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Topic 7: Restaurants and Chefs - Dr Denis Wong

December 25, 2009 8:48 PM
By Dr Denis Wong, Managing Director Chinese Catering Solutions in EU Chinese Journal: Shadow Parliament

Topic 7: Do Chinese restaurants have to hire Chinese chefs? Is 'training the locals' really a feasible plan to meet the needs of the Chinese catering industry in the UK?

PM Gordon Brown has recently promised to 'tighten' the UK's immigration rules by reducing the number of professions that can recruit from outside Europe, specific actions might include removing 'skilled chefs' from the 'Shortage Occupation List'. Clearly, this can push the Chinese catering industry into miserable hardship. Can 'training the locals' really be an alternative to meet the Chinese restaurants' needs? Is there a solution before any locals could be trained up? We also wonder: does removing 'skilled chefs' from the SOL really help to relieve the employment pressure in the UK, as most of the chefs are just doing the work that locals wouldn't be willing/able to do.

To claim, as some people do, that it is impossible for non-Chinese to cook Chinese food is clearly a nonsense. However, this is quite different from saying, that in the current state of the industry, "training the locals" is feasible. There are clearly difficulties in this and the gap between the practical and the ideal needs to be acknowledged. Before answering these questions, then, we need to examine the questions more closely and understand the background to them.

Thumbnail of article in chinese

Dr Denis Wong

That background is about a thriving UK Chinese catering industry with an estimated 17,000 outlets, 100,000 works and turnover in the billions of pounds. It has thrived because of (i) a skilled and industrious workforce, (ii) a local palate, that enjoys Chinese food and provides a steady stream of customers and (iii) a global link, that has supplied the industry with skills, new ideas and occasionally capital as well. At the same time, however, it has developed weaknesses of a business process based upon copying and habit, and of an informal "on-the-job" training process. Such traditions have worked well, especially when skills can be supplemented by hiring from overseas. However, the Prime Minister has indicated that the overseas route (professional chefs on the Shortage Occupation List) will be cut off this can only lead to the severest of crises for the industry.

In summary, the UK Chinese catering industry has become the victim of its own success, run by managers who succeeded in the short term but had no thought for the long-term, who succeeded by chance rather than by any thoughtful consideration of what an industry means. For an industry is a group of businesses run by professionals, who compete fiercely, but on the basis of a common understanding and common needs (e.g. skilled chefs) and that as a whole will suffer unless those businesses together take action to preserve those essential inputs to their well-being.

UK Chinese catering in volume constitutes an industry and it competes fiercely - you only need to look at any UK High Street to see that. But the description ends there, since its suffering is endured business-by-business, not as a whole. And it's ability to take action together is most notably absent, except on very rare occasions.

The question, then, is not so much about whether "training the locals" is really a feasible plan. It is more about what else those managers are going to do, in the face of increasing popular support for immigration control, limited political clout and very little in terms of professional organisation and crisis management backup.

From the Liberal Democrats, there is firstly support for training. There is a commitment to funded training, linked to community and immigration issues. The Liberal Democrats welcome the point based immigration system, that clears away the chaos of the existing system, but looks to flexibility that takes account of special cases. The position of particular regions is important here, where in some places, shortages can be far more severe than in others. The position of ethnic chefs could be looked at in a similar way, since the Liberal Democrats (unlike, it seems, other Parties) are fully aware of market forces. Market forces favour Chinese (and other ethnic) cuisines and it seems only reasonable that the market should have it's way on the skills necessary to produce them.

The Chinese Liberal Democrats was set up as a bridge between the Chinese community and the Liberal Democrats and shares an objective, with other major parties, of encouraging Chinese people to participate in the democratic process. It is particularly important with the issue of Chinese chefs and "training the locals" that the Chinese community becomes actively involved, and not just complains as an afterthought. The Migration Advisory Committee has recently reviewed professional chefs and recommended it should remain on the Shortage Occupation List. It seeks evidence of progress with "up-skilling the local workforce" (training the locals) and will base its next decision (around Autumn 2010) on this evidence.

To repeat, from where this article started: to claim, as some people do, that it is impossible for non-Chinese to cook Chinese food is clearly a nonsense. However, there is much to do with respect to the current state of the industry, before "training the locals" can become feasible and the MAC needs to be informed about work in this direction. Chinese Liberal Democrats encourage Chinese catering managers, and others, to come forward.

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