The restaurateur Stuart Gillies offers an unusual cocktail of the week: a delicious-looking Monte Cassino. But what does this have to do with the price of fish?
Everything, as it turns out. Gillies, who ran Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant empire for seven years, is using less popular spirits to create something special on a creative menu aimed at saving him and his diners money. And the same applies to food. Soaring fish prices led him to remove salmon, cod and sea bream from the menu and replace them with mackerel and hake.
He is one of hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs across the country who, faced with crippling ingredient price increases and staff shortages, are being forced to rethink their menus and take other cost-cutting measures before the summer holidays. Renowned chefs, including Tom Kerridge, Mitch Tonks and Razak Helalat, told the Observer they either have to shut down a few days a week, cut staff hours, or swap key ingredients in their dishes.
“Our costs had gone up 20%, so we were raising prices,” Gillies said. “It was crazy. We can’t keep going up. So I decided to lower the prices and do a zero waste policy.
The bar at his restaurant, Bank House in Chislehurst, Kent, creates a new cocktail every week with spirits people rarely drink: in the case of Monte Cassino, Benedictine and Yellow Chartreuse. The wine from the opened bottles is used for a tasting selection. Toppings go into soups, sauces, and pies. And while lobster and chateaubriand are still on the menu, other ingredients have been replaced and prices are back to 2019 levels.
“Salmon was crazy money,” Gillies said. A smoked salmon salad became a smoked mackerel salad. “It’s still a premium product. Portions of cod and sea bream have increased significantly. We therefore use hake instead for the moment.
Gilles is not the only one. Kerridge has cut her menu at the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, a pub with two Michelin stars, from six starters, mains and desserts to four each, while the Coach, her other outlet in Marlow, which has one star , is now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays due to a shortage of staff.
Hospitality is at the intersection of all the crises affecting the UK – food shortages, frayed supply chains, fuel inflation, uncapped energy prices, lack of workers, Covid loan debt and post-lockdown hangover from customers not getting him out as much as before.
Holidaymakers in the UK will therefore need to keep their expectations in check. Chip shops and gastropubs in Devon and Cornwall are removing cod from their menus, as are more expensive restaurants such as Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish chain. About 40% of UK cod is caught by Russian boats, and sanctions imposing a 35% tariff on Russian fish are also driving up the cost of Norwegian supplies, Tonks said. “A plate of cod and chips would cost £24,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for consumers to bear this cost. It’s temporary, but in the meantime we have some amazing fish in Britain.
Flour has doubled in price for restaurateurs, due to grain shortages from Ukraine, and a lack of animal feed has pushed up prices for beef and dairy, while salmon is now at its peak. highest price ever recorded. Bird flu outbreaks have hit poultry and even supplies of olive oil and other cooking oils have been cut off.
Almost everyone is affected – for example, the Coal Shed restaurants in Helalat are adding chicken to the Sunday roast menu because beef is very expensive. Even McDonald’s warned customers for months to expect missing ingredients, while Wetherspoon’s had shortages last year but has since recovered.
Amid warnings that the UK is heading into recession while being hit by 9% inflation, hotels and restaurants are also hampered by bureaucracy, according to Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality. With 174,000 vacancies, an 83% increase since 2019, the UK is losing £22 billion a year.
“About one in 10 jobs go unfilled in the sector,” she said. “A quarter of businesses are reducing their hours, closing certain days or not selling their full capacity. Hotels are refusing reservations. It’s about £7 billion for the Treasury. If you are looking to get out of a difficult economic environment, not having access to personnel is a constraint that we cannot afford.
Kerridge’s flagship pub, the Hand and Flowers, is open 24 hours a day and requires 75 staff to run the restaurant and rooms, he told the Observer.
“Everyone works overtime or overtime,” he said. Recruitment is very difficult, despite higher than average salaries. “The kitchen is the hardest hit, but we can’t just make the decision to close on certain days, so we have a reduced menu. We have to achieve the same standard – it’s a two Michelin star restaurant – but you have to reduce the workload.
Down the street, the coach closes on Mondays and Tuesdays to ensure staff get a proper break. “They were still pretty strong days,” Kerridge said. “We are losing two days of income.” Restaurant owners are facing a rise in VAT and still have to repay loans taken out to stay afloat during Covid, he added.
The lack of staff is partly due to the fact that thousands of elderly people took early retirement during the pandemic. But the lack of students coming from hospitality schools and the absence of young European workers since Brexit in 2021 are bigger issues.
Mark Selby, the co-founder of Wahaca, a Mexican-themed channel, said signs of growth ahead of last Christmas had been blocked by Omicron, and were still around 25% below 2019 levels.
“I can guarantee you that my sales would be 20% higher if we had more people to work with,” he said. “We have restaurants, but we cannot fill them. The government needs to recognize that there is a labor crisis, put Brexit aside and accept that we are close to full employment. Somewhere – whether in Europe, India or South Africa – we have to allow a workforce to be here and welcome it.
“I have the impression that every week it gets worse and that the government has its head in the sand. It is a national problem. In 12 years of operation I have never had a problem where we ran out of anything. Now we receive calls daily.
UK Hospitality has advocated for a working holiday visa for students, which Nicholls says could be achieved by extending the EU trade deal and advancing proposals for deals with Australia, New Zealand, India and Canada. “First and foremost, cut the red tape and costs associated with the immigration process, which means it’s out of reach for most of our hospitality businesses,” she said.
Liam Nelson, the co-founder of Pastaio in London, sponsored an American chef. The process took several months and cost £2,000. “She probably spent about six weeks with us before she decided it wasn’t the right role for her, which isn’t all that unusual for a chef, but it makes it a lot more frustrating when you’ve been through this process,” he said.
“Hospitality is an international industry, and people do it because they love it. It was once an incredibly attractive stopgap that turned into an incredible career for many people. Without this flexibility, it is not viable. Eating out is an integral part of British culture and we won’t have enough places to do it.