Pressure is mounting in commercial kitchens in Wanaka as a chef shortage forces businesses to reduce menus and chefs to work 80-hour weeks.

Café and restaurant owners said there had been a shortage of chefs in the town for about 18 months, but the problem was escalating.

Wanaka Ale House head chef Rebecca Stevenson said the restaurant was relying on an agency in Christchurch to source chefs.

“It is hugely expensive. We have to pay the hourly rate, plus provide them with accommodation which, for the better of the business, we have to do but, ultimately, we can’t sustain it. An average working week is 60 hours. On a busy Christmas/New Year, I did 80 hours for more than two or three weeks in a row.”

The restaurant was considering reducing opening hours because of the problem, Stevenson said.

Alchemy café head chef Jan Tomlin said she had worked in the industry for 40 years and had never experienced such a shortage before.

“Just about every business in Wanaka is advertising for chefs,” she said.

Restaurant Association of New Zealand Southern Lakes branch president Grant Hattaway said the shortage was not unique to Wanaka.
He said the problem had been exacerbated by a boom in the tourism industry.

“It is an issue and if it is not fixed it will slow down the tourism industry. People come here having heard good things about New Zealand wine and food, beverages, and if they don’t really get the quality that’s going to fall short of their expectation and well, it will be counterproductive to tourism.”

Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey had created a misconception of the realities of working in kitchens, he said.
He believed pay was not the main reason people left the industry.

“You have got to meet the market and the rates have certainly gone up significantly. That’s just the reality. It is tough on businesses, not just chefs.”

Speaking about a similar chef shortage in Wellington and Queenstown, Tourism Industry Association chief executive Chris Roberts said a good chef was “now priceless”.

“I think we have to raise the profile and status of tourism-related jobs like chefing,” he said.

Tourism Industry Association NZ hotels chair Penny Clark said in Queenstown the shortage was getting worse because many chefs could not afford to live there.

She worried the country would get a bad reputation if it could not get enough chefs to produce quality food.