And so, with a cough and a splutter the relief chef season in Scotland comes stuttering to a halt. For the next 4 or 5 weeks a large part of those who spend their year traveling the length and breadth of the country will find themselves at home, getting out of bed that little bit later. Enjoying the first week of it before starting to get up earlier again to start chasing down work.
A few years back before the recession hit it wasn't uncommon for a relief chef to be working all year round, outwith the industry-wide 6 week death zone that surrounds and encompasses February. When the recession hit the tourist season began starting later and finishing earlier, there were fewer and fewer Christmas work parties in December and January resulting in less work for relief chefs. That meant the financial stepping stone of Christmas period work which hopped you to the start of the next years season was getting smaller and smaller and further apart. If you weren't lucky enough you could well expect to be work-less for months.
So what's the solution?
We could make the tourist season longer? Great idea! That would suit us all down to the ground. However, trying promote new tourist to Scotland at a time when we essentially have the most miserable conditions on earth, might prove difficult. How to promote freezing rain, slush and grey skies to the world? “Pneumonia and Boredom, for the real adventurer – Visit Scotland”, “Visit the Aberdeenshire in the driving rain, at least it's not Dundee”, “Feel good about your life, Bus Tours of Fort William in November!”
Think that one's a non starter. There isn't really a solution for the closed season unless chefs are willing to travel a bit further afield. There's the ski season which some relief chefs opt for, there's also a lot of work to be found in and around the big cities down south but getting a start can some times prove tricky. There's accommodation to think about too. You can always take the option of a full-time job, but if your a relief chef and it's what you do, when the season kicks off you know whats going to happen. And that's not really that fair on the employer. What to do? You can bang at the door of the agencies as hard and as long as you like, but if there's no work there's no work.
I remember having a conversation with an older Spanish woman who I worked with on a job out in Magaluf, Mallorca last summer, courtesy of Chefs in Scotland. In between our pole dancing sets at the club we would talk about the seasonality of work over there. Everything grinds to a halt mid October and she told me you can walk most days from one end of Palmanova beach to other without seeing a soul. Unbelievable almost, looking at the thousands that shuffled up and down every hour of the day in August. I asked if it had always been this way and she proceeded to tell me that it used to be an almost all year round trade 15 or so years ago. Some of the big hotels didn't fancy staying open to deal with 50% occupancy in the cooler months and so started closing for a month, then two. One by one the other hotels followed suit and started closing earlier and earlier until they got to where they are now.
So we're not alone in Scotland. Being a relief chef in a tourist country we've got to take the good with the bad.
There's some promising light on the horizon though. As social media plays more and more a part of our life the small community of chefs are keeping in contact with each other, forming groups and pages on Facebook. There's a better chance of picking up a days work here and there, sometimes longer. Whats more encouraging is that people are talking about being open longer in the season this year, maybe only a few weeks or so, but still. Is this cycle coming round again, bumper tourist seasons again on the horizon?