Opinion: with over 26,000 chefs in the industry in Ireland, how does a professional chef deal with a time of uncertainty?

The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on the global hospitality industry has been immense. One month into lockdown, the Restaurants Association of Ireland sought Government action to prevent the permanent closure of 90% of restaurants and loss of jobs. With over 26,000 chefs in Ireland, what is the future for the professional chef in this time of uncertainty?

The answer may lie in the chef's education and the global chef community’s response to a changing industry and the disruption created by the lockdown. Chefs are reflecting more than ever on their values, their food community, work life balance and self-care. Such change can only inspire young entrants. We cannot underestimate the role of chefs within our food culture and how contemporary culinary education and experience empowers them to adapt and innovate to survive, even in a pandemic. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's CountryWide, chef Richard Corrigan discusses the realities of what his business will be like post Covid-19

Modern professional chef graduates have a vast array of skills, some of which brings them beyond cooking in restaurants. Their education may span areas such as botanical cuisine, culinary nutrition, culinary science, product development, gastronomy, entrepreneurship, and food media, which opens up interesting job opportunities and specialities from which they can carve their career.  Embedded in this is an open and collaborative sense of community.

While Covid-19 is very challenging for chefs, many are stepping up to the plate and using it as an opportunity to innovate, reach out to communities and support each other.  At the start of lockdown, Copenhagen chef Matt Orlando highlighted that "in order to survive, people are going to get really creative, that is of course if they have the courage to take chances outside their comfort zone. This will result in a boom in creativity."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's CountryWide, chef Mark Moriarty discusses his new series on RTÉ and cooking in lockdown

Nationally and globally, many chefs embraced positivity and creativity in order to innovate for survival. Such innovation spanned projects for survival of business, community and personal sustainability. Chefs from all sectors created meal kits, take outs, live quarantine cooking on social media and TV. Some establishments converted to selling food, while others became processors for local farm produce. Chef Dan Barber initiated ResourcED, a project encouraging chefs and restaurants to work with farmers as community to create a framework for a new food culture and teaching young chefs about the importance of small batch growing.

All chefs talk about the joy and buzz of cooking in their kitchens, but Covid-19 caused many to question what is means to be a chef. Chefs interviewed for Fine Dining Lovers' Turning the Tables’ series asked if the business of a chef was the pursuit of stars and accolades or to play an active role in their local community.

Rodrigo Oliveira’s opinion is that cooking for a local audience should be as noble as cooking for the biggest awards. The pandemic showcased the transformative power of chefs within community, with many producing meals for front-line workers, the elderly and homeless.

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From RTÉ Six One News, report on Donegal chefs preparing meals for the elderly during Covid-19

Social gastronomy, the use of the power of food as a tool for social change, has gained momentum and chefs are at the forefront of this movement. In July 2020, the Basque Culinary World Prize, which celebrates chefs who have redefined their profession beyond the kitchen, awarded one winner (José Andrés) and 10 recognition awards, celebrating the work of 11 inspiring chefs during Covid-19.

Many chefs used lockdown for self-reflection. Conversations between chefs on the Food on the Edge Speaks series revealed deep personal insights. "Your physicality is go go go as a chef, maybe it's because you are trying to avoid yourself" (JP McMahon). "We can’t lose sight of being human, we have to get through this, but we also need to keep an eye on each other" (Josh Niland). "Peace and silence have been overlooked for years, it’s time for us to go back and understand that those are the real values" (Alberto Landgraf).

So, what about the next generation of chefs? Post-lockdown, consumers have reported a greater appreciation of food, cooking, local producers and chefs. Chefs have questioned their role in the food system and explored new avenues for their talent and creativity. Social gastronomy is the new hospitality and the kitchen garden is now an essential extension of the professional kitchen.The restaurant is becoming an outlet for kitchen produce, preserves, take outs, and cooking classes. Social media is the new promotional platform for chef activities.

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From TU Dublin, how the mindful kitchen uses Mindful food production, chef self-care and positive kitchen culture

Mirroring the Sustainable Development Goals as proposed by the Chef’s Manifesto, mindful food production, sustainability, nutrition, and zero-waste must be embedded in a food system that integrates chefs, local producers and consumers. For the professional mindful chef, self-care is a priority for chef sustainability.

The future for the chef profession is exciting and, in many ways, there has never been a better time to enter this career. This future is dependent on refreshing culinary education reflective of these changes inspiring infinite possibilities, and, mentorship by a chef community embracing change in a positive kitchen culture. The industry we knew pre-Covid-19 has moved on. Yes, unfortunately, jobs will be lost, but new opportunities exist for creative, innovative, professional chefs. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ