It’s a good time and a bad time to be a chef.
First, the good news: With food at the center of American culture, what was once considered menial labor is now seen as a prestigious career.
Plus, jobs are abundant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 9-percent annual job growth for chefs and head cooks over the next 10 years, compared with a national average of 7-percent job growth across all sectors. Bruce Grindy, chief economist at the National Restaurant Association, said the latest BLS data show a relatively high level of job openings.
But it’s also a bad time to be a chef. It’s hard work and the pay is middling. The median hourly wage for restaurant cooks is $11.11, according to the BLS. Annually, the median salary is $41,500, which could be less than what servers earn.
For restaurateurs, paying kitchen staff more is challenging with higher rents, minimum wages, cost of goods and healthcare burdens. The result is a shortage of cooks, as well as increased turnover, according to many operators.
That leads to the inconvenience and increased cost of training new and underqualified staff, as well as inefficiency in the kitchen as overburdened cooks struggle to do their jobs.
“If I get a year out of somebody, I’m thrilled,” said Ryan McCaskey, executive chef and owner of Acadia, a fine-dining restaurant in Chicago with two Michelin stars. Two to three years was more typical when McCaskey started out in the mid-1990s, he said.
Emlyn Thomas, a restaurant consultant with 30 years of experience as a restaurant and hotel manager in Chicago, said finding staff for a restaurant that recently opened in that city was a struggle.
“Despite reaching out to culinary schools and industry contacts, in addition to traditional job postings, we received less than 100 applicants for culinary positions in a month,” Thomas said in an email. “For comparison, my last opening in Chicago (nine years ago), I saw over 1,000 applicants over the span of four weeks.”
Additionally, many applicants were “either grossly underqualified or failed to return emails or phone calls after having responded to ads,” he said.
Although there is little concrete data to confirm the dearth of chefs, operators across the country report similar problems.
“The popularity of the business has outpaced the workforce,” said Steve Palmer, managing partner of The Indigo Road restaurant group, which operates 11 restaurants in Charleston and Columbia, S.C., and Atlanta.
Anthony Meidenbauer, executive chef of Block 16 Hospitality, which operates restaurants in Las Vegas, San Diego and Costa Mesa, Calif., said that staffing Southern California restaurants was downright frightening.
After renting space at a convention center and advertising in all the local papers, he only got 100 applicants over the course of a three-day job fair for a 12,000-square-foot restaurant, Meidenbauer said.
“It was surreal,” he said, noting that to staff his kitchen with the 40 line-level employees and four chefs, he would need 400 applicants.
In San Diego and Orange County, Calif., part of the problem was rent. Meidenbauer said that some cooks drove two to three hours to get to work.
“As the cost of living keeps going up, those jobs become more and more difficult to fill,” he said.
And the cooks operators do find often don’t have a great work ethic.
“A lot of kids today, they want to work in kitchens where they can maybe drink beer during service, or listen to music, or snap towels, or squirt water guns at each other,” McCaskey of Acadia said. “They honestly don’t care as much as they used to about the opportunity given to them and the prestige of it.”
The answer is to shift away from the military style of kitchen brigades of the past, he said.
“We’ve had to change the culture a little bit,” McCaskey said. “We can’t scream all day at these kids. They only learn so much with that tactic.”
Instead, he said, he tries to instill pride in their work and ownership of tasks.
“We say, ‘Hey, that’s your dish. Be proud of what you made and of being part of a two-star Michelin restaurant.’ If someone fails, we want them to feel bad about it because they know they’re better than that.”
Jared Sippel, executive chef of Italienne, agrees. The fine-dining restaurant is slated to open in New York City in June, and he’s already fully staffed. The key is to treat staff with respect, but not coddle them, he said.
“You have to drive them hard. As much as someone might hate you under their breath, at the time that you’re riding them, you’re also driving them to be better,” Sippel said.