Special Report: Head Chef Survey 2014

134 chefs reveal their innermost thoughts in the fifth annual survey

Reports, Restaurants, Head chef survey 2014

The fifth annual Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey was answered by 134 professional chefs based in the Middle East, and dealt with some of the most pressing issues they face today, and the general state of the industry in the region.

The survey was conducted online and was designed to allow chefs to weigh in with their thoughts of the industry, discuss trends, and reveal the opportunities and challenges they will face in the next year. We share the findings of the survey here, which has dished out some surprising results and exposed what chefs really think.


An interesting trend seen in the survey was that while there seemed to be a dip in the average spend per head through the recession years, it’s now slowly moving up. Last year, 4.5% of chefs surveyed said average spend per head was above US $1000. This year it’s inched up to 5.22%. In addition, the most common average spend per head according to the surveyed chefs was $40-60, moving up from $20-40 last year.

Has the spending power of customers increased, or has it been the case of prices rising due to food costs or prices of raw ingredients? One chef said a challenge s/he faced was the “hike in price of raw materials, and our guests don’t know that”, while another agreed and said there has been an “increase in produce costs”.

However, quite a few chefs think this change is driven by consumers. Susy Massetti, executive chef at The Palace Boutique Hotel restaurant Masso, for one, said it was down to increased spending power. She explained: “In Bahrain we saw a sensible increase in spending; people seem to go out more and spend more, particularly in restaurants. The customer’s financial mood is more relaxed and positive, hence the increase in revenues. To give an idea, we sold in the range of more than 20kg of Italian truffles recently and it’s not stopping.” This reflects in the survey’s results where 25.7% said reduced consumer spending was a factor affecting their outlet.

Oberoi Dubai executive chef Dirk Haltenhof added his own spin, and attributed it to the kind of ingredients available. He said: “Thanks to the increase of restaurants in the high end segment, especially in five-star hotels and independent outlets, the growing knowledge and support by consumers towards sustainability in organic-grown F&B products and a high level of service knowledge, consumers are spending more on quality. There is a shift of quality in the market which supports the higher average cheques, and I foresee that this trend will continue.”

One chef who contributed to the survey agreed and said that guests are now “recognising quality and consistent product on offering with customer service” which is a great opportunity for restaurants that are looking to increase their popularity in the region.

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Quality was a recurrent theme for the chefs — 75.4% said it was the most important contributing factor to the success of their operation. One said his/her main focus as a head chef was “quality of produce and delivering exceptional offerings”. However, some mentioned the difficulty in the supply chain, with one saying s/he faced the challenge of a “weak supply chain and unavailability of produce”.

A head chef said: “If suppliers would be more consistent with the food supply, I would be able to do more for our guests”, while another revealed s/he needed a “standard supplier of quality product and access to better new products from the world”. Other comments when asked what support was needed included: “providing an easier supplier/purveyor process enabling a more fluid way of getting products I desire” and “better products availability and relationship with suppliers”.

St Tropez Bistro MOE head chef David Cagle commented: “I have only been out here over the past year-and-a-half and I have to say that getting a consistent standard of products can be challenging. Trends don’t seem to move the same way that they do in European markets, for example with the seasons. Most of all, price points for fruit and vegetables are particularly challenging. Prices fluctuate often and the cost of importation can really impact your margin.”

However, not all chefs think finding ingredients are a problem. Ultra Brasserie head chef Emily Herbert said that the situation is a lot better than it used to be a decade ago. She revealed that suppliers are more willing to work with restaurants on importing ingredients when requested, especially when other restaurants have the same needs.

The Ivy Dubai head chef Ben Tobitt, who was named Caterer Middle East Head Chef of the Year — Independent Outlet 2014, said he first came to the region in 2009 for a year, and then worked for a year in the UK.

He said: “When I came back for the second time in 2011, there had already been a massive change in terms of not just the quality but the range of products available. But it’s obviously down to the chefs to always look out for new products. I know some restaurants can’t use pork, but we’ve just started using this brand called Dingley Dell, which is based in Suffolk in the UK. We’re the first restaurant in the Middle East to use this product. So even if it isn’t something that’s coming into the area at the moment, you can do it; you’ve just got to really work with suppliers and find someone who is prepared to receive the product to supply to you.”

Massetti said: “I can’t agree more that quality ingredients are paramount in our business. Customers in the region in general are very well-educated and do understand quality; however I don’t agree on the difficulty on sourcing especially in the past three to five years. Just go to the Gulfood Show and see [what’s available].”

She continued: “Bahrain for instance, is far more limited in that sense than the UAE, where the demand or market is larger hence is easier to find pretty much all you want, yet even here I get what I want. In fact the most common complaint of suppliers — when you know them well — is that there is not enough market for great products that carry a higher price tag.

“What needs to be said here, and I know it will be controversial, is that the limitations are dictated more from imposed unreasonable food costs and margins, hence chefs are confronted with the need of putting great products in the plate, to keep up with overgrowing competition, but have to compromise in order to control costs.”

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But getting the actual products isn’t a task chefs go at alone. Many said one of their biggest problems was interference from other departments — especially finance, echoing what Massetti said on the issue of food costs and margins. From the data provided by 134 chefs, the average food cost for 2013 was 27.9%. Last year, the average food cost was roughly the same.

One chef rued the “bureaucratic purchasing department”, while another revealed s/he thoroughly disliked “being managed by sales people with no interest in developing a brand or providing a quality product but focus on cheap deals to score easy points”.

A head chef based in UAE said communication between staff members and departments within the operations is probably the “toughest” thing to do, but that it was “important to get everyone on the same page”. Cagle agreed: “This is a relationship that you have to build over time and I have found the best way to tackle it is to bring the relevant departments together and show them your challenges so that they can better understand your situation and work as a team on all aspects of the business. Having an integrated relationship across departments with everyone working towards the same goals is really important.”

Another chef revealed through the survey that what s/he really needed was “finance staff which had a better understanding of what goes on in a kitchen!”, while another simply said that what was important was “owner empowerment”. One chef explained s/he wanted to have “freedom in choosing suppliers and products”.

Tobitt told Caterer: “I’m probably, if not the luckiest one, one of them, in Jumeirah, because I have massive freedom with the menu. In the very beginning, there was a lot of input from London and Jumeirah, and when I took over that went away. I do a lot of my own financial stuff anyway, I’ve been menu engineering, and I cost all my own menus; generally the tastings will be done between myself, Nicola Robinson and Chris Lester. I get a lot of freedom but I do understand from knowing a lot of chefs in Jumeirah what they used to go through. But it’s a big Jumeirah thing now that they’re handing the outlets over to the GM and the head chef a lot more so they’re going to have that freedom now. But I can certainly see how chefs in other big companies would prefer to be left to it; obviously I can’t comment on how other companies run things.”

The Ivy Dubai general manager Nicola Robinson said: “It’s very much case-by-case dependent on the success of the business that you’re dealing with. But ultimately there has to be a balance between creativity and remuneration. The one thing that managers understand, especially upper-level management, is budget. And what we understand as operators is creativity. There has to be a happy marriage of the two to create a successful business. And not just a great restaurant product. It’s about balance. You have to give a chef the creative freedom to make the most alluring dishes. But if there is no stringent structure in which to work, you might as well not bother opening the door.”

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In addition to financial considerations, chefs have to concern themselves with what’s going on outside of their outlets. This year saw a new entrant in response to the question ‘What are the biggest issues affecting outlet performance’ — and that was ‘increased competition’.

Nearly half the chefs (47.8%) picked this option. Additionally, when the chefs were asked what they thought were the biggest challenges they would face over the next 12 months, most simply said “competition”, while others added “lots of competition in the market”.

Cagle agreed and said: “New entrants are definitely a constant threat and Dubai customers have a very explorative nature. New restaurants often find themselves the ‘flavour of the month’ and we’ve seen some very creative marketing campaigns generating hype across the city but ultimately it’s the restaurants that can perform consistently — on product and service long-term that stand the test of time.”

Tobitt said: “I was one of those who thought that the amount of F&B coming into the region was definitely affecting performance. A big thing in Dubai is that people are looking for the next new thing. Whereas not necessarily just in the UK but in other parts of the world, people will have their favourite restaurants and frequent them. In Dubai people tend to lean more towards wanting to move on to the next new exciting funky thing or whatever. I don’t think this is something that will change, this is something that will keep happening just because of the mind-set of people in Dubai.

“You need to forever keep on top of it, you need to be coming up with new ideas all the time which is something that, to be honest, we try to do here anyway. You look at the announcements of the new Dubai World Mall and all this sort of thing, this is going to increase it even more, so you need to get on top of your game.”

Chefs who responded to the survey are aware of this, with many saying “attracting footfall” and “getting diners into patronise the outlets we have” are challenges that have to be met.

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With the increased number of outlets entering the region, whether home-grown restaurants or international franchises/brands, it’s only fair to assume the F&B industry here is doing well. To corroborate that assumption, we showed chefs the statement “The F&B industry in the region is in great shape” and asked them to ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with it. This year, the percentage of chefs who strongly disagree or disagree with that statement is at its lowest (15.8%).

In addition, we also asked them if the Middle East has attained the status of an international culinary hub. 64.3% said it had, while 35.7% indicated no.

Those who agreed it was a foodie hotspot said “its accessibility to the world made it a food hub”, and many said tourism was an important factor in elevating the status of the region in the F&B stakes. In addition, the range of cuisines available across the region was cited often.

People in the region were heralded as assets in putting the Middle East on the culinary map, with one chef saying: “More and more hotels/restaurants are sourcing the proper skilled people, therefore the competition is high and chefs are producing better quality items.” Another said: “I have been working in Australia, USA, France and I believe that we have more skilled people in the Middle East than other countries and their loyalty is much higher.”

However, not all were impressed. Some said there are “too many imported brands, nothing really new and innovative”, while others said change will come over the next few years (90.1% said the region will attain the status of a culinary hub in the next five years as compared to 78.8% last year).

One chef said the region is still not in the Michelin-star category, and another said innovation was absent. “New outlets are just copies of the same concepts existing whether here or in other countries.” Another agreed: “Key cities from Europe, Asia and the US are far better off. We most of the time make a copy of the trend setters.”

It does seem to be the case, overall, that there is an upbeat mood in the industry at present. Challenges have been clearly identified, and Caterer Middle East is looking forward to seeing solutions to these concerns charted out, if not implemented, by the time the next Head Chef Survey comes around.

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