Pizza chefs in short supply, but the pizzerias keep on opening

Pizzaiolo in action at Via Napoli restaurant in Surry Hills, Sydney.
Pizzaiolo in action at Via Napoli restaurant in Surry Hills, Sydney. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Nothing is safe from the bad news of price rises and shortages, not even a slice of pizza.

Local pizza-making talent is thin on the ground, with latest jobs data showing a record 212 per cent increase in vacancies in hospitality since February 2020.

"I can confirm that it's worse than ever. It was hard before COVID, but now it's worse," says David Mackintosh, owner of SPQR, which operates pizzerias in Melbourne's CBD and the eastern suburb of Mont Albert.

Making proper wood-fired or Neapolitan pizza is a highly skilled job, but one that isn't treated with the same reverence as other chef roles in Australia. Employers are having to pay chefs record salaries or scale back menus to get around the staff shortage.

"The workforce shortage in Australia is the worst it's ever been," says Wes Lambert, chief executive of industry body Restaurant & Catering Australia. "Especially for hospitality, which has over 95,000 jobs listed at the end of March."

In Sydney, Luigi Esposito saw about 20 staff depart his Via Napoli restaurants when the pandemic reached Australia. Once the government announced JobKeeper and JobSeeker wouldn't be available to people on temporary visas, many hopped on a plane.

Skilled pizza chefs Simone Boiano, Vittorio Traficante and Maurizio Donatelli at Noi Pizzeria in Melbourne's Preston.
Skilled pizza chefs Simone Boiano, Vittorio Traficante and Maurizio Donatelli at Noi Pizzeria in Melbourne's Preston. Photo: Eddie Jim

Some owners, including Stefano Maffei of Noi Pizzeria in Melbourne's Preston, paid international employees out of their own pocket to hang on to them, even if they weren't working. "I could see there would be a shortage of staff after the pandemic," he says.

Lambert says that NSW and Victoria are each facing staff shortages of close to 30,000 in hospitality, with chef and cook positions making up about 40 per cent of these figures.

In that market, a skilled pizza chef (called a pizzaiolo) can call the shots.

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"It almost feels like you are the one being interviewed," says Maffei of the applicants he sees.

Mackintosh has heard of bigger businesses offering signing bonuses, something small pizzerias like his can't compete with.

In Sydney, Esposito has spent between $45,000 and $50,000 on job advertisements in the last two years, but finds that staff quickly move on if they get offered more money. He has made pizza since the age of 11, and shares his skills with staff who want to learn.

It's not just throwing ingredients on top of dough.

Ken Williams, Dimitri's

Sydney pizzaiolo Ken Williams has 13 years' experience and co-owns his business Dimitri's in Darlinghurst, where he's also manager and licensee. On top of that he works with one other pizza chef every night the restaurant is open, stretching up to 150 margheritas, marinaras and more.

With Dimitri's soon opening a bar, he'll need more chefs to work the wood-fired oven and make dough but is worried about the lack of skilled candidates out there.

"It's not just throwing ingredients on top of dough," he says.

Via Napoli's Naples-style margherita.
Via Napoli's Naples-style margherita. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Maffei says that "if you want [a chef] that does traditional Neapolitan pizza, they need to be able to stretch a pizza in 10 seconds max, to dress the pizza in 30 seconds and then cook the pizza in two-and-a-half minutes".

Mackintosh says that "domestically the market doesn't have nearly enough skill.

"It's not a quick thing to switch, you don't just train them up in a year."

He hasn't seen much change in the talent pool since borders reopened a month ago.

"They're trickling back, but when you take out the path to migration and all the skilled holidaymakers who had pizza chef skills, you see the situation at its absolute worst, which is right now."

But Australian diners seemingly can't get enough artisan pizza, with new restaurants opening in Melbourne and Sydney. How they'll operate is the question.

While Maffei continues to spend $15,000 extra on his labour bill each month, he's managed to recruit three pizza chefs from Italy via networks in his hometown, Naples. They're all here on working holiday visas.

Both he and Mackintosh are separately toying with the idea of a pizza academy to train locals. "But it doesn't solve today's problem," Mackintosh says.

He's just signed a contract to supply pizzas at the MCG, and says it's a struggle to keep up with the requirements at present. To cope, he's scaled down the menu and hours at his new Mont Albert venue.

Lambert and others want the government to do more to encourage workers back to Australia. "They are scared to come here after what happened last time," says Esposito.

"Subsidised flights, instead of free visas, or subsidies on short-term accommodation [would help]," says Lambert. "Most certainly, further funding for faster visa processing times and onshore applications will speed up the process."

Esposito would like working holiday visa age limits – currently 30 years for most countries – increased.

"The 20- and 22-year-olds are more about [their] holiday; it's not about work. We need the people with the skills."

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