The Great Cooks Shortage

The economy is booming and Boston has more world-class restaurants than ever before. So why is our dining scene going up in flames?

cooks shortage

Photograph via iStockphoto

Inside the narrow South End kitchen at Myers + Chang, chef Karen Akunowicz wheeled around to keep an eye on her young team of cooks as they diced vegetables and peeled knobs of ginger for the restaurant’s famous pot stickers and dan dan noodles. Oversize woks spewed enormous flames, and the smell of seared Asian chilies swirled in the air. Every table was booked, every barstool was filled, and diners wanted their food—now.

For more than a year, Akunowicz, a Top Chef veteran and James Beard Award nominee, and her boss, James Beard Award–winning star chef Joanne Chang, had been short-staffed, resigned to having just enough hands to keep the kitchen running. Managers regularly pulled double shifts when workers called in sick. Many of Chang’s latest hires were inexperienced compared with even a few years ago, so she’d taken to streamlining her menus, replacing half a dozen varieties of steamed bao buns, for instance, with only two “because we simply don’t have the staff to make the six or so we originally offered.”

During a short lull that night, one of Akunowicz’s cooks wanted to chat. “Remember I said I’d want to take a vacation when we talked six or seven months ago?” Akunowicz recalls him asking.

“Yes,” she said. “We never talked dates, though.”

“Well, I want it to be now.”

Sorry, Akunowicz replied. She always asked for two weeks’ notice, and tried to accommodate everyone’s vacation schedule, but this time she couldn’t do it.

Several days later, on her night off, Akunowicz received a text: The cook hadn’t shown up for work. His knives were packed, his clothes were gone, and his locker was empty. She could only assume that he’d decided to take his vacation anyway. A few weeks later she discovered that the cook had waltzed right out of her kitchen and into a friend’s. The friend never called for a reference, Akunowicz says, or even once mentioned a word of it.

It’s a seller’s market in Boston restaurants. The shortage of qualified cooks is acute and is affecting nearly every kitchen in town. From Sweet Cheeks’ Tiffani Faison and Island Creek Oyster’s Garrett Harker, to Tremont 647’s Andy Husbands and Craigie on Main’s Tony Maws, chefs and restauranteurs have found themselves forced to simplify menus, hire less-experienced cooks, and spend more time training beginners. “You can walk out of a job on a Wednesday morning,” Akunowicz says, “and walk into another job Wednesday afternoon.”

The reasons for this recent phenomenon are rooted in today’s restaurant explosion, which stems from the overall real estate boom supercharging our city. Everyone knows that a killer restaurant can make a neighborhood, so developers hunger for new chef-driven eateries on ground floors of offices and condos to anchor revitalized areas such as the Fenway and Kendall Square. The risk of failure is high, but the payoff can be enormous. And the lure of celebrity and bucks is too much for most twenty- and thirtysomething cooks to turn down, particularly when faced with years of peeling potatoes under a bare-knuckle taskmaster. Now consider the soaring cost of housing, which makes it nearly impossible for the line cooks and dishwashers those new restaurants need to hire to live nearby. When you factor in Boston’s transportation woes, with no late-night T service to take cooks home, you’re looking at some overcapitalized, underpopulated kitchens.

Unless restaurant owners do something about this, and fast, more restaurants will close as rents continue to rise and labor costs increase beyond what many of the smaller and often better restaurants can afford. And as larger chains with more resources siphon talent with promises of higher wages, working conditions and hours in the city’s independent restaurants will only worsen. The result? Talented aspiring cooks will flee to cheaper cities with hipper food cultures. Menus will get dumbed down. Diners may soon face the prospect of living in a city where the fine-ish dining options are top heavy with “classy” corporate chains like P.F. Chang’s and Morton’s steakhouse—hardly the sign of a world-class metropolis. Of the 15,000 food and beverage operations in the state, “not one restaurant is fully staffed if it isn’t a pizzeria or ice cream stand with family employees,” says Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “There’s not a restaurateur in the state who isn’t talking to me about this problem.”

 

It was Cambridge’s own Julia Child who made cooking accessible to the masses and helped Americans look beyond their own borders for food they could hunt down and bring home to cook. By the time Meryl Streep was playing Child in Julie & Julia in 2009, though, the sweaty, strictly blue-collar work of being a chef had officially crossed over to mainstream cool—Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio, and others brought a macho, rock-star swagger to what had previously been unglamorous manual labor. As part of the cultural shift, demand for ambitious restaurants skyrocketed, and suddenly high-profile chefs found themselves scrambling to find talented cooks who could execute the visions they formed in culinary school and on the Food Network.

Unfortunately for restaurateurs, many of today’s young cooks have little interest in toiling over a prep station for years, making slave wages, and getting berated while hot sauté pans whiz past their face. “It’s absolutely affecting everyone,” Harker says. “We’re bribing current employees to stay, picking people out of quick-service places like Dunkin’ and Starbucks, trying everything to find someone who wants a career in culinary arts.”

Applications are universally down, so Chang and her fellow chefs are reduced to emailing friends and distant colleagues, begging for recommendations. Even if she sets up an interview, Chang says, it’s a decent bet the applicant won’t show up. Nicholas Calias, executive chef of Brasserie Jo, calls instructors at local cooking schools, including Johnson & Wales, Newbury College, and Le Cordon Bleu, which recently announced it is closing all of its U.S. schools—much to the dismay of restaurant owners and chefs. He finds that many young cooks are impatient and bursting with unrealistic expectations fueled by food TV. “They think, I’ll go on Hell’s Kitchen and be awesome and be an executive chef,” he says. “No, you’re not. You’re going to be a salad chef.”

An uptick in the food and beverage industry has always heralded economic recovery. But it’s the very recovery from the 2008 recession, Luz says, that has led to the proliferation of so many new restaurants with no increase in the number of available workers. At about 4.5 percent, unemployment in the state has returned to its pre-2008 levels, with no growth in the workforce—and many more restaurants looking for workers.

“The problem with Boston,” says veteran chef and TV personality Ming Tsai, “specifically the Seaport District, is that all these new restaurants are supposedly going to anchor all these great new buildings.” In the past, developers would put in a J.Crew or a Crate & Barrel, but that ended with Amazon. Now, Tsai says, “the [new] restaurants are 3, 4, 5,000 square feet. They’re glass and stainless steel, so they’re all going to look alike. And the only ones who can afford the rents are Panera and Cheesecake Factory and chains.”

New Boston is becoming a city where it’s simply too expensive to fail, and when you factor in the low wages, poor public transit, and swelling cost of living, it’s not hard to imagine a mass exodus. Tony Maws, a James Beard Award winner, says he’s not competing against local restaurants but other cities. “Charleston, Nashville, Austin—they’re all much cheaper and awesome places to live,” he says. “If you can pay $800 a month rent and work in a good restaurant in Portland”—Oregon or Maine—“or $2,000 a month for an apartment in Malden, what are you going to pick?”

  • Nick Knight

    800 dollar rent in Portland Oregen. Maybe a real real dumpy studio

  • Jeffrey Moore

    I’ve spent 40 plus years in kitchens. Good points here but no mention of the 600 pound gorilla in the room. Anti immigration is killing the workforce that has been the backbone of kitchens for the past 100 years.

  • Sasha

    This is why people are moving out of this state. EVERYTHING has become just too expensive – and for what? Really awful winters? F that. You can live cheaper, WAY cheaper in Miami or just about anywhere else really. And enjoy life so much more. Screw you Massachusetts, you’re ridiculous.

  • http://www.saltmoney.org aaronsweber

    Time to talk about housing affordability some more, then?