Chefs understand that establishing humane working conditions is part of a sea change that is already transforming the industry.
The drumbeat began about five years ago, as the restaurant industry started to recover from the recession. The sound was faint, but chefs noticed. Openings for junior jobs like prep cook and line cook were taking longer to fill, and the applicants had weaker skills. Cooks with just one or two years of experience were applying for jobs better suited to 10-year veterans. Stagiaires, aspiring cooks who once begged for unpaid internships, were leaving after a day of work, or not showing up at all.
But the chefs’ concern was muted: After all, the industry was surging back, producing more ambitious restaurants, new culinary destinations, higher check averages and ever more culinary school graduates, all driven by Americans’ heightened interest in food and the glamorous image of the professional kitchen.
In the last year, though, the sound has become deafening. At conferences, over beers and on social media, chefs and restaurateurs are openly worrying (not to say complaining) about a crisis-level shortage of cooks.
In scores of interviews via phone and email with chefs like Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in the Napa Valley, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Jeff Michaud of Vetri Family Restaurants in Philadelphia and Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde in New York, and with large-scale restaurateurs like Ralph Scamardella of Tao Group, Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago and Chris Himmel of Himmel Hospitality Group in Boston, all of them confirmed that the shortage has affected their hiring.
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For some, it has even affected their food, forcing them to simplify dishes, to focus on basic, scalable restaurant concepts like pizza or burgers, and to hire virtually anyone who walks through the kitchen door.
“I have given up expecting that every single one of my line cooks will be able to season correctly or understand heat,” said Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan in Manhattan, where he has added dishes that he can cook himself, in advance, so that his line cooks need only heat and serve.
On a much larger scale, Scamardella, a partner in the Tao empire, with restaurants in New York and Las Vegas and 4,000 employees, said that the company compensates for the shortage by deliberately overhiring. “We see who of our new hires work out and weed out those who don’t make the cut,” he said.
Whether you call them aspirational or ambitious or chef-driven, these are the restaurants that lead the food world, and all of them report that hiring is a pain point. Up the scale from fast food or casual chains like Applebee’s, they range from seasonal cafes and wine bars to the priciest and most heralded establishments.
But what feels like a crisis in the kitchen may be more like growing pains for an industry that has expanded rapidly over the last decade.
“There has always been a limited supply of good cooks,” said Doug Crowell, who owns Buttermilk Channel and French Louie in Brooklyn. “Once it was because a handful of high-end restaurants competed for a small pool of skilled labor. Now the labor pool and the industry have both exploded.”
As food has become a national obsession, more ambitious restaurants are opening, and in more places. The demand is up for chefs who can produce elegant food and know their way around a pair of tweezers, but many young cooks reject entry-level kitchen jobs — with their harsh conditions, low pay and long hours — where those skills are taught. And so, there are more stations in restaurant kitchens than there are bodies to stand in front of them. To hire, restaurateurs have been forced to lower their standards, or at least their expectations. And to effect change, they say, they will soon be forced to raise prices.
Can restaurants make great food if they have to settle for fewer, or weaker, cooks? Prestigious kitchens like the Restaurant at Meadowood and Per Se in Manhattan will continue to hire the best young cooks and teach them to be even better. But at places like Easy Bistro in Chattanooga, Tenn., it isn’t as easy.
“We’ve been open 10 years, and I just now have a fully professional crew; no students or hired guns,” said Erik Niel, the chef and owner, referring to line cooks looking for maximum pay and minimum commitment. “It slowed my development as a chef and manager.”
For diners, this gap between what the chef wants to do and what the cooks can execute explains why many new places offer dazzling menus but disappointing food.
According to national data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more new full-service restaurants opened from 2004 to 2014 than in any other segment of the industry, including fast food. The bureau’s Employment Projections program anticipates about 15 percent growth through 2025 in the number of Americans working in those restaurant kitchens; nearly 200,000 more line cooks and chefs will be needed.
Those new restaurants are no longer concentrated in just a few places. “It used to be that you would work in one of a handful of cities to cut your teeth as a young cook,” according to Daniel Holzman, an owner of the Meatball Shop restaurants. “Now the concentration of great restaurants is spreading to more and more places.”
The rising cost of living in culinary destinations like New York City and San Francisco has contributed to this redistribution of talent. “They move away to Portland or Seattle; places where the lifestyle is more affordable,” said Crenn in San Francisco. Places like Nashville, Tenn.; Houston; Savannah, Ga.; and Washington D.C. have become incubators of culinary talent.
Chefs may see a shortage of cooks, but the overall picture is one of growth.
“I think the chefs who see a shortage are actually responding to a skills gap,” said Alice Cheng, the founder of Culinary Agents, a LinkedIn-like hub for culinary jobs. “They assume that someone applying for a certain job should have a particular set of skills and experience, but today’s young chefs have different expectations.”
Just 10 or 15 years ago, the model for restaurant kitchens was still a military one: The grunt’s job was to keep his head down, follow orders and be loyal to his commander and his squad. Generations of chefs in Europe worked within the apprentice system, starting out by peeling potatoes all day at age 16 and rising — slowly — to positions as sous-chefs and chefs de cuisine. In many countries, those are stable, lifelong jobs. But today’s ambitious young chefs are hungry for more.
“In this informed era, it is a lot to ask of someone to cook a section for 25 years and be happy with it,” said Christian Puglisi, a revered chef in Copenhagen who is a veteran of Noma and has his own restaurants, Relae and Manfreds.
YouTube, Facebook and the global media coverage of events like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards have provided new ways for chefs to learn from, follow and connect with one another. Companies like Twitter are dipping into the pool of culinary talent, luring chefs to feed their employees; places like Whole Foods and Sweetgreen offer chefs the same pay as restaurants and better hours. Delivery startups like Blue Apron, Quinciple and Plated are generating jobs. And entrepreneurship matters: Culinary school graduates are driving sandwich trucks, opening bakeries and making charcuterie.
Cooks joining the profession now are more particular about the kitchens they want to work in, better equipped to move from job to job and from city to city, less willing to work long hours for low wages and more impatient to rise.
“I see people my age and younger jumping around, thinking they can learn to cook fish in a month, pasta in a month, and then open their own restaurant,” said Matthew Ruzga, 32, a sous-chef at Del Posto. “The tradition is that you work at least a year for each chef.”
Most executive chefs take a dim view of the new approach. They see young cooks as not committed to the craft.
“They want the success,” said Matt Jennings of Townsman in Boston, a defender of the old system. “But when they realize it’s a 90-hour week, filled with unglamorous moments and insurmountable challenges, they flee.”
Many chefs blame television for presenting unrealistic versions of life in restaurant kitchens, and they are outraged that the skills they have mastered over decades are viewed as optional by the new generation.
“Wanting to create a positive kitchen culture and also to have unforgiving, exacting standards is a hard balance to strike,” said Kostow at the Restaurant at Meadowood. “There needs to be some understanding that this is a hard job that might well suck for several years. Period.”
However, these chefs also understand that establishing humane working conditions is part of a sea change that is already transforming the industry. The shortage is forcing them to respond to a long-standing reality: To attract talented employees, to earn their loyalty and to bring their businesses into line with modern workplace standards, the tradition of overworking, underpaying and hazing kitchen workers until they learn to cook will have to end.
“Until we determine a fair and equitable way to provide greater compensation for restaurant cooks, we will continue spinning our wheels as an industry,” said Himmel, a longtime operator of successful restaurants like Grill 23 and Harvest in the Boston area.
In a speech at last year’s Roots of American Food conference, Mark Canlis, the fourth-generation owner of Canlis in Seattle, called the restaurant industry “a broken place,” citing high levels of addiction, poverty and burnout in professional kitchens.
Women, especially, tend to abandon the culinary workforce before they can rise, partly because most restaurants demand work hours that are inflexible and incompatible with raising children.
Industry leaders envision kitchens where no cooks have to work 11-hour shifts six days a week just to keep their jobs; where they earn a living wage with paid vacations, sick days and medical benefits; where long-term employment seems not only viable, but desirable.
Leading restaurateurs have begun to attack the problem from several directions. They are offering farm trips and teaching butchery, paying for professional courses in topics like wine and cheese tasting and working with high schools to identify and educate the cooks of the future.
“Working with kids who have a real hunger to learn and investing in them is key,” said Marcus Samuelsson, the chef and owner of Red Rooster in Harlem.
Most significant, of course, are measures that directly increase salaries. At her new San Francisco restaurant, Petit Crenn, Crenn has eliminated waiters altogether and put the cooks and sommeliers to work in the dining room to funnel more money to the kitchen.
She is among several influential restaurant chef-owners — like Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz and Daniel Patterson — who have started charging diners a flat fee or service fee instead of accepting tips. The additional revenue is repurposed as additional pay for kitchen workers, who have long earned less than their counterparts in dining rooms.
Last week, the restaurateur Danny Meyer announced that all the restaurants in his empire would make the change by the end of the year. During his three decades in the business, he said, the average compensation for cooks has gone up just 25 percent, while servers are making 200 percent more than they did in 1985.
Redistributing tips from customers is one way for restaurateurs to increase compensation to the back of the house, but it comes at a price, as do other measures, like paid time off and dental benefits. Recent changes in federal immigration enforcement, individual states’ minimum wage levels and local ordinances like New York City’s new law mandating paid sick leave are among the regulatory pressures making workers ever more expensive.
Many owners warn that improved workplace conditions for cooks will inevitably bring higher prices to menus. Most also say that if restaurants are to continue to flourish, diners and owners have no other choice.
Kris Schlotzhauer, a chef in Toronto, posted an urgent plea to chefs on Facebook last month.
“Change the industry and maybe, one day soon, we will start to attract new talent again,” he wrote. “Go to your owners and ask for more money for your cooks, they deserve it, so find a way to make their lives better. Because if we have no cooks, we have no industry. We are at the tipping point, and it’s gonna take an industrywide culture change to fix it.”