NI faces 'critical chef shortage,' hospitality boss warns

A chef shortage is said to have reached a critical level 
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland is facing a "critical" chef shortage which is pushing many hospitality businesses to breaking point and preventing further expansion opportunities at a time when the hotels sector is experiencing significant growth.

The claim was made by Ciaran O’Neill, president of Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) at this year's Hospitality Exchange held over two days in the Ramada Plaza.

O'Neill, who runs the Bishop's Gate Hotel in Derry, said: "For many years Northern Ireland was the Michelin Star wilderness until Deane’s Belfast-based Eipic and Ox gained a star each.

"Then at the Michelin event in London this month Clare Smyth was honoured as female chef of the year, while the sous chef at Eipic was crowned national chef of the year.

"These positive developments, however, are set against a background of an industry that is desperately in need of chefs," he added.

"The pressure on all elements of the hospitality sector has ramped up over the last 18 months. Yes, we’ve had many new restaurants and there has also been a growth in the number of pubs now serving food and new hotels are opening.

"But it’s clear there are simply not enough people entering the industry or choosing it as a career option."

O'Neill, who himself trained as a chef in Switzerland and London, added: “The current chef shortage is reaching a critical point, and as a result people are moving up the ladder without maturing in the role and they are not getting the proper skills training to sustain a career.

"We also have an image issue and it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract recruits in the numbers required to fill vacancies within hotels.

"Yet it is can be hugely rewarding job, providing a creative outlet and offering many people a stellar career."

Northern Ireland Hotels Federation chief executive Janice Gault described the mood at Hospitality Exchange as "positive" after a record summer, with Belfast and Derry recording occupancy levels of more than 90 per cent.

She said: "The impact of Brexit on currency has presented an opportunity for tourism, with the euro and dollar both making headway against sterling.

"But despite the record summer, performance still lags slightly behind 2015. Business levels would suggest that 2016 will overtake last year in the run up to Christmas, though the last quarter is difficult to predict and could yet throw up a surprise."

As well as the skills shortages referred to by the president, other challenges highlighted over the two days of Hospitality Exchange included the need to address the industry’s image to attract new recruits in numbers to fill the staff void; the National Living wage and the challenge of meeting this requirement against a backdrop of depressed pricing and a possible rise in inflation.

Despite these challenges, the overwhelming feeling in the sector is one of optimism as the hotel sector undergoes a period of unprecedented growth, visitor numbers continue to rise and the industry contributes over 5 per cent to the local economy, according to Ms Gault.

"The sector has also overtaken manufacturing and agriculture in terms of employment, and a re-calibrating of economic growth is still predicting a rise in hospitality performance in terms of employment and monetary growth."

Meanwhile at the Hospitality Exchange's gala ball, Lough Erne Resort executive head chef Noel McMeel was hailed as the “Hospitality Hero”, which goes each year to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the sector in Northern Ireland.

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