Across the country, executive club chefs and culinary directors are struggling to find qualified kitchen staff. This is the problem facing Jerome Nicholas, Executive Chef at the Club at Ibis in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“With so many openings every year at the beginning of the season, there is not enough local workforce to satisfy the demands,” he says.
The same goes for Michael Huminski, Director of Food and Beverage at Broken Sound Club in Boca Raton, Fla. “We make every effort to attract talent from the local market,” he says. “Around 70% of our culinary team is made up of local staff, while the remaining 30% are international.”
Facing a shortage of qualified staff across the country, leading clubs have come to rely even more on international visas offered by the U.S. for qualified, skilled workers.
“The H-2B program gives us trained, seasoned employees ready to hit the ground running,” says Jeff Perez, Executive Chef of Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn.
Filling the Gaps
The H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers Visa, or H-2B, is issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It is designed to help American employers bring in temporary, seasonal workers to fill jobs in any sector outside of agriculture.
The U.S. State Department issues the J1 Visa as a cultural exchange to offer international students, recent graduates, and young professionals an opportunity to learn, train, and experience life in the United States. The J1 Visa has a subcategory devoted to culinary internships and apprenticeships.
“With the J1 visa, we rotate employees in four different locations for three months at a time, and with the H-2B, two locations for three months at a time,” said Ibis’ Nicholas.
Agency vs. Internal Experts
Bringing on an international staff is a high-stakes gamble. Visas take time and require extensive documentation. Many clubs hire an outside consulting firm or work closely with internal HR to oversee the process. Because the H-2B visa is frequently abused, there is extra scrutiny, and clubs must be ready to provide documentation and oversight.
Fairview CC seeks out workers at the beginning of the visa process.
“During February, our management team travels to Florida to interview candidates from various clubs. They assist in training and work directly with the H-2B staff,” says Perez. “We look for staff early in the visa process so they can return for two or three seasons before returning to their home country.”
Fairview CC identifies candidates and works with an agency.
“Our current recruiting company provides all the necessary paperwork and proposed candidates,” he adds. “They work directly with our HR department to file the [visa] applications.”
Ibis, on the other hand, oversees visa applications internally.
“We are lucky at Ibis,” says Nicholas. “We have a person in HR whose sole duty is recruiting and organizing all our international staff—and she does a fantastic job at it.”
The Benefits of Going Global
The opportunities of bringing in J1 and H-2B workers are enormous, not just for the international team member but also for the club kitchen. Perez has been consistently impressed by the personnel he can bring to Fairview.
“These individuals brings a different outlook from the perspective of life experiences and cuisine,” he says.
Broken Sound’s Huminski agrees. “Despite traveling from afar, These individuals consistently demonstrate a strong work ethic and a willingness to go above and beyond to meet the needs of our members.”
Alongside work ethic and training, an international kitchen provides an invaluable asset: direct access to new culinary experiences.
“As our club members seek a variety of dining experiences, our international staff allows us to introduce unique cuisine from different parts of the world that may be unfamiliar to our members,” says Huminski.
Perez feels the same. “I let my visa students be creative with menu items and ideas,” he says. “South African Braai (BBQ) and Portuguese Salt Cod Stew have been some of the menu items our visa staff added. Their contributions help the entire team grow and greatly benefit the membership at Fairview.”
Assets and Ambassadors
“Our biggest challenge is that the visa employee may have issues in their home country,” says Perez. “Once a worker returns home, they most likely cannot return that season. However, when they return home, they become an ambassador for the club.”
Once a former visa employee has had a good experience with a club, they pass that information along to the company they work with and other workers from their home country, thus making each club a more attractive destination for future workers.
“We have had tremendous success in developing future leaders through our J1 and H-2B programs,” says Huminski. “Many of our current senior executives, including the AGM, Director of Restaurants, Pro Shop Manager, IT Managers, Banquet Managers, and Restaurant Managers, began as program participants.”