Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Where Have all The Chefs Gone

I read this article about a year ago in the New York Times that pointed out a growing problem. There are not enough Cooks for all the kitchens. There are similar articles in most major newspapers. They discuss the dire hiring environment Chefs are currently facing as they are looking to fill positions. Where have all the good cooks gone? What has happened to the industry?


Being a refugee of the food industry myself I can give some insight into this strange phenomenon. The culinary field is one that requires long hours, passion, and dedication. Some kitchens still act very much like the classic brigade. Some kitchens are like the ones you see on TV, with flying frying pans and angry chefs. The cooks that work in these places, and really any fine dining establishment love food. They wouldn't deal with the long hours, belittling and lack of compensation otherwise.  However, this has been status quo for a while now. That is not what has changed.


What has changed is cost of living in most big cities, due to rising incomes for those in specific fields. An increase in restaurant saturation as the glitz and glamour of being a chef continues to grow and an increase in options outside the typical cook to chef route.


The Income

Major cities around the US have been seeing a drastic increase in the cost of living. You know what I mean if you live in Seattle or San Fransisco. This seems to correlate heavily with the increase in tech jobs in these large cities. Of course, this is great for people with technical backgrounds. Suddenly a 25 year old with 2 years experience is being offered a 6 figure salary with full benefits. (Good for them, seriously!). In contrast, this weighs heavily on those who don't have the tech background. When a studio is going 1700$-2000$ in some neighborhoods, where do you expect someone who barely makes above minimum wage to live? 


I recall one of my friends telling me how they finally got a raise at one of their jobs. The only reason they got that raise is because minimum wage went up...they worked at one of the top 5 restaurants in Seattle for over a year and didn't get a raise until then. Sure, they weren't working on the line, but they were getting paid just as much as someone at a fast food restaurant even with their 3 years of experience.


When bosses are only paying minimum wage to experienced cooks. It is silently stating that "they would pay you less if it were legal". I quoted this from a pretty good thread from the chefit reddit. Yes, Chefs are being forced to use reddit as a form of searching for new cooks. Check out this thread, and it goes even deeper! Where are you finding cooks from?



I have also seen twitter be used as a medium to find cooks. Check out this ad for the highly praised New Bay Area Restaurant The Morris. These places use to be able to use Craigslist and get a solid list of candidates. Now, Chefs have to work their networks, create databases of possible candidates, hire culinary agents or just hire less skilled workers in general.


This goes beyond just passion. Cooks have always had to deal with making ends meet. If you haven't read Kitchen Confidential, take a peek. Anthony Bourdain discusses how he went the money route. For cooks who decide to work at top notch places, it means low pay, long hours and slow but great pay offs(Trust me, you as a consumer want that!). You want your Chefs and cooks yearning to push the envelope and learn at places where money isn't the goal.



I was lucky, I worked as a cook in Seattle (not New York) when it was much cheaper. Even then, I couldn't spend more than 450$ on rent and had to pray I would have no catastrophic events. Nevertheless, it was much better than other cities.

Now, if you look at places like San Fransisco, it is near impossible to get away with even 15$/hr. I have a friend working at a fine dining establishment (which I won't name). He is only making 12$/hr. He does work 70 hours a week...of which only gets paid for 40 of them. Another concept that is normalized in kitchens. That is not even the nail in the coffin. He gets off so late, that all forms of public transportation are not running. Instead, he has to take a 12$+ Uber ride home. He spends more than 2+ hours of his labor, just so he can afford to drive home!


What if a programmer suddenly had to spend 100$+ just to get to home? You would have a lot of people up in arms. Rightfully so!


Saturation and Poaching


Let's talk about the next problem, the pure saturation of restaurants. With all the glamour and fame that have been shown on TV for Chef lives, suddenly more and more people are trying there luck. Even those that don't have the restaurant experience required. Causing a large influx in new restaurants. Below is the Saturation count from the Eater article located here.

This is per 10,000 households

1: San Francisco, CA, 39.3

4: New York, NY-NJ, 25.3

5: Seattle, WA, 24.9


Forbes, Paula. "Here Are the Most Restaurant- and Bar-Dense US Cities." N.p., 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 

I have only picked Seattle, New York and San Fransisco for comparison. As you can see, San Fransisco is actually more restaurant heavy than both Seattle and New York. This density of restaurants in all these cities is creating a new demand for chefs and cooks. New York compensates by having a higher density of people. However, places like Seattle and San Fransisco just don't have the same size pool to pick from.


See this article

1.28,053 New York City

2.18,187 San Fransico

3. 7,962 Seattle


@genebalk. "Seattle among Top 10 Most Densely Populated Big Cities in the U.S. for First Time Ever." The Seattle Times. N.p., 09 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Nov. 2016. 

Every one of the new restaurants require a new Chef, Sous Chef and an army of cooks to operate the BOH(Back of the House).Where will these cooks come from? If all the good ones are being hired, then it poses a challenge.

It is not uncommon for restaurants to poach the entire staff of another well-to-do establishment. If you read Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" or watch Boiling Point. Both Anthony and Gordon were able to bring entire restaurant crews where ever they went. All it requires is a few words of grandeur and a family like bond. There is a certain loyalty for cooks to chefs. Where there isn't loyalty, there is money. Take a kid with only 2 -4 years of real life experience and offer him a sous chef, or CDC(Chef De Cuisine) position at 70k a year. He will more than likely take it. A lot of these places just need all hands on deck. Any hands...so they are constantly stealing cooks and trying to retain them. This is just increasing the problem.



Where Have All the Cooks Gone


With some groups of talented cooks already leaving to get jobs as Uber drivers, Culinary Innovation Specialist, or maybe just take a job working as a cook for Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. All of which, pay way more than a 14-15$/hr gig at the hottest new restaurant.


One of my friends started working for a startup that does some pretty cool meal delivery(they actually analyze your biological markers and design a diet around you!). He not only works in culinary innovation. He also does SQL and dashboard design. Options are opening up for the most talented chefs and cooks. Hard working chefs and cooks make great employees. Sure, we can be a little fidgety, but we are used to a faster pace. We are also used to learning on the fly, and picking up skills fast without being asked.  In addition, we are practically grateful for the 9-6 hours of a start-up. We are allowed to have lives. 


There are still other options. Like development chefs, research chefs etc. That open up in companies like ChefSteps or Modernist. If you have a curious mind, and a decent pedigree, these places would love you! 


Overall, the restaurant industry is going through growing pains. They are quiet to the consumer. You may not even be able to tell. That has always been the goal of the BOH. No matter what kind of crazy stuff is going on in the back, the front must never know. So even though the BOH is constantly struggling to find new cooks due to financial and staffing problems, we the customer are barely noticing the result.


I will mention, that is not 100% true. I have begun to notice slow price hikes of dishes. General Porpoise charges 4$ for a doughnut. If that is not going for the staff, then Renee is not doing it right...Prices will begin to equalize. It is part of economics. Eventually, either incomes for techies will drop as will the cost of living or the price of going out will continue to increase and fairly so! Yes, how can you expect to make a 6 figure salary at 25 and not have to pay the inflation rate for going out? Do you expect the cooks to continue to work for scraps? Nope, you want good talent in kitchens, then pay your bills or don't go out.


Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts. Where do you think all the cooks have gone? Are you a cook who changed jobs? What are you doing now?


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I haven't really done anything where I had actual sources. My previous posts were based on my own knowledge. However, this one relied on a lot of other articles, and sources. Here are some!



NY Times

Washington Post

Chicago Tribune

Tags: Why should I become a cook, Kitchen Confidential, After Hours, A cooks mind, Tech bros, Economics, 15$/hr

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