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Hospitality giants fight to keep SA kitchens from the chopping block


South Australia’s hospitality leaders have formed an alliance to tackle a skills shortage they fear threatens the state’s renowned restaurant, bar and café industry.

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The Australian Hotels Association, leading pub owners and training provider Adelaide Institute of Hospitality are among those joining forces with government funding to launch a new bid to attract and train apprentice chefs.

AIH manager Ben Sharp said some SA venues were being forced to close several days each week due to a lack of trained staff, adding that many experienced chefs and cooks left the industry during COVID-19 and never returned.

“Everyone has been complaining about shortages for a long time and we have put a line in the sand, it’s not going to be easy but we are going to have a red-hot crack at it,” said Sharp, who has worked in kitchens including The Manse Restaurant and Mount Lofty House.

The alliance has created a new scheme that offers 200 initial places where potential new chefs visit restaurant kitchens throughout South Australia, join cheese tours and make pizza, before 45 are picked for chef apprenticeships.

Leading hotel owners like the Hurley Group, RD Jones, and the Palmer Hospitality Group, which together employ thousands of staff across the state, have joined the partnership. The state government, Career Employment Group and Jobs Australia are also on the steering committee.

“If you come from America, why would you come to South Australia? You go to Queensland for the theme parks, New South Wales for the bridge and opera house, Victoria for the sport and SA is the jewel in the crown for food and wine tourism,” Sharp said.

“We should be leaning on that but we don’t have the staff to be able to grow – we have the best wine in Australia and we have the best produce, we just don’t have the people to put it onto the plate.”

He said the new alliance would also help address problems created by kitchens fighting over available trained staff, with apprenticeships on offer throughout Adelaide, Adelaide Hills and the Barossa Valley.

“There has been a lot of poaching going on with chefs, you get a good chef and that chef will get offered more money and bang, they will go there,” Sharp said, adding that it would help to have more new talent coming through the program.

Chefs like trainee Alex Heeney. He left school at 15 and decided last year that he wanted to “do something else with my life” and pursue an interest in cooking that his mother has nurtured at home.

Heeney, who is now 21, won a spot through the program and works in the commercial kitchen at Parafield Airport full time with three days a month at trade school. He said the job has boosted his self-esteem and thoughts about the future.

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, I grew up at home cooking with Mum, mainly a bunch of Welsh and Irish meals with lots of potatoes and chicken, shepherd’s pie, and my favourite five-dollar meal with garlic, a couple of vegies, leftover meat, to make bubble and squeak,” he said.

“I feel a bit better. I was a bit down in the dumps about what I would do … now there are so many things I can do with this afterwards, I could go overseas, stay in Australia, I could go anywhere pretty much.”

And working closely with a tight team in the kitchen has meant “it has sort of become my family more than anything because we are around each other in an enclosed space for so long”.

Australian Hotels Association SA chief executive officer Anna Moeller said the partnership would help attract apprentices and create long-term careers in cookery “that the industry so urgently needs”.

“Skills shortages are one of the biggest issues our hotel members are facing today and, in particular, the chronic shortage of cooks and chefs,” Moeller said.

RD Jones Group has 13 venues in SA including The Moseley in Glenelg, Port Noarlunga Hotel and Settlers Tavern in Ingle Farm, and group Human Resources manager Kate Harris said the venues employed about 450 staff.

While Harris said the group’s executive chef was constantly training new people in the kitchen it has “definitely been a challenge” finding more experienced commercial kitchen staff.

“We are hoping this will help with attracting people to the industry and hope it will support them to stay in the industry,” she said.

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