Special Report: Head Chef Survey 2016

The Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey showed that chefs have quality of ingredients, increased competition and reduced consumer spending on their minds

Opinion, Reports, Research, Comment & analysis, Head chef survey, Ingredients, Restaurants, Surveys

Over the summer, Caterer Middle East carried out its annual Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey to gauge the general state of the industry in the region and find out what’s keeping chefs up at night. Now in its seventh year, the survey was conducted solely online and enabled chefs to anonymously discuss everything about their job, from which suppliers they like working with and how they use social media, to what originally inspired them to pursue a career as a chef.

Over the next few web pages, we will reveal some of our findings and bring you the chefs’ insights, alongside comments on these results from chefs working in region who were happy to go on the record.

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Social media

For the second consecutive year, we asked respondents about using social media in their professional capacity and which platforms they use. As with last year, Facebook took the lead by quite some distance, with 85.1% of chefs using it as part of their job. The second most used platform was LinkedIn at 59.6% and Instagram just a fraction behind at 57.4%.

Twitter was the next most popular, with 29.8% of chefs using it, leaving just 10.6% and 6.4% using Pinterest and Snapchat respectively.

A new question for this year’s survey, in response to both the growing use of social media and the growing number of options available, was why chefs choose one platform over another. One respondent said Facebook was best for sharing his ideas and experiences as a chef on a more personal level, while LinkedIn was the best way to present yourself professionally — a sentiment that was echoed by a number of other participants.

Another stated that the three most popular choices — Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram — are most frequently chosen because people “all around the world are familiar with these”, which makes it the simplest, most effective way to communicate and connect.

Sharing his approach, Tortuga head chef Oscar Rito tells Caterer Middle East: “Social media is all about real food, showing your roots and origin. I focus on sharing the history behind dishes to project the amazing country where I’m from (Mexico) and what Latin chefs are capable of creating,”

He says he prefers to use Instagram for this. “It is very effective and direct — straight messages, clear followers and worldwide exposure. For me it’s the best right now, even though there are specialist networking websites like The Staff Canteen or ChefsTalk, or even Twitter. Social media has a lot of reach and when managing the Tortuga account I always love to share food and stories with the community,” he adds.

Boca chef de cuisine Carlo Di Reda says he isn’t surprised that Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram are the most popular in the region, and says they are the platforms he personally is most comfortable using. “I also feel that this is a feeling shared by the culinary community around me as well,” he comments.

In terms of how he uses social media, he reveals: “There is a lot of noise out there and there are a lot of chefs — everyone is posting about food. I use social media to promote my message, which is ‘we are what we eat’. I believe in sourcing local produce and spending more time developing the right products so consumers can have the ultimate satisfaction at the right price.”

Local produce

Indeed, sourcing locally remains to be a subject close to chefs’ hearts, although the amount of produce respondents are able to procure locally has not changed since last year. Last year, 23% of chefs said they get 20–30% of their ingredients locally and this year that figure was almost exactly the same, with 22.7% stating that 20-30% of what they source is procured locally.

Caterer spoke to one chef, however, who is managing to go further than this with his outlet and at home. The Croft head chef Darren Velvick says: “At The Croft we try to buy 80% of our produce locally and organic, using the local farmers. As a family, I always buy from the farmers’ market every Friday. I love the fact we are putting the money into the farmers’ pockets and not the big supermarkets.”

He adds that owing to this approach, The Croft builds its menu around what is available in the region at the time, which helps to keep its prices down.

Unsurprisingly, the quality of ingredients was said by respondents to be the most important factor in the success of their operation. Quality was listed as the top priority by 68.2% of chefs surveyed and when asked what their most important focus was in their role, many chefs replied: “quality of the food and ingredients” and “ensuring consistent quality of produce”.

For this reason, buying locally is not always possible, and even Velvick concedes that while he sources local organic chicken, vegetables and some fish for his outlet, he does have to import beef, lamb and European dish “at a greater cost”.

Obtaining “good quality food at affordable prices” was also stated by several chefs to be key. The price of quality ingredients is never far from chefs’ minds and the cost of importing the products that they need was revealed as the fourth biggest issue affecting their’ outlets, in their opinion, with 36.4% of chefs saying this is their biggest concern.

One chef anonymously reported that “sustaining the high quality of food while remaining profitable as an organisations is the biggest challenge”.

Culinary hub

Once again for this year’s survey, we asked chefs if the Middle East has attained the status of an international culinary hub.

Last year, 73.3% told us that it had, which was about 10% more the previous year. This year, however, slightly fewer respondents believed this to be true, with 68.2% confirming that, in their opinion, the region is a culinary hub.

Among chefs who answered ‘no’ to this question, reasons such as “good produce is hard to get and very pricey, which affects consistency, seasonality and innovation” and too many restaurants looking like “clones” were cited.

Another respondent said: “To be a culinary hub, you need amazing food at all levels from street hawkers to fine dining. The cost of a start-up is too high to have ‘real’ street food and the red tape in most areas does not support this concept. I do think things are headed in the right direction though.”

These views are held by the minority though, and those who agreed with the majority of respondents that the region is a culinary hub praised the high calibre of professionals that the Middle East has attracted. They also praised its fast growth, not only in the variety of cuisines present here, but the number of high-end restaurants.

Okku Dubai head chef Leonard Tanyag tells Caterer he thinks Dubai in particular has become the culinary hub, and serves as a gateway to the East for the West.

“People from all over the world call Dubai their home so they expect to eat and drink what they would back home,” he remarks.

He feels this situation has created a market offering everything, from fine dining restaurants serving Japanese food to casual outlets serving American fare, to South East Indian curry houses — all of which means Dubai, at least, has become a culinary hub. The vast majority of participants in the survey also felt the region, on the whole, will be widely perceived as a culinary hub within the next five years. Once certain conditions are met, 84.1% of chefs agreed that this is achievable.

Michelin

With the region’s ongoing development in mind, Caterer posed a new question this year, focusing on Dubai in particular, by asking chefs whether they think Dubai is ready for a Michelin Guide. Optimism won out, with 61.4% agreeing that Dubai is one of the most exciting cities in the world, while 38.6% said they Dubai has a long way to go in its culinary development in order to be ready.

One chef said that as “people already enjoying visiting Dubai they would love to see Michelin in the city” while another confidently stated that “Dubai is getting a bigger and better name day-by-day in the culinary world”, suggesting that it is ready for Michelin.

Okku’s Tanyag concurred, commenting: “Dubai is ready as so many Michelin-starred chefs have opened restaurants in Dubai. Michelin will be good for the market to drive in customers, but also raise the bar for everybody else around town.”

While most respondents said Dubai is ready for Michelin, several disagreed; one chef cited the lack of a “foodie culture” as problematic, as well as Dubai’s lack of its own cuisine identity.

The supply stream was also given by several chefs as an area holding Dubai back, with one respondent stating that even though there are plenty of good places to eat, “the lack of seasonal produce available with suppliers (who don’t keep stock and have to pre-order days in advance for import) makes it hard for chefs to be on top of the game with what’s on the menu”.

One chef made the point that even without a Michelin Guide, Dubai is achieving highly and determined to prove itself in the culinary world. The same chef added that because “Dubai keeps pushing for nothing but the best”, companies based in the city are picky about “recruiting the finest candidates from overseas”, which has resulted in Dubai being filled with multi-skilledtalented professionals who are “hungry and eager for recognition both locally and internationally”.

This tenacity to continually elevate Dubai’s offering is perhaps why 79.1% of respondents predicted a Michelin Guide will be published in Dubai within the next five years.

Challenges

We asked chefs to name the three biggest challenges affecting their outlet’s performance and the majority picked increased competition, labour shortages and reduced consumer spending.

Di Reda from Boca, which is based in DIFC, tells Caterer that this rings true in his experience.

“Dubai has more outlets than ever had before. As a result, it’s a big challenge to maintain the current staff with all the competition despite all the effort to compensate them, not only monetarily but also with added benefits for a better work life balance.

“Reduced consumer spending is also an issue as consumers are now more aware that there is bigger competition and they are more careful about where they spend their dirhams. In addition, giving the consumer the right products at the right price also makes cost management an extra challenge,” he shares.

This year’s top challenges differ slightly to last year’s; in our 2015 survey, the cost of importing the required ingredients emerged as the biggest issue faced by chefs, whereas this year this polled fourth. It’s difficult to ascertain without further research whether suppliers’ prices have reduced or whether consumer spending has fallen so sharply in 2016 that it has overtaken prior concerns. Reports of the region attracting fewer tourists from Russia and China this year, combined with uncertainty surrounding the devaluation of the pound following the Brexit vote in the UK, could be contributing to concerns in the hospitality sector about customers spending less.

Reduced consumer spending was, in fact, cited by numerous chefs in the survey as their biggest challenge to overcome at their outlet in the next 12 months.

Meanwhile, in the 2015 survey, 27.6% of respondents said low wages was one of the biggest issues they faced and this year that percentage has jumped to 34.1%, which could mean that salaries have stagnated or, with living costs in the region as high as ever, chefs have less disposable income.

Several chefs also said that both staff retention and “not having enough qualified staff” will be issues for their outlets in the coming year, which will not be easy to address if salary concerns prevail.

The Caterer Middle East Head Chef Survey 2016 has revealed that chefs are passionate about buying local produce and raising standards in order to cement the region’s status in the culinary world, but they are facing the ongoing challenges of reduced consumer spending, labour shortages and increased competition. How will chefs tackle these issues in the next 12 months?

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