The Great Cooks Shortage

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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?”

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.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/2016/07/10/boston-cooks-shortage/