Nobody wants to cook for a living anymore.
A comment on an earlier blog post got me thinking about the large variety of reasons people are getting out of the cooking game, and I felt the need to explore the issue a bit further.
Well, this is a pretty complicated question, with an even more complicated answer. Also, I would imagine that if someone had cracked the case, this problem simply wouldn’t be an issue anymore. But regardless of the complexity of the matter at hand, we can still take a critical look at the industry as a whole.
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Starting out as a line cook, you’re looking at pulling in between $20-$23,000 a year. That wage is unlikely to increase for a long while, because moving up in the kitchen can take years, depending on the talent of the individual. It’s like any other craft, and there is a lot to learn. Even when you move up to management, the average salary for a sous chef (sort of an assistant manager position, depending on the restaurant and how they organize their hierarchy) sits around $46,000. Now, after the amount of time that I’ve spent as a cook, I can say that $46K a year sounds pretty sweet. But if you look at the amount of hours a sous chef is required to put in, his hourly value goes WAY down.
Customers have had it ingrained in them that they can go enjoy a nicely prepared meal and have a drink in a sit-down restaurant for less than $20. And they often can, because large corporate chain restaurants have the means to keep prices almost impossibly low.
Think Wal-Mart. Every small town that gets a new Wal-Mart gets super excited about the new low prices that their new super store can provide. But since Wal-Mart is such a huge retailer, they aren’t playing by the same rules as the local grocery store. They have a huge network of stores and nearly limitless capital to absorb fluctuations in their bottom line. The old man’s grocery store down the street simply can’t afford to lower their prices to match Wal-Mart, so they end up being driven out of town.
The same thing happens when a new Applebee’s or Chili’s comes around. They operate on an entirely new playing field that the local mom’n’pop simply can’t afford to participate on. Running a restaurant means operating within very tight margins, and to stay profitable, many have had to raise their prices. People don’t tend to appreciate the increase in cost, even if it is for a good cause like businesses paying their employees a living wage.
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Getting into this business is tough. The prospect of getting a job washing dishes all night just for the hope that one day the chef will let them chop some onions is not very appealing to the average person. In fact, a good number of cooks are only in the business because no other industry would give them a job. One of my good friends and colleagues was in exactly that predicament. He had screwed up as a kid, and did some time in prison, and nobody wants to hire an uneducated ex-con. After months of looking, he finally landed an interview at a local restaurant. He was so desperate to land the job, he wore a suit to interview for a dishwashing position. His efforts, as silly as they sound, were rewarded with a backbreaking job that paid him a whopping $8.00 and hour. After years of hard, arduous work, he got out out of the dish pit and worked his way up the stations as a line cook . He’s finally a sous chef, but the time and energy that he had to put into getting to where he is now is not something the average person is willing to sacrifice.
My experience in the business wasn’t entirely dissimilar. I started out about 10 years ago as a busser, and have worked in almost every position since (I’ve never been a bartender, nor managed the front-of-house). This craft is extremely demanding, and it takes a long time to learn. The steps that one must undergo are neither glamorous nor lucrative, and they don’t leave you with an overabundance of time or energy to devote to anything else.
For those who want to shave a couple of years off their journey, there’s always culinary school. But there’s a catch; culinary school isn’t cheap. Granted, they don’t usually cost as much as a typical university, but you aren’t always earning a typical degree. You can undergo a 15 month program at Le Cordon Bleu for around $20,000, but all you get is a certificate. Yes, you come out with some decent training, but you also leave with a sizeable debt and limited earning potential. Also, the training that students do get is often so ineffective that they have to re-learn how to work once they get themselves into a real kitchen. I’ve worked with my fair share of fresh certificate graduates, and I can promise you that a culinary certificate does not make you a chef.
There are also 2 and 4 year programs available that do allow for real college diplomas. But at a school like The Culinary Institute of America, each semester costs $13,000 in tuition, so the four semesters of the associate program totals $52,000 while the full eight semesters (four years) of the bachelor's programs total $104,000 [source: eater.com]. And these numbers are from 2013, so one can only assume that they are steadily increasing alongside the rest of the world of higher education. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree sounds great, but you still face the problem of earning potential once you leave school. No diploma will prepare you for the mental and physical stress of running a kitchen, and no restaurant owner in their right mind will hire a culinary school graduate to head up his operation. This means that the typical culinary school graduate is going to have to try and pay off $20,000 to $100,000 in debt while scraping together $20,000 a year. This is not a recipe for an easy life.
Chefs are jaded. They are hardened, bitter (and sometimes depressed) people who spend most of their time isolated from society. When you spend the majority of your waking life in an enclosed space that’s 100 degrees and smells like fish and onions while being berated with constant negative re-enforcement, it’s hard to not be affected, and nothing takes the edge off like a nice cold adult beverage after a shift. Spending all day on your feet bending over and lifting heavy and hot things all day doesn’t exactly do wonders for one’s body, so chefs don’t typically feel the need to take care of themselves physically, either. A lot of cooks smoke, too. If you threw a rock in a commercial kitchen, odds are good that you’d hit at least a couple people that suffer from mild to severe alcoholism or some other detrimental addiction.
This lifestyle is a perfect storm when it comes to forming vices. In fact, being a cook means that yours is the 5th most alcoholic job, with cooks being 1.77 times more likely to die from alcoholism [source: businessinsider.com]. The back-of-house loves to drink, and being an alcoholic with a detrimental work habit who never exercises or sleeps is simply not a sustainable lifestyle. This causes a lot of young cooks to burn out early, before their careers ever had a chance to take off.
Now, keep in mind that this is in no way indicative of the entire industry. Obviously, there are phenomenally talented chefs out there who have overcome these hardships and made incredible lives for themselves. But I guarantee that if you ask them, they would tell you that they hit rock bottom and wrestled with these psychological struggles at some point in their career.
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People that have been around the industry for awhile know about the old-school “tough-guy” routine that chefs like to pull. We’ve all watched Hell’s Kitchen. We’ve all seen Gordon Ramsay play the mean boss character. While his schtick is more of a parody designed for reality television, that person does actually exist. We all have stories to share about being publicly humiliated, teased, bullied, hazed, and harassed. Some of us even relish the thought of being able to perpetuate that behavior on subordinates of our own one day. This behaviour is outdated and despicable. Chefs who act like drill sergeants, screaming and shouting, throwing plates, slapping asses, and carrying on like drunken idiots have no place in today’s restaurant business, but they’re still here. In fact, they’re everywhere.
If a new cook is trying to make his way in the world, it should fall on us, the veterans of the industry, to build them up and not shut them down. The traditional brigade system might have been born of the French military, but we aren’t soldiers. We are craftsman, and we owe it to ourselves to carry ourselves in a more professional manner.
Picture yourself on the first day of your current job. How would you feel if you walked in, enthusiastic and eager to learn, only to be ridiculed for your lack of knowledge and experience. When cooks and chefs let their egos take the lead, something for which I am as guilty as any, we tend to be unempathetic toward those of lesser skill. But remember, we were all that wide-eyed new kid at one point, so we need to act like we would have wanted us to act back then. Ask yourself, “what would have made me better in my early days?” I bet the answer doesn’t include acting like an egomaniacal fool.
The restaurant industry is facing a very interesting set new of new challenges, and I am fascinated by the slow, but apparent ways in which it is evolving to meet them. Because these problems aren’t just affecting the back-of-house workers, but the waitstaff and management team as well. Some restaurants are adopting a new system, in which waiters no longer work for tips, but rather an hourly wage similar to the cooks. Some restaurants who adopt this system have increased menu prices, while others have begun charging an “administrative fee,” usually around 15-20%, to recoup the cost of the increased wages. This new system is even being tested out at major chains, like Joe’s Crab Shack, which is testing this system in 18 of it’s 131 stores. When asked, CEO Ron Blanchette said that tipping is an “antiquated model,” and that “It’s very different to quit a job where you make, say, $14 an hour than it is to quit a job where you are making $2.25.” [source: qz.com]
I, for one, am inclined to agree with Mr. Blanchette. The overall turnover rate in the restaurants-and-accommodations* sector was 66.3 percent in 2014, up 10 percentage points from the recent low of 56.6 percent in 2010 [source: restaurant.org]. These figures need to improve if the industry is going to continue to thrive and attract strong talent, but improvements to wages and working conditions aren’t cheap. Restaurants run tight margins, and they don’t often allow for wiggle room without passing off some of the cost to the customer. As such, we consumers need to accept the fact for that the cost of going out to eat is going to go up, in some cases significantly.
To quote the aforementioned blog comment that inspired this article, Brett Davidson said, “Worst pay I got was during my apprenticeship where I was working 90-100 hours for $250 per week, or $2-3 per hour. This is the norm for fine dining here. And they're wondering why people don't want to cook?”
Mr. Davidson is absolutely correct. How do you possibly sell someone on the notion of working 15 hour days while being compensated for less than half of minimum wage? In a world where far easier jobs that pay orders of magnitude better, how do you present this career to a new generation? Chefs, restaurant owners, and customers alike need to think critically about what makes the restaurant experience special. As our culture becomes more and more obsessed with new trends in restaurants and cooking, the demand for talented chefs and industry workers in only going to increase. The dining experience is about more than cheap calories, and sustaining that culture is going to require sacrifices of us all.