Good cooks are quitting the kitchen, and that’s bad news for your favourite restaurant
As experienced pros are replaced by passionate up-and-comers, will diners notice a change in seasoning?
If I hadn’t gone to cooking school or spent six years working in Toronto kitchens, I wouldn’t be who I am today: a writer, not a cook.
Cooking is a wonderful art, skill, trade and craft. But as a career, it stinks: The ratio of work versus reward is inexcusable, and hard-working young cooks, bamboozled by TV into thinking they might one day become celebrity chefs, are waking up to that fact that the odds of winning an Oscar are higher. As a result, established chefs with kitchens to run are finding fewer and fewer qualified cooks.
In the fourth quarter of 2015, Statistics Canada listed job vacancies across Canada for 1,845 welders, 1,535 electricians, 1,825 carpenters, 2,565 mechanics, 1,085 plumbers and 9,115 cooks. If it seems like there’s a massive discrepancy between unfilled cooking jobs and other skilled trades, consider the difference in what those professions earn. A certified tradesperson can make $30 an hour or more; many experienced cooks top out at around half of that.
I left the profession years ago, but more and more cooks today say that being paid like the kid who shovels the driveway, while being expected to perform with a level of precision that keeps the Yelp monsters at bay, day after day, is reaching a tipping point.
“I just paid a guy $180 for about a half hour of work to fix my washing machine,” said Andrew Starling, a cook at L’Unita Enoteca in Yorkville. “On the other hand, I can work like a demon in hellish conditions, producing food that always has to be perfect, for $15 per hour. If I was giving career advice to a teenager, I’d say become a repair person, mechanic, plumber, etc.”
This wasn’t a even response to a question I asked. This is how the interested parties are talking among themselves. Starling’s comments appeared on a Toronto-based industry Facebook page called the Food and Wine Industry Career Navigator, in a lively thread in which seasoned cooks are discussing their reasons for fleeing, or considering a departure from, kitchen careers. The unambiguous short answer: to earn a better, happier, more comfortable living in another field. (All cooks quoted here, including Starling, granted me permission to use their quotes, which have been edited for clarity.)
“I’ve been cooking professionally for almost 20 years. Everything from fast food to fine dining and I’m damn good at what I do. I make $16/hr and that’s topped out in my kitchen. The people who are paid what they’re worth to cook are the exception, not the rule.”
“A chef is a Red Seal trade. Yet every other trade makes around $30-$40 an hour. Where a cook makes $15-$20. I’ve been in the industry for 15 years. I quit 2 months ago. Best decision ever. New job pays me better than the kitchen with no prior job experience. My 15 years still gets me $15 an hour offers. It’s a joke.”
Kyle Thomas Wyatt
“I make a lot more money and have more stability in my life working as a butcher. I still cook part time but I honestly can’t afford to live off a cooking job.”
“I haven’t been a cook that long but I see a lot of cooks quitting around me. I don’t have anything to compare it to. In my day job, I work in adult education and employment and we get a lot of trained cooks looking to switch to another trade. I also see the animosity between the new and the old, which is the nature of creative industries.”
“[Y]ou can’t afford to live in the city on the rate we make until you have 3-5 years of experience. Everyone’s looking for experience and the experienced are looking for higher wages.”
Teressa M. Stone
“If you want good cooks, you need to pay for it. You can’t ask for blood, sweat, and tears, and then ask them to commute a couple hours a day because the cook can’t afford rent in the city.”
It’s easy to be whatevs about putting away money or being able to take time off or start a family when you’re 20. But I’ve spoken with enough chefs, recruiters and cooks to know this attitude evaporates around age 30.
For those making $14 an hour, we’re not even talking about fresh-out-of-school, no-experience, paying-their-dues cooks, who often swing $125 for a 12-hour shift that works out to less than Ontario’s legal minimum wage of $11.25 per hour. No, we’re talking about people who’ve spent years honing their skills, demonstrating their loyalty and work ethic in an industry where “passion” is used as a marker of dedication, and the perceived lack of it as a tool for dismissing any cook who complains about conditions or compensation. One chef I spoke with referred to this as a “crime of passion.”
Owners of large restaurants will tell me that they have people on salary for $40,000 or $50,000. But that’s at the level where they’re running a kitchen, working 60 to 80 hours a week. These are the people in the industry facing the shortage of qualified cooks most acutely: I know a chef who lost a good prep cook, and worked 29 straight days while interviewing replacements for a job that pays $140 for a 12-hour shift, or $11.66 per hour. She’s a pro. But can any kitchen be at its best under such conditions?
You can’t have an industry shift like this without it eventually being felt by the consumer. And the popular wisdom is that when supply diminishes, either compensation goes up or quality goes down. Consumers already think menu prices are too high, and restaurateurs with razor-thin margins are loath to increase wages.
It’s gotten to the point where the labour situation is changing the way some restaurateurs are planning their businesses.
After attempting to build on the success of the Harbord Room with the neighbouring THR & Co., chef Cory Vitiello and his partners closed the bistro and relaunched it earlier this year as an outpost of Flock, Vitiello’s quick-service chicken joint that now has four locations. Quick service restaurants can get by with fewer, less experienced kitchen employees than their more formal counterparts.
“At Flock,” where seven cooks can pump out as many as 200 meals over lunch, “we can afford to take on and lose staff,” Vitiello says. “At the Harbord Room,” where four or five experienced cooks serve 60-120 covers per night, “if we lose one of our lead cooks, that’s like getting a limb cut off.”
“There’s a lot of frustrated cooks in this city,” says Vitiello. “They’re getting older. They want a career change. We’ve lured some cooks away from the high-end restaurant industry, giving them a comparable salary, but hours that are conducive to having a family.”
The bulk of Flock’s employees, however, are not restaurant veterans.
While opportunities for talented cooks to earn a good living do exist – working in hospital and retirement home kitchens, for example – they are not in chef-driven restaurants, those celebrated cultural institutions that have precipitated the doubling of enrolment in George Brown’s cooking programs over the past decade.
There’s no America’s Next Top Hospital Food and Beverage Administrator, no Master Chef: Cooking Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner for a Wealthy Family Edition. The television shows that act as unintentional recruitment tools for “chef school” don’t glamourize the parts of the industry where cooks can make a respectable living.
I’m no economist. I’m just a high school dropout from North York. But unless something changes, veteran cooks who can’t earn a decent living will continue to seek better opportunities elsewhere, and desperate kitchens will be forced to replace them by churning through the bumper crop of inexperienced, ambitious and, above all, passionate cooking school grads, hoping diners can’t detect a drop in quality or, at the very least, a change in seasoning.