JEREMY Courmadias was never going to struggle for a restaurant job back home in Australia. The only issue was going to be the right job.
With a total of seven years at London’s Caprice Holdings, operators of institutions such as The Ivy and J Sheekey, including three as general manager of the company’s flagship restaurant Le Caprice, the Melbourne-raised one-time waiter had a CV and skills earned in one of the world’s most sophisticated and buoyant restaurant markets.
Any local restaurant operator would kill for a manager of his experience.
Little surprise Neil Perry, the Sydney-based chef whose empire has seen a total of 150 new staff put on in the past six months at two new CBD restaurants, couldn’t believe his luck when he saw the 35-year-old’s resume, interviewing him almost as soon as he landed from Britain in February.
“There wasn’t actually a position for me at the time,” says the new restaurant manager at Perry’s Rockpool Bar & Grill, “but Neil created one for me, which was nice.”
For an industry that has grown used to a diet of extremely lean personnel pickings over the past five years, the relatively sudden availability of people such as Courmadias, other returning expats and locals who have lost their jobs in a contracting restaurant industry, is the upside of the down. Quieter economic times have provided relief from a chronic problem for restaurant employers: skilled staff shortages.
From the kitchen to the dining room floor, finding experienced staff has been a nagging headache for employers for years, according to industry bodies such as Restaurant and Catering Australia, particularly in the once-booming mining states of Western Australia and Queensland.
The corollary has been over-promoted chefs and wet-behind-the-ears waiters filling a void out of necessity rather than experience or talent.
But since world financial markets went into decline last year with the domino effect felt in restaurants around the world, it’s all turned around.
“When we set up Melbourne three years ago, we had the double whammy: a saturated restaurant market and not many (restaurant) people around for the jobs,” says Perry, who runs three places in Sydney and one in Melbourne employing more than 300 chefs, waiters, hosts and peripheral restaurant staff.
“The reality for me has been that staffing the new Sydney businesses has been much simpler than the last opening, much. The level of quality in applicants has improved dramatically, and Jeremy is an example of the kinds of skills coming back to Australia from London.
“For most of us, it should mean better food and service for a nation whose easygoing nature has allowed us to gloss over declining standards in both.”
“Everybody knows that in kitchens especially, too many were promoted too early as a result of all this,” says another decorated Sydney chef, Justin North, of the restaurant Becasse.
“You’d have fourth year apprentices becoming sous (second-in-command) chefs and sous chefs becoming head chefs way too early.
“The middle ranked chefs, the heart and soul of the kitchen, were just really difficult to find. Now they’re queuing up.
“Everyone’s talking doom and gloom but this is one of the positives coming out of it all.”
According to Victoria’s Restaurant and Catering Association, there has been a significant freeing up of hospitality staff in the past nine months, driven by restaurant closures and downsizing. Staff availability has been significantly fuelled by the decline in fortunes in Dubai and London, says CEO Todd Blake.
“The marketplace for really good staff is still reasonably tough. Letting go of good people is never going to be the logical thing,” says Blake. But he says a huge number of Australians have returned from the Middle East and Europe in particular, and are looking for restaurant work.
Hospitality recruiter John Hardie, at Pinnacle, says promoting above levels of competence has been endemic in the sector and to the detriment of the industry. However, an exponential increase in applications for advertised positions over the past six months had seen a levelling of expectations on both sides.
“Candidates were not only of a higher calibre than six months ago, but demands for promotion and remuneration had been significantly tempered,” he says.
“I am getting some fantastic chefs, restaurant managers and baristas walking through the door,” says another recruiter, Bruce Ranken of VIP Staff. “We have gone 180 degrees, and (are) now in a job shortage market.
“What we are also seeing is that employers do not have to pay the large salaries they did 12 months ago to get top staff.”
For people such as Courmadias, it probably means that today’s contract isn’t quite as juicy as the one he might have struck a year ago. But he’s glad to be out of London, all the same.
“The mood, the atmosphere and the lifestyle … it’s not the most pleasurable place to live right now,” says Courmadias, who found London exciting until the bubble burst last year.
There was so much new money made in Britain in the past 10 years and everybody (in the restaurant trade) was busy regardless.
“The collapse of the financial district has hurt London’s restaurants badly,” he says, and now as a manager in Sydney he is seeing others, like him, recently returned from London and Dubai in search of front-of-house restaurant work.
“The restaurant industry here was riding high for a long time and nobody bothered to train anyone, which is why there was such a shortage,” he says. “Since I last worked in Australia, which was four years ago, things have changed a lot.”
As a manager at a thriving new up-market restaurant in the heart of Sydney’s own financial district, Courmadias undoubtedly hopes things don’t change too much more.