Special Report: Head Chef Survey 2015
Caterer Middle East's Head Chef Survey 2015 throws up interesting results about the cost of imports, social media, and quality
The sixth annual Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey was answered by 116 professional chefs based in the Middle East, and the questions 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 the opportunities and challenges they will face in the next year. We reveal the findings of the survey here, which has dished out insightful results, and exposed what chefs really think.
A new question for this year, in response to the growing use of social media in the F&B industry, was whether chefs used social media in the line of duty, and which platforms. The results showed that 78% swear by Facebook, 68% are on LinkedIn, while 58% use Instagram. Only 11% admitted to using Pinterest.
Be Supernatural and Bestro founder Hayley MacDonald says that Instagram is her social media platform of choice. She says: “I also find I sell more of a particular dish if I Instagram it. People can’t be bothered to read anymore, and food especially, they read with their eyes. If I want to sell more of a dish, I literally just post it on Instagram and later that day or the next day, people will be coming in for that particular dish.”
Not just selling food, but these platforms are also a tool for positive (or negative feedback). Naya head chef Pravish Shetty said: “Social media plays the role of newspapers or magazines. It provides information about current trends, people’s preferences, and what the future holds — at a click of a button.”
He continued: “I would cite a short example: the number of UAE nationals visiting Naya increased when a local blogger posted a good review and I reposted it on my restaurant’s Instagram page. Our popularity and business increased.”
Saying that chefs can also use the various websites to introduce new ventures and promotions, Shetty added: “In short, social media provides the platform which a chef can get the appreciation he deserves for the work he does.”
Sanjeev Kapoor Restaurants head chef Middle East, Asia and Africa Akshay Nayyar said: “Food today has evolved from just being something that you eat. Rather, it’s a state of emotion that you love to watch, read about and explore. Like any other emotion, it is very essential to evoke the senses, and this can be only done by sharing.
“It encourages chefs and foodies to experience and search for latest trends and then implement it. This is when you don’t want to copy, but want to innovate and make it your very own signature.”
INGREDIENT COSTS AND COMPETITION
While opportunities around social media were high, there was definitely something else bothering many chefs who took the survey.
For the first time in years, the cost of importing required ingredients was chosen by the chefs as the biggest issue affecting their outlet’s overall performance — nearly half (49.4%) agreed.
Media One Hotel executive chef Girish Babu told Caterer: “As you know, most of the products [here] are imported. They are in line with the currency exchange rates, and we predict a Euro increase in the coming year, so that will be a challenge for us.”
MacDonald said prices have already changed for her ingredients. She revealed: “We actually import a lot from far afield. That’s been a massive challenge this year because it’s been difficult for us, for some reason, to obtain all the certificates we needed. The cost of some of the superfoods have also gone up. Macca, for example, is something that we use a lot, and has gone up by four times the price.”
Clé Dubai head chef Troy Payne said there are a few sides to this.
“It’s become more of a concern to people now that the market has become a lot tougher. I think that’s why people are now going ‘oh hang on a minute, it’s costing me this much to bring this in’. Whereas when they’re busy, they’re going, ok great, I need this, this and this.
“I’ve been here for just a year–and–a–half now, and the cost of the produce has remained the same, import–wise. Sometimes it seems to be getting a little bit harder to get some of the imported stuff, because not as many people are ordering it. So a less demand for it, the harder it can be.”
Horeca Trade director of supply chain and sourcing Per Ankersen said that food costs have gone up over the past years, and are expected to continue an overall upwards trend.
He said: “Supply and demand in connection with increased cost of manufacturing, handling and transporting food are considered the main impacting factors.
In the UAE CPI (Consumer Price Index), food inflation is registered as a comparison to 2007 (index 100) — the food index in June 2015 is reported as 144.84, which is a 44.84% increase compared to 2007 on a statistical weighted basket of consumer foods.”
He continued: “As an example, it is registered that olive oil is in scarce supply this year due to a failed/low crop in Spain and Italy leading to a 35–50% decrease in supply. Since the demand is higher than last year, the price of olive oil has increased significantly and there will not be any downward development until the expected harvest of 2016 is known. Even then, the prices will only adjust gradually and over time. All products containing olives and/or olive oil will be impacted by this.
“With a growing global population paired with the higher costs associated with dealing with food on a global scale, the increasing prices on food is not expected to ease — quite the contrary in fact.”
Trailing import costs was increased competition at 44.8%, which was a new entrant in the top three concerns last year, followed by rising food prices listed by 42.5% as an issue.
Last year, nearly half the chefs (47.8%) said increased competition was a challenge for their outlet, and even this year, when chefs were asked what they thought were the biggest challenges they would face over the next 12 months, most simply said “competition””.
One of the chefs listed a challenge as: “the amount of restaurants outlets becomes awful, people will sell food for free”, while another added: “Business conditions — competition giving lower rates”. One more chef said: “Maintaining progress and budget in a very competitive market” would be a challenge in the next 12 months.
Related to the issue of imported products is that of local produce. Again, a new question for this year was what percentage of local produce can be found in the respondents’ kitchens. This year, 23% said they get 20–30% of their ingredients locally. Only one claims to have 95+ — but since the survey is anonymous, we don’t know who that is! If that’s you, please get in touch.
MacDonald said the summer is a struggle to get a lot of local produce, but it’s definitely easier in the winter. Payne agreed and said: “It depends on the time of year in Dubai. Obviously in summer, it’s a lot harder. But during winter here, the local produce is quite good, and we work a lot with the organic farmers, who also sell produce in the farmers’ markets.”
Babu said he has been working with local herb producer Emirates Hydroponics for a year. “The only challenge with them is the climactic condition of Dubai because certain products become unavailable at certain times. So we have to go back to the importers. But yes, there is an increase in the local product demand.”
This is backed up by one of the respondents who said they would like “more ingredients available locally so food could be delivered even fresher”, with another chef revealing that s/he would like “a better network of local producers (UAE & MENA)”.
Finally, one said: “I wish I could purchase more ingredients locally than depending on imports. Ensures freshness and reliability.”
One chef revealed: “Supported by senior management we have tied up with a local farmer to cultivate and produce a specific amount of carrots, tomatoes, beetroot and some herbs. These selected vegetables are served in a home crafted wooden box along with a cutting knife, fork, chopping board and side plate to every guest dining in the restaurant. The purpose is to support the local farming, create awareness and to serve the fresh produce straight from the farm. We are working with Ripe to grow, seven months out of the year, a lot of our vegetables locally, of top quality, and we have committed to 80% of our quantities for a year.”
Payne added: “Quality-wise — without being too ruthless — a lot of the times, especially during summer, the quality of the produce is a lot less to what we’re used to, coming from Australia with things growing on your doorstep. It’s hard to compare sometimes.”
Speaking about quality was important for chefs surveyed — 71.6% said it was the most important for the success of their operation. When asked what their most important focus was, many replied: “consistency of food quality”.
One chef said: “Cooking in the world is about fresh produce. Because of our location we have to work with vegetables and fruit that comes from all over the world. When we develop quality local producers things will change for the Middle East.”
Finally, another chef revealed: “The quality of food tops my list of priorities in my life in the kitchen. I have to make sure that standards are met from the receiving of deliveries, to storage, production and to final plating. Consistency plays a huge factor in every service we make.”
As part of the consistency factor, equipment used is also important. Chefs were asked what additional support they needed to be able to do their job better.
One chef said: “Access to better equipment, as modern equipment makes the job lighter and easier”, while another revealed s/he would like “updated equipment in order to be more efficient”.
After better equipment and customer service were listed by the chefs as important, Charvet UK MD Wayne Cuomo told Caterer: “Charvet equipment is backed by leading Middle East distributors but later this year Charvet will open a permanent base in Dubai to reinforce its support and communication with chefs and the distributors.”
Greenfield World Trade vice president Jonathan Vadnos said it’s important for after–sales service to be spot on, especially for this market. “Chefs, as they are on the front lines, feel this need in ways that many of us do not. The chef is the person who either gets the blame or receives the accolades for food. And that food, of course, is a combination of the chef’s creative inspiration along with equipment that functions properly. So when a piece of equipment is not operating the way it is supposed to — it has an immediate impact on the chef and the restaurant, as well as a financial impact to the owner.”
Media One’s Babu said, however, that all the concerns around equipment were a case–to–case scenario. He said that when a new hotel is built, chefs get a kitchen with equipment that has been designed by someone else.
Babu continued: “And then his hands are tied, he can’t spend any more money since it’s a new hotel. And then you end up making a menu based on what equipment you currently have. I see and I hear many of these comments from chefs: ‘I can’t spend any more money because the hotel is new, somebody has designed the kitchen, the equipment is there, low quality products’. Because at the end of the day, when a project comes in, it’s all approved by financial controllers. The operator’s input is not considered as much, because it all comes to what is the money that they’re going to spend.
“In my case here, I have slowly depended on the revenue that I generate; I justify that with the equipment that I want to buy.”
STAYING ON TOP
With the number of outlets entering the region, whether home-grown restaurants or international franchises/brands, we asked the chefs if the Middle East has attained the status of an international culinary hub. Last year, 64.3% said it had. This year, that has increased to 73.3%.
One of those who agreed it was a foodie hotspot said: “It has become a culinary hub... not a leader but the focus for the Middle East, Africa and even parts of the sub-continent. It reacts and changes with the growing trends of leaders such as London, Paris and NY on a faster and more even level than perhaps five years ago. It’s not yet a leader but is holds its own with up-to-date products and offerings.”
“We have a lot of amazing restaurants here, with some of the best chefs in the world behind them. And it's continuing. I arrived here five years ago and even then there were big names here, now even more so. Also tourism is increasing heavily here and people want to eat good food, they won't settle for less,” added one more chef.
However, there is some caution that becoming a culinary hub will take much more time, and certain conditions to be met. One chef said: “It is close but I wouldn’t say it’s quite there yet. There are people from all over the world coming here to cook and showcase their talents but quickly succumb to society’s pressure and open up safe concepts that people are familiar with. I believe it is those who dare to be different that will succeed. The rise the new generation will hopefully change that. Once the Middle East overcomes this hurdle it can be considered a culinary hub.”
Another said: “It has room to improve – we are close but the lack of talent and turnover has an effect on this.”
Quality was brought up even here. “Not there yet, quality wise,” said one, while another said: “Food quality is terrible, technique is lacking, there’s no vision in anyone’s food. It’s all recycled menus and dishes that are outdated.”
The Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey has revealed that chefs are definitely concerned about sustainability and quality, while being mindful of the cost responsibilities facing them. Will they be able to meet these challenges head-on in the next 12 months?