Take It Easy, Take It Seriously

It seems you can’t open a paper or newsletter these days without it informing you of the latest food trend or restaurant opening, the latest roll-out, the latest ‘Hot Thing’. But read carefully between the lines, and you may find a very deep-rooted problem which – I fear – may well have a huge impact on our hospitality sector in the future: staying ahead of the competition at the risk of deskilling the industry.

Franco Manca, Honest Burgers, Byron, Bakehouse, Patty & Bun… Sure, it’s admirable that many of these have stemmed from humble beginnings and have caught the eye of some sound investment, allowing them to expand rapidly. But let’s just see what’s really behind these brands:

  1. Simple, single-product concepts requiring little or no skill
  2. Colour-by-numbers menus
  3. Third-party product, stacked and curated on-site

All designed to provide a decent (by British standards, although our European friends may disagree) result: pizzas, steaks, burgers, sandwiches, coffees … and more burgers!

I recently went to a central London ‘Hot New Thing’, accidentally ending up at the wrong one initially, then hot-footing it to the right one. What did I find? Both were packed and their staff all insisted on calling me ‘mate’ (that’s a whole other Blog right there). No uniform (tick). Only a choice of burger or steak (naturally). 1 ‘dessert’, dispensed from a squirty foam bottle (of course). 3 wines, 3 trendy craft beers (obviously).

You get the picture: hardly a new concept, but simply executed and popular, in and out in 45 minutes, reasonable value.

I really didn’t know what to make of it, apart from the fact that not one of the staff there would actually be able to say, with pride, that they’re at the top of their game, seemingly settling for a transient job (that now, at least, pays reasonably well). Because, let’s face it, you only need to cook two products or know two cuts. That’s not a skill, in my book.

However, what this all means is that the ‘chef’ really believes he’s a chef, as he’s now being paid more than ever, thanks to the difficult labour market. It’s the same for the waiting staff. So, when they apply for their next job, they’ll expect more money – the title demands it plus they think they have the skills to match.

So what, indeed, defines a chef or knowledgeable waiter or waitress today, when all they know is a handful of products and ingredients? Is this truly how we want our industry to be, falling blindly – once again – towards bland, formulaic high streets, hijacked by chains and awash with low-skilled staff? Please tell me we’ve reached saturation point for these quick one-stop-shops!

Where’s the longing for some quality food served beautifully and happily and skilfully? And how can we possibly expect others to take our industry seriously if we don’t/can’t/won’t ourselves?

Take it easy, take it seriously.

Lawrence Hartley
AIR Co-Founder

Big Flavour