Boosting the appeal of foodservice as a career destination

The foodservice industry’s reputation has suffered some damage in recent years and under the harsh spotlight of the unprecedentedly difficult circumstances created by the pandemic. But, for its flaws, it remains a labour of love and an industry in which talented and committed chefs and cooks can flourish and forge long and successful careers.

The key is getting that message out.

Keith Hoare, Chef Instructor at Thistletown Collegiate, and the Culinary Federation Oakville branch recently hosted a career path event dedicated to helping to solve this problem.

“One of the biggest challenges right now is to get young people excited about careers in hospitality,” Hoare laments. “There’s been a big exodus of people because of the pandemic and there’s been a whole litany of complaints. I wanted to show my students that the industry is worthwhile pursuing and that there’s a whole list of pathways and career choices.”

Hoare reached out to colleagues, industry leaders, and friends to put together a roster of people who have reached significant success in a variety of different fields in the industry. Those included the likes of the hotel’s own events and catering leaders; Culinary Federation Oakville Branch President Lisa Alexander; Chris Zielinski, the Executive Chef at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment; Philman George, the Corporate Chef at High Liner Foods; and Carmelo Vadacchino, the Corporate Chef at CookUp Restaurant Supplies.

The group came together for a conference on May 2 at Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in downtown Toronto that was devoted to trying to answer some of the key questions facing the industry, from how hospitality can change its perception to how it can appeal more to younger generations and how it can better support workers and aid their mental health.

One of the panels consisted of managers at the hotel who spoke to students about their varying journeys and roles in the business, and another saw seven executive chefs talk about their own pathways and the benefits of a career in foodservice and hospitality.

Hoare hails the chefs involved for their commitment and eagerness to talk to the culinary students about the industry. “For the most part, culinarians are the most generous people, because they take care of people for a living,” he says.

Overall, there were 15 guest speakers, and Hoare was “really humbled” by the turnout.

“One example is Zielinski,” he notes. “This event was on the same day as the first game of the Maple Leafs playoff series with Tampa Bay Lightning, so he had players to feed and restaurants to run on his most important day of the year, he’s hosting 20,000 people for concessions and dinners, and he still took an hour out of his day to come and talk to the kids. That speaks to the level of commitment of people in hospitality to make that sacrifice and find the time.”

A third panel was an all-star women-in-hospitality panel co-hosted by Alexander and Hassel Aviles, Executive Director of mental health and addiction non-profit Not 9 to 5. That focused, among other things, on the importance of supporting the mental and emotional health of foodservice workers.

On that front, Hoare describes the pandemic as “a watershed moment” for the foodservice industry.

“People didn’t really come out and talk about their mental health or their wellbeing very much before,” he says. “It was always viewed as a sign of weakness in a kitchen environment, unfortunately. The pandemic shone a focus on that because more people in society in general were feeling anxious and distraught, especially if they were thrown out of work or if they had loved ones who were ill. It’s become more acceptable to talk about those issues.”

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Ultimately, the event reiterated that the industry is working hard to make its workplaces safer and more inclusive environments that are in tune with workers’ needs.

“We want students to know that if you’re considering entering this industry, this is the time to do it,” Hoare stresses. “There are so many people looking to make changes and improve it. It’s already happening – the industry is responding well to the spotlight that has been on it in recent months.

“Unless we continue to address this as an industry, we’re never going to shake the labels we have with some people. We must reset as an industry and refocus on the environments that we have as workplaces. People aren’t going to put up with harassment, abuse, wage theft, improper tip pooling. If we don’t attract young people and we don’t make this industry a great place to be, we’re not going to have enough workers.”