The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia despite some drawbacks, more about this later, is home to thousands of well trained chefs. Those chefs who’ve traveled Saudi for work are, with few exceptions, there for one reason, money. There are other potential ancillary benefits too. The Kingdom boasts many superb luxury destinations and prestige restaurant brands. Alcohol may be off the menu but everything else your heart desires is very much on the menu.
Chefs to Saudi Arabia – Mission Possible….Just About
So while money is the critical “attractant,” it isn’t the sole determining factor in the mind of a chef when deciding to move to Saudi Arabia. For us recruiters though money is the ingredient that allows us to get a conversation going with a chef about moving there. Given a strong package a good chef recruiter will, most of the time, have a strong enough hand to make some claims on the time of high end chefs. To be fair it’s my experience that most Saudi employers do understand this which spares me having to tell them. However until recently I always assumed this was something all hiring managers in Saudi Arabia understood long before picking up the phone to speak to a chef recruiter. Now I know better.
Leaving aside all the drawbacks of recruitment, and they are many, it’s a job that I, as a former chef, find truly fascinating. It’s full of gawping, jaw hanging surprises and bracing insights. As recruiters we’re permanently positioned right between employers and chefs. We’re the bridge between the two and, even without a degree in engineering, you’re probably savvy enough to know that some bridges are more easily engineered than others.
Crazy Jobs and Unlikely Metaphors
While I don’t want to stretch a metaphor beyond breaking point the most recent request I’ve taken from a Saudi employer, and the trigger event for this post, turned into the recruitment equivalent (or it would have been had I chosen to accept it) of the building of Macau Bridge. Now that I think about it, the bridge metaphor doesn’t even work, Macau Bridge is possible, the chef request in this instance isn’t, or should I say wasn’t.
So what exactly can scupper a chef recruitment project for Saudi Arabia before it even gets started? Answer: the absence of realism.
Put Away Fantasy Thinking
Let me explain, but before I do here’s a disclaimer: everything else you’re about to read is false. Not false in spirit or form, rather false in the details. You hardly think I’d break confidentiality by revealing any specifics likely to identify the subject of the story? Good, I’m not going to, that’s why some details have been obscured while others have been changed completely. However in “formal” terms what follows is an accurate portrayal of how a chef recruitment project for Saudi Arabia gets derailed before it even gets started.
The initial “job order” came via email (this is not copied from the original email, but it is formally similar):
“We are XXX Company located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, we want to recruit European Executive Chef with at least 10 years experience. An Executive Chef willing to work in Saudi Arabia.
Age between 32-40, mature, has excellent experience in top international restaurants such as Oblix, Momofuku, Cheval Blanc (again not the actual names mentioned, but close) etc, with expert knowledge in Italian and French food.
Must be willing to start in one month, we will offer a very good package.”
When I get a “job docket” like this my immediate thought is: “all things being equal I can fill this!” That’s why I was looking forward to speaking with them, real soon; but there was one nagging problem lurking within the email and I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with it i.e. the “start in a month bit.”
Get Realistic About “Time To Hire”
Frankly , million to one shots aside, I knew this wasn’t on, no matter how gifted or well connected the recruiter, and I wasn’t relishing having to break the news to my new friends in Jeddah. They wanted a superb head chef, with very specific experience and they wanted that chef to be either, currently unemployed, i.e. a million to one shot, or willing to walk out on their current employers and relocate to Saudi Arabia in time to start a month later. Who wants an Executive Chef who’s prepared to do that? I wouldn’t, would you?
In any case I hoped to persuade them to find a way to push back the deadline. As I was to discover I was overestimating by ability to persuade every bit as much as my prospective client was overestimating my ability to make magic happen. Another assumption I clung tightly to was my belief that the rest of the package would be rewarding enough to persuade a chef, of the pedigree they were demanding, that is to say exceptional pedigree, to relocate to Saudi Arabia. Tough yes, for sure, but also “doable.”
So we’ll fast forward a couple of days and finally I’m speaking to the HR Manager of this company (who, by the way, was extremely courteous) and, as gently as I can, I’m explaining to her that elite chefs, by their very nature, are seldom unemployed and are certainly not enthusiastic about acquiring a reputation for betrayal and unreliability. Which is precisely the reputation they’d get by breaking contract with their employers to leave for Saudi Arabia with little or no notice time. Hence the necessity to allow for, depending on circumstances, between one and three months notice time, from the time of contracts being signed.
I was relieved I encountered no push back on this from the HR Manager and I thought I’d got the one thorny issue dealt with very elegantly; as it would transpire this was yet another thing I got wrong. In hindsight I think the extreme courtesy of the HR Manager got in the way of her insisting to me that the start date was set in stone. Had that happened we’d already be at the end of the story.
Anyway, among a long list of other issues I wished to discuss was the issue of “the package.” This is the crucially important component and nowhere is this more true about than Saudi Arabia. If the package isn’t right then no chef recruiter in the world is going to get you what you want. So what was the package? Answer: they didn’t know, it had yet to be discussed. Oh brother.
In recruitment you can’t make a move without the rewards package being agreed upfront. This is doubly the case with any overseas moves and when that overseas move is to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, then it’s even more important that the package is really worthwhile. I explained this to them and, again as delicately as possible, offered some guidance. Specifically I said that European Chefs, and many others besides, will work in Saudi Arabia for one reason above all others, and that reason is the employer is offering a superb rewards package that would be agonising to decline. Furthermore that allowances for those with family need to be worked out upfront and in detail.
Factor In Families
These family considerations would have to take into account family medical insurance, children’s education, transport, accommodation etc. And there’ll also be those chefs who’ll elect to leave their family at home, so get ready to factor in very generous flights allowances. Oh and all this assumes that the business you want them to head up is prestigious enough that it won’t devalue their CV. Elite chefs have spent their lives avoiding subpar career moves and won’t want to break that habit for you, or, for that matter, me. That’s how they got to be elite chefs and that’s why you want them, isn’t it?
We’re nearly done here but the epilogue was one that I really had enough red flags to have seen coming so I wasn’t shocked when another email arrived restating the one requirement that simply doesn’t work and simply won’t work i.e. The requirement that this demigod of cuisine be sourced, vetted, hosed and ready to begin work in Saudi Arabia one month later. And the package? €50,000 – €64,000, with accommodation and nothing else. That is not a good package for Saudi Arabia and for the type of Chef they were dreaming of hiring it falls so far south of where it needs to be that there isn’t even the basis for having any further discussions.
So going out with more of a whimper than a bang it fell to me to write them and explain that I was recommending they find another recruiter and even going so far as to offer to refer them to some other companies (professional rule: always give people options).
I didn’t hear from them again, my best guess is that they’ve rationalised the situation as “recruiter failure,” and that the same job has since been dropping into the inboxes of various chef recruiters from here to Berlin. One thing I don’t have to speculate about is that without seriously reworking the package on offer they’ve no hope of hiring a chef remotely close to matching their requirements. Wanting isn’t getting. However if you are a Hospitality Employer from Saudi Arabia and haven’t had your national pride offended by this narrative rest assured that we’re very very good in the art of the possible; it’s just that miracles are beyond us.
Photo by Basheer Olakara