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It's not all kitchen nightmares – Lime Wood head chef Luke Holder on breaking down the industry’s stigma

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A TOP New Forest chef has said the hospitality industry needs to break away from the “fear” of intimidating figures like Gordon Ramsey to help solve the recruitment crisis.

Luke Holder, executive head chef at Lyndhurst’s five-star Lime Wood Hotel, said the traditional image of angry cooks working round-the-clock was putting off young people from considering catering as a career.

As reported in the A&T, hospitality venues across the district have been forced to cut opening hours and reduce menus as they struggle to fill positions which have been empty for months, with owners blaming the “perfect storm” of Brexit and Covid.

Luke Holder (right) with trainees Sesinando Valentim and Lee Barnes (53384898)
Luke Holder (right) with trainees Sesinando Valentim and Lee Barnes (53384898)

Luke said: “It hard to break down the stigma that’s attached to kitchens. We are put on a bit of pedestal in the media with the Gordon Ramsay attitude of shouting people down but that’s not necessarily the truth of what our businesses are, and it’s getting that message across sometimes.

“It isn’t all scary and fear. We need to get the message across that kitchens are professional working environments which actually suit people really well like me who did horrifically at school and really like to work with their hands and their hearts.

“We are working on removing that stigma. It’s not 90 hours a week for 40 hours’ pay – but that sadly is a bit of the impression you get from television because people love to see people get shouted at.”

As well as promoting a friendlier face, the industry needs good apprenticeship schemes and job flexibility to lure much-needed applicants, Luke said.

At Lime Wood, for example, apprentices are given uniforms, breaks, 40-hours-a-week contracts and support from senior staff.

The hotel, which is part-owned by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, has top hotelier Robin Hutson as chief executive and Angela Hartnett, a protege of Gordon Ramsey himself, has her name on its Hartnett Holder and Co restaurant branding.

Luke added: “One thing we are really conscious of is making sure our young apprentices aren’t put off before they’ve had a chance to grow and develop, so they work a slightly different working pattern to most of the guys and girls in the kitchen.

“They have mentors and they get proper practical experiences – they aren’t kept away from the real service.

Fin Speirs is undertaking a front-of-house apprenticeship
Fin Speirs is undertaking a front-of-house apprenticeship

“What’s really crucial for hospitality as a whole is that there’s a lot of enthusiasm coming through but we need to make sure that journey is sustained and looked after so they come through the other side.”

Many are now looking to develop their own apprenticeship schemes for next generation of chefs and front-of-house staff. Since 2012 Lime Wood and its sister hotel, The Pig at Brockenhurst, have been running an award-winning programme in partnership with Umbrella Training.

The chef course covers everything from beekeeping and butchery to foraging and charcuterie.

Luke said: “The really crucial ingredient is enthusiasm – all young chefs will make mistakes but it how you learn from them and move on that ultimately determined your success.”

Bella Sames (22) is currently in the second year of a comis chef apprenticeship scheme at The Pig in Brockenhurst.

She said: “I spent six months searching for the job I really wanted to do and when I saw the advert for the apprenticeship scheme at The Pig I knew it was perfect. I’m really interested in foraging and wild food.

“I have had a chance to work in lots of different departments and I have had some really incredible experiences. I am excited to keep building up my knowledge to the point where I know how to prepare everything in the kitchen.”

Fellow apprentice, Findlay Speirs, (18) who works at Lime Wood, originally planned to go to university after completing his A-levels, but has now chosen to train on the job for a front-of-house position.

He said: “You really can learn so much more on the job in an industry like hospitality. I am able to work within different parts of the business to develop my customer service skills.

“There are several levels of apprenticeship you can undertake – right up to hospitality management training. Eventually I would love to work on super yachts or even manage a hotel like this.”

Bella Sames is in the second year of a comis chef apprenticeship scheme at The Pig in Brockenhurst
Bella Sames is in the second year of a comis chef apprenticeship scheme at The Pig in Brockenhurst

For Luke, his own experiences at school have been fundamental to how he supports young kitchen apprentices. He said: “We get a lot of dyslexic, left-handed people in kitchens.

“At school I remember that anxious feeling of failure and one of my teachers telling me I’d never amount to anything. I remember my science homework being read out in front of the class and I’d written ‘test tub’ instead of ‘test tube’ and I was humiliated in front of the whole class.

“I remember sitting down to do my GCSEs. I walked out because I felt, ‘why am I trying to prove myself to these people?’ The classroom is quite one-dimensional in its set up – there are many people with amazing talents who just don’t achieve at school.”

He added: “We try to give our apprentices the space and support to make mistakes because we know you aren’t going to know how to cook a piece of steak correctly until you have got it wrong.

“We also try to keep a grip of the touch and feel and intuity of cooking which is an integral part of what makes cooking great. I don’t want them to operate in an environment where fear is the base-line.”

With hard work and commitment apprentices can progress quickly – although Luke cautions that the learning curve is steep in the early days of training.

He said: “This is a high performing industry. It does work to deadlines. It’s high energy – in a way it’s quite like a sports match. You go to your training in the morning and then service starts. The lights go on, the theatres open, your guests sit down and its time to deliver on the performance.

“But what does kick in is a lot of adrenalin and a great camaraderie amongst the chefs. They work as a team – that is massively important to us. If one person’s not set, none of us are set.

“I take great pleasure in watching the apprentices grow – several have gone on to great careers. One is a private chef for J.K. Rowling, another has just finished at Davies and Brook, the Michelin star restaurant at Claridges.

“It is a career that travels well – there is always demand for chefs worldwide.”

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