said that junior chefs are nearly on the same money as head chefs when hours worked are viewed – so the pay had undoubtedly improved.

Hunter Culinary Chairman Gus Maher. Photo source: Hunter Culinary

“A solution was to restore the inherent appeal of the profession… not by glamourising it, but emphasising the rewards that a cheffing career can offer,” he said.

“Where we do lose a lot of people is the weekend and night work; however, one of the things that make a good chef is passion and hence for many, this is a small sacrifice.

“We need to get through to younger people to say this is a really good viable career option.”

As for customers that may be frustrated with the impacts of staff shortages, Maher has urged them to be patient. 

“We all need to be understanding that there are some shortages in numbers and certain skills in many sectors – not just hospitality,” he said.

“If we want our restaurants open, we need to have a little bit of understanding, and if you see a new staff member, be supportive of them.”

Maia O’Connor