A new research report commissioned by Menulog in collaboration with the National Indigenous Culinary Institute looks at the lessons learned by the Australian food services industry during the pandemic, revealing approximately 70% of Australian restaurants had to let go an international chef leaving the industry exposed as it seeks to rebuild.

That’s the verdict of more than 500 food services industry leaders nationwide, who are ready to get our restaurants, cafés, pubs and takeaways back on their feet for the long-term.

The survey results have revealed that half of all Australian food services industry owners and managers (FIOMs) had to permanently close at least one venue during the pandemic, with more than one quarter closing two or more.

On average, 2.2 staff were lost from these venues per role in the kitchen alone – chef, cook and apprentice. While one-third of venues lost three or more kitchen staff per each of these positions. Conversely, just three in 10 FIOMs were able to maintain existing kitchen staff levels through the past 18 months.

A total 91% of FIOMs surveyed say there has been an over-reliance on international chefs to run Australian kitchens, with the majority (59%) stating that there is a shortage of local chefs nationally.

Restaurant & Catering Industry Association of Australia CEO, Wes Lambert said, “This report provides the platform to engage with industry leaders, reflect on the crisis and look at opportunities for creating a more confident future for food venues and their teams.

“While international chef talent will always play an important role in our kitchens, we need to reset the balance. Knowing the areas we can target to promote opportunities for young chefs and future leaders is a big part of ensuring this vibrant segment of the Australian economy can thrive in the years ahead.”

According to FIOM respondents, while international chefs were described as bringing new ideas to their kitchens and greater experience, local chefs were seen to have various key benefits spanning reliability, longevity with the business and knowing local tastes.

Culinary career serves benefits

While many initiatives helped keep hospitality businesses afloat during the pandemic, it’s evident the industry now requires concentrated attention on building the nation’s kitchen talent. An overwhelming 96% of FIOMs agree that building career pathways for local, homegrown chefs is important to the future of the industry. 

“The industry is craving support for local talent and there’s roles to play across the industry, education providers and among hospitality partners. We have welcomed a recent announcement from the NSW Government, introducing 3,000 free training places across courses at TAFE NSW and other training providers including cooking courses,” Lambert said.

Almost all (96%) of FIOMs recommend a career as a chef, with creativity (47%) and getting to see people enjoy your creations (46%) as the top factors in pursuing this career. While 41% of FIOMs see the opportunity to become your own boss as a good reason to become a chef. Two-thirds (67%) of FIOMs are calling for initiatives to get more people interested in a career as a chef.

Creating local talent is paramount

Half (49%) of FIOMs feel greater support is needed for current trainees and apprentices to enable more of them to complete their training, and 43% want to see greater access to traineeships and apprenticeships in general.

A total 95% of FIOMs believe more promotion of skilled programs like the National Indigenous Culinary Institute (NICI), which creates opportunities for indigenous talent in Australia’s highly regarded restaurants, will bring great value to the industry.

“Our program has created pathways over the past 10 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to gain meaningful, guaranteed, ongoing employment with our employment partners. This has led to our alumni reaching Executive Chef, Head Chef and Sous Chef positions not just in Australia’s top restaurants, but also in London and Tokyo,” NICI CEO, Nathan Lovett said.

“As indicated by the report, there is a strong demand from the industry for programs like ours to increase the amount of homegrown talent, to provide more apprentices in our kitchens. However, for us to achieve this, we need greater investment in the NICI so that we can implement the structure of our program in more communities around the country.”

In 2021, Menulog committed $100,000, the largest investment NICI had ever received, cementing a partnership aimed at significantly accelerating NICI’s mission to boost employment opportunities for indigenous chefs.

Delivery key to sector’s future

With closures and limits on dining capacity a major feature of the past 18 months, finding other ways to keep the kitchens running was essential to the survival of the sector through this time. Nine in ten (89%) of FIOMs surveyed say delivery services have helped keep their business afloat since the start of the pandemic, with 97% saying it has now become a key part of the food services industry.

“We’re proud to have been able to support our now more than 36,000 restaurant partners through one of the most challenging times the hospitality industry has ever seen,” Menulog managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Morten Belling said.

“With such a huge demand for delivery services to help restaurants continue to operate, we rapidly increased internal resources to onboard and service all kinds of hospitality businesses throughout the pandemic, whilst investing in initiatives to help drive customers and ultimately, help keep them in business. We’re also working towards a new Modern Industry Award for On-Demand Delivery, which aims to create greater security and entitlements for couriers, whilst maintaining the flexibility we know is so important.