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Monday, January 30, 2023

‘We can kill people’: Victoria chef says staff shortages can have deadly consequences

A couple of weeks ago I published an opinion piece about the closure of a Victoria restaurant and how that was blamed on “staffing shortages.”

The goal of the column was to highlight how many people are fleeing the service industry and that bad bosses were partly to blame.

Some restaurant owners took umbrage with this, saying they are hurting in many ways – from inflation to insurance costs to a lack of “competent” staff. I get that restaurants are hurting and more of them are shutting down due to high costs and other factors, as we saw with the announcements recently by Agrius and Old Vic fish and chips, which had been around for 90 years.

But the column was about why so many restaurants can’t find “competent” workers. The fact is it’s a problem and the industry needs a reckoning if it’s going to attract workers – it’s time to stop the denial.

One Victoria chef – who didn’t want their name or restaurant named because “the industry here is small and repercussions could be huge” – wrote me about the real-life consequences stemming from a lack of experienced cooks and chefs.

By consequences, this chef really means it, saying, “We can kill you.”

The chef was talking about how some desperate restaurants are hiring unqualified people to work in their kitchens.

“Let me preface this by saying there are a lot of very good chefs and cooks in Victoria,” the chef wrote. “There is real talent and innovation here, the locavore movement in the South Island is inspiring. But. Most of the line cooks in this town have no formal education and all they know is what they have learned from these desperate chefs. They don’t understand basic cooking principles or even basic terms. Many know how to sous vide but have no idea what braising is, or even why we use different cooking methods. They think of themselves as artists when what I am looking for is precision and consistency. They have no formal training so don’t understand that mistakes in our industry can kill people. Not hyperbole, we can kill people.”


As the former co-owner of a restaurant, I can attest to how important it is to follow safety protocols so – you know – you don’t poison your diners.

The lack of experienced staff, according to this chef, has led to restaurant managers “poaching” staff from other restaurants.

“Managers start to burn out and become desperate jut to have a body on the line who can operate a deep fryer or toss a salad,” the chef wrote. “Desperation leads to poaching. I had to remove the phone from my kitchen as unscrupulous chefs would cold call and offer a job to anyone who answered the phone.”

One problem that is particularly bad for Victoria workers is how so many restaurants are dependent on the busy tourism periods in the summer.

“What they don’t understand is that they are going to be laid off en masse in the off-season and it doesn’t take long before their resume becomes so spotty, shows no loyalty or longevity. that they don’t make the first cut in the recruitment process. They fall into this cycle of decent restaurants during peak season and either a bad restaurant, or out of the industry completely during the off-season. It is common for me to see a resume with 10 to 15 employers over the last five years, most for three to four months, enough to get (a) signing bonus.”

So there you have it. Some real-life consequences that go beyond being annoyed that a restaurant is no longer open on Mondays because they have no staff.

Chris Campbell is an editor with the Victoria hub of newspapers. You can follow him on Twitter @shinebox44.

Do you have a story tip? Email: chris.campbell@blackpress.ca.

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