Not Enough Cooks in the Kitchen

Why a lack of line cooks could have lasting effects for the city’s restaurants.


Chef Photo via Shutterstock

Keeping a restaurant fully staffed is an age-old challenge. Recently, however, it’s developed into a bona fide crisis, particularly for the smaller, independent, chef-owned spots in Boston: There just aren’t enough cooks to go around. “It’s worse now than I have ever seen it in 30 years,” says Ed Doyle, who runs RealFood Consulting, a restaurant consulting group that’s had its hand in more than a dozen high-profile openings this year alone, including the Kirkland Tap & Trotter, Ribelle, Commonwealth Cambridge, and Bondir Concord. Those openings, though, may be part of the problem: The shortage seems due in large part to the explosion of ambitious, higher-end restaurants that have arrived on the scene within the past couple of years. The local industry-recruitment website is on track to post 3,100 job listings in 2013, a 43 percent increase from the previous year, according to the site’s CEO and creative director, Paul Schiavone. And although everyone from servers to sous chefs is in demand, it’s the line cooks—the workhorses behind the stove responsible for methodically chopping, searing, and sautéing your dinner—who are the toughest gets. “Those rock-solid line cooks are getting harder to come by,” Doyle says.

For Boston-area diners, the influx of ambitious new kitchens translates to better dining options. But behind the pass, the competition for talent is putting the squeeze on indie restaurateurs—and eventually, something may have to give. In a business that is inherently volatile, with razor-thin margins and high failure rates, an unstable labor market can lead to fluctuations in everything from food quality to pricing.

“Invariably, there could be fallout because the restaurants that don’t perform as well and execute as well will lose business,” says Bob Luz, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Ultimately, if the problem persists or gets worse, Boston’s restaurant boom could sputter to a halt.

While a major line-cook shortage has become water-cooler fodder for chefs nationwide, it’s an issue that is being acutely felt in Boston kitchens. Back when Will Gilson was the chef at Garden at the Cellar, he had no trouble recruiting staff right off the Internet. Now? He’s having so much trouble keeping the kitchen filled at his newer (and larger) Cambridge restaurant, Puritan & Company, that he’s implemented a bounty program—$100 to anyone who recruits a line cook, provided they stay on for a minimum of three months. “It becomes this race against other restaurants, and you try to figure out how to get good people in,” Gilson says.

Even Tony Maws—who in years past could be seen yelling at his staff in the open kitchen at Craigie on Main—has changed his tune. He’s hired an HR staffer and implemented a line-cook orientation at Craigie to show incoming employees the ropes before throwing them into the fire. “It’s been tremendously successful for us,” Maws says. “We’ve absolutely had more staff retention because of that.”

Wait, Tony Maws is talking about staff retention? Yes: Tony Maws is talking about staff retention. He’s also gone a step further, bringing in high-tech equipment like CVap and Combi ovens at Craigie and his new restaurant, the Kirkland Tap & Trotter. The new ovens cook foods slowly, at precise temperatures, with the touch of a button—thereby making it easier on the kitchen to consistently produce a steak with a perfectly medium-rare interior.

But that kind of equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And for restaurants where costly upgrades aren’t economically feasible, the key to staff retention is the small stuff. “Every day I get to work, I try to be here before everyone arrives. I try to shake their hand,” Gilson says. “Those are things that you hope make people stay even if they have a bad day.” Still, time spent worrying about education and HR is time that’s not being spent on menu innovation or growth. “It’s one thing if you are just a coach,” he adds, “and it’s another thing if you are a coach, manager, and owner all at the same time. It makes for a very difficult game at the end of the day.”

The problem isn’t that the supply of great line cooks has dried up—it’s simply that they have many more places to work. Despite sporting deliberately casual veneers, many of Boston’s new restaurants are opening at the higher end of the spectrum, requiring more skill. Places like West Bridge and Strip-T’s, for example, are using the same labor-intensive techniques found at fine-dining spots like Menton and L’Espalier. “The polished-casual trend in dining is a more-sophisticated offering than it was 10 years ago,” Luz says. “The demand for a higher-trained chef is creating part of this challenge going forward.”

And even though there’s been an uptick in culinary school attendance (the 2013 graduating class at Johnson & Wales’ College of Culinary Arts in Providence, for example, was 33 percent larger than in 2006), it hasn’t bolstered the line-cook labor pool. These graduates—often lured to culinary school by the glamorous chef lifestyles portrayed on the Food Network—instead emerge saddled with huge sums of private-institution debt, and are increasingly opting for higher-paying, less-grueling careers in catering and nutrition, or, in many cases, at corporate hotels, country clubs, and resorts.

That’s not the way it used to be. Within the industry, it’s always been considered a rite of passage—a necessity, even—to make do with low wages and long hours if a cook eventually wanted to make it as an accomplished chef. Ambitious restaurants—run by chef-owners who also started out at the bottom as line cooks—rely on equally ambitious types willing to deal with a hardscrabble existence in order to learn and advance their careers. This challenging lifestyle serves as a kind of culinary Darwinism. “The first few years are traditionally difficult,” says chef Gordon Hamersley, “but it weeds out the pretenders and leaves us with the serious cooks who will make the next few grades.”

When you examine the current economics of being a line cook, it’s not hard to understand why the system is getting out of whack. “Nowadays, I don’t understand how you can live as a line cook and make it in Boston,” says Michael Serpa, the chef at Neptune Oyster. Larger corporate restaurants pay around $20 per hour for cooks, while the starting rate at many of the independent, chef-owned restaurants—the ones operating with small budgets and smaller margins—is around $12 per hour, with time-and-a-half for overtime. Mix low wages with rents that are among the highest in the country, and you’ll find the way to “make do” in a cook’s early years is often to crash with family or deal with a long commute from a remote neighborhood—in an industry that keeps hours well after the T stops running. The caliber of Boston’s restaurants is high enough that it ought to attract out-of-state cooks, but the lack of viable public transportation and the overall high cost of living present a major roadblock. “Say you’re living in Boston,” Serpa says, “and you make $12 an hour and then your student loans kick in. You’re paying $800 a month for rent, $300 for student loans, and $100 for public transportation. And that’s not actually enough money to pay for all of that.”

With a rush of high-end restaurant openings and cooks in demand, you’d predict that wages would be poised to increase. Except they’re not. To raise hourly pay, chefs say, they’d have to sacrifice something else to hang on to their slim margins. In the restaurant business, the major variable costs are labor, rent, and food. Higher wages would mean raising the prices on menus or lowering ingredient quality—and either scenario, chefs fear, risks alienating crucial customers. “We don’t need truffles here, but I want really good meat and fish, and the freshest stuff possible,” says Jared Forman, the chef de cuisine at Strip-T’s. “And you have to pay for that.”

If raising pay isn’t feasible, finding other ways to retain staff becomes imperative—and has necessitated a shift in kitchen cultures. The days of screaming at staff and throwing sauté pans are not only outmoded, they’re wildly impractical. “You can’t run a kitchen with an iron fist anymore,” Gilson says. “You can’t say, ‘If you don’t like this, here’s the door.’”

As Gilson points out, having too many great restaurants in this city is hardly the worst problem to have. But it’s tough to know the long-term implications of a consistently understaffed kitchen. Like, say, local chef-owners taking their concepts elsewhere.

Case in point? A couple of years ago, chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette considered adding a third restaurant to their joint mini empire, which consists of buzzy South End spots Toro and Coppa. But as they discussed the possibility, Oringer turned to Bissonnette and said, “Who is going to fucking work in it?” Fast-forward to this fall, and the latest restaurant to come from the two chefs isn’t anywhere near the South End—instead, they opened an outpost of Toro in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. One of the reasons the duo headed south? “How can you open another restaurant,” Bissonnette says, “if you can’t staff the ones you already have?”