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?
So what can owners and chefs do to attract more workers and make sure Boston remains a dining destination? For starters, many spend more time than ever helping workers get out of culinary school debt and onto a career ladder. Deuxave’s Chris Coombs, for instance, is offering to help staffers pay off student loans. Others, such as Harker, who works hard to promote from within, provide cooks with wine and food education in hopes that they won’t take the first better-paying job that comes along. Harker points to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, branch of Row 34, where line cooks who would have “never been let near a menu” in the past now get to devise and cook a dish a week “because it makes them feel good about and express themselves.”
In an effort to be more inclusive and expand the pool of potential applicants, chefs are also making huge strides when it comes to transforming kitchen culture from male-dominated locker rooms to places that any passionate cook might want to work. Bending to millennials’ more delicate constitutions, Harker has banned swearing. “These kids,” Harker says, “they won’t tolerate any sort of fundamental disrespect, like they would 10 or 15 years ago.”
Then there’s improving the gender balance. Chef Jody Adams, of Trade, says that four years ago she looked around the kitchen and thought, Where are the women? She worked with her employees so that when they interviewed female applicants, “the conversations weren’t only about sports and the jokes were ones that could make women comfortable.” In other words, says Tremont 647’s Andy Husbands, those “crazy yelling and screaming” days are over.
If we really want to get serious about curing the cook shortage in Boston, we all need to figure out a way for restaurants to pay better. This is both the most important step and by far the hardest in an industry that works on razor-thin margins. Even successful chefs seldom get rich without side deals and endorsements, à la Todd English. David Chang, of Momofuku in New York, has frequently written about the difficulty of earning a living as a restaurant owner: His newest concepts cut out all front-of-house workers and are delivery only.
Raising the minimum wage is a great cause to get behind (I’m a vocal supporter), but owners like Husbands and Maws, who favor a raise in theory, look at their menu prices and dread having to pass the increased costs on to their customers. “Everyone wants to vote for $15 an hour,” Maws says. “But do they want to pay $38 for an order of chicken? Nope. Good food costs money—and I’m not making it. So you take it on the chin.” The only way to raise prices without scaring off too many diners, he says, is to do it gradually.
Enter Danny Meyer, owner of Shake Shack and more than a dozen restaurants in New York. For decades, the disparity between earnings in the front and back of the house has been the bad bargain aspiring chefs had to accept. But rising minimum wages only accentuate that gap, as diners tip more on higher menu prices—and those tips go straight to the front of the house. Long bothered by that disparity, and disturbed that for the first time Culinary Institute of America graduates needing to work off debt were applying for front-, not back-of-house positions, Meyer announced last fall that he would gradually increase prices, eliminate tipping, and pay more-equitable wages to servers and cooks alike.
The move was long overdue, Meyer told me recently when I asked whether the model could really be economically sustainable. The most frequent knock from fearful owners elsewhere is that the huge profits from his Shake Shack chain, where there are no tips, help mitigate the risk Meyer is taking by raising the prices at his fine-dining restaurants. Meyer insisted he wouldn’t be doing it if profits were falling. Most important, he said, applications in the kitchens at the Modern, a Midtown flagship where staffing had become a problem, went up by 300 percent after he eliminated tipping. Suddenly, cooks who were working a “completely inhuman” 60 to 80 hours to make ends meet, he says, could now make the same money working 40-hour weeks, with time to go to the theater and museums. “Or read. Or sleep.”
Still, Boston owners such as Harker are wary of the effect that raising prices will have on customers. Meyer’s idea has the industry’s attention, but it hasn’t taken off. “I know in the deepest part of my kishkes it’s going to work,” Meyer told me. I think he’s right, and that in less than a decade Boston restaurants will eliminate tipping as a way to distribute hourly wages more equitably among servers, cooks, food runners, and dishwashers.
Meanwhile, a local restaurant owner has come up with an interim solution—one that’s generating a lot of interest. Last December, Keith Harmon, co-owner of three Jamaica Plain restaurants—Tres Gatos, Centre Street Café, and the new Casa Verde—started tacking on to every check a 3 percent “hospitality administrative fee” that will be passed directly to back-of-house workers. So far, kitchen workers have received an across-the-board raise of 15 percent, and customers have tipped on the new total, including the 3 percent administrative fee. “It’s working like a charm,” Harmon told me, adding that in the first few months alone he fielded calls from five restaurants asking how to copy him. Of course, he says, there’s something about J.P. that probably made customers receive the change as warmly as they have been.
He’s right about J.P., but the neighborhood can’t matter. If other owners don’t rip off the Band-Aid and eliminate tipping to pay kitchen workers more, or adopt Harmon’s sensible plan, anyone who cares about restaurants and the culture of the city will be forced to say that Boston is in dire straits.
Older, sleepier restaurants have already begun closing in the face of competition from inexperienced chefs taking over new eateries. This will only speed up as restaurants continue to confront rising rents and labor costs. Owners will retire or, like Matthew Gaudet, of Kendall Square’s much-mourned West Bridge, move out of high-rent districts (he plans to open a ribs-and-pizza place in Manchester-by-the-Sea). Boston menus will become less and less ambitious—“dumbed down,” as Gaudet told the Globe he had to continually do with West Bridge’s menu as staffers became increasingly overworked and less trained. The 26-year-olds waiting for their turn at the helm will start thinking Boston isn’t worthy of their talents, and follow the lure of Portland—either Portland. In time, all of Boston will resemble the Seaport District: one bland, corporate Del Frisco’s and Morton’s after another, with high base salaries and low expectations of talent or distinction or individuality.
Boston needs to keep the reputation it’s earned as a place where cooks want to work. Wages need to equal out at restaurants—and if the current cooks shortage is what it takes to show the way, bring on those administrative fees and say goodbye to tipping. Otherwise, dining in Boston could be cooked.