Trends and cooking styles have come a long way from the heavy and rich cuisines which dominated the foodservice industry when Michael first began his career as a chef. The multitude of styles from today’s chefs are inspired by the likes of modernist cuisine or molecular gastronomy made popular by chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria. These styles are pushing chefs to think outside the common boundaries of food and applying scientific principles to transform ingredients into a multi-sensory experience for their customers. Along with this, urban cuisine taps into the regional pantry with foraging and closer scrutiny of the supply chain being popular with chefs as their customers demand to know the story behind the food being served to them. Add to this the needs of the ever-changing generation of customers and their dietary needs and expectations is putting the heat on chefs in restaurant kitchens.
Michael says he has watched and participated in New Zealand – as a nation – finding its own food identity and style and has witnessed numerous food trends in its evolution. He has also noticed a shift in the mindset of the current generation of chefs. There is ongoing resistance to the long, arduous and stressful hours that were required by his generation of chefs, where it was normal industry expectation to work 60-plus hours a week. However, things are changing for the long-term sustainability of his profession and it has been incredibly important for the industry to open up and discuss depression and the mental and physical stress encountered in the foodservice industry. If not, Michael says his industry will slowly become void of chefs. This is already starting to become a problem as we see more and more younger chefs resisting the long hours and demanding meal breaks and having the confidence to speak out when they feel they are being exploited and undervalued. Michael considers that the millennials may have a good point, and they possibly have no idea that the values they are sticking up for are reshaping the food service industry. This he says, whether chefs like it or not, is a positive step going forward. However, it has left a void of capable experienced chefs, and the industry has had to make compromises to combat this.
Michael spent his early years as a chef willing to work hard and push his standards and understanding to the limit. He says his passion was never destroyed, despite being shouted at, threatened and even having a frozen leg of lamb thrown at him by a raging executive chef. This style of kitchen management was commonly fuelled by stress, the demands or workload and customer expectations. Regrettably, like many chefs, he carried this behavior over to his own kitchens but obviously this was no longer acceptable and he found himself having to adopt a new way to communicate to young chefs. With these young chefs walking into his kitchens with their leather-bound kits full of hand-forged Japanese knives and tweezers, heightened sense of self awareness and an almost annoying obsession to explore, question and redesign, it was a matter of having to find the right balance of teaching the fundamental skills and reasons why they are in the kitchen without destroying their ambition.
Pre-arranged performance reviews became the norm, instead of shouting across the kitchen and his constant nagging to put their phones away resonated throughout the day. However, challenging as this may have been, these young chefs were learning, contributing and in turn, Michael says he also continued to learn. He saw how this enabled himself to form positive and constructive relationships with these young chefs. The term ‘old school’ was no longer in his vocabulary it was now adapt, connect and engage.
The way Michael sees it is that we are now living in the younger generations’ world and we can either stick our heads in the sand and not change our mindset or we can look at what we are doing now in practice and see how the systems can be modified and adapted to keep up with and even surpass the expectations of demands in the future.
This includes forming relationships with the growers and suppliers to the restaurant industry. As we are now living in an ‘experience economy’ the story of provenance and ethical and sustainable growing practices are now guiding and motivating chefs with strong environmental values, setting a new path of thinking to their culinary stories. From this has grown a multitude of artisan producers, including farmers who follow best practice to produce amazing beef and lamb. In Michael’s role as a brand ambassador for Provenance Meat, he has found a growing interest with chefs wanting to source product with a story and he is seeing a trend to retain the natural profiles of the red meat they are cooking with. Fat and bone is now acceptable which helps connect the story of pasture to plate in a more realistic and interactive way.
Michael says, biological farming is nothing new but, in his opinion, this will gain some real traction as one of the answers to some of the pressures farmers are being faced with due to the introduction of synthetic meat products which are growing in popularity. He sees a growing trend to produce red meat in a sustainable and holistic way that will appeal to the future markets and this way of farming is increasingly important to chefs and their customers.
Lastly, Michael touched on the relationship between butchers and chefs saying they share a similar passion, energy and knowledge and he strongly believes there is an opportunity to develop more of a synergy between chefs and meat retailers.
He says chefs and butchers speak the same language, however Michael has noted one area of weakness starting to show in restaurant kitchens which is the lack of basic knowledge of butchery, basic preparation and portioning as well as a lack of understanding and recognising the cooking characteristics of the available cuts. This could partly be to do with a lack of supported training in this area at training institution level. However, it could also be due to a lot of young professionals taking their passion for food to the next level and opening their own cafes and eateries. There is a real movement to cheaper eateries that are offering small bites and shared platters and this has created a renewed interest in cheaper cuts.
Due to the cost structure of these small eateries, cafes and craft beer food bars, the skill is being traded in for labour or feet on the floor, and thus the skill and competence heading up these kitchens is nowhere as strong as it used to be. The other big concern that these unskilled chefs are our future mentors and trainers and I see a real possibility that we will see an increase in the loss of trade skills rather than upskilling going forward. This opens up the opportunity for chefs to source and build a relationship with their butchers and for these two professions to come together in the future to provide new and innovative products to supply the foodservice sector.
If you have a great relationship with your butcher or red meat supplier and have a story you would like to share, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org