Cooks vs. Servers: Wage battle continues

Servers' pay is often double that of chefs

Table of four comes into a popular local steak house, orders four slabs of beef. The cook throws the steaks on the grill for a few minutes, slips the steaks onto plates, and garnishes them with sprigs of parsley. Multiplying the time that took by the cook's wage, a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that he made a buck or two serving that table. Next, the waiter picks up the plates and carries them out to the guests. He just made at least $20.

Okay, so the logic doesn't translate exactly—the server needs to explain the menu, take the orders, and clear the plates to earn that tip, but I think you get the idea. Because traditionally cooks are paid by the hour and servers are paid by the hour and by the table, the front of the house generally makes a higher wage than the back—sometimes by a pretty large multiplier. In a 2008 New Yorker profile, chef David Chang noted that a server at his Momofuku Ssäm Bar could earn as much as $1,700 in a 32-hour workweek, while a cook working the same number of hours would make $350.

All businesses have pay discrepancies among their staff. Being a server clearly requires a different skill set than being a cook—gracefully interacting with the public isn't something every cook could do, or would want to, for that matter. Still, some restaurateurs find the wage gap unfair and have taken steps to adjust the disparity between the cooks' pay and the servers'.

Erica Christ, co-owner of the Black Forest Inn, explains that several years ago the restaurant switched to a compensation system that pays the kitchen staff a base wage and a variable wage, which is 10 percent of the food sales per week, divided among the cooks based on how many hours they worked. That way, the cooks receive more compensation for banquets, large to-go orders, and such. "There has even been a little less grumbling about orders that come in five minutes before the kitchen closes," Christ remarks. While the change cost the restaurant a little more money, Christ says it has increased employee satisfaction. The cooks saw their wages go up—not an extraordinary amount, but enough that a few servers decided they'd rather cook.

At many restaurants around town, servers are asked to, or required to, share a portion of their tips with the kitchen staff. In some cases the cooks and/or dishwashers may only walk out with an extra $5 to $10 of pocket money, but in others the sum can be more substantial. Padam Sharma, owner of Everest on Grand, says the restaurant servers' hourly pay (wages plus tips) can be twice that of the best chefs. Feeling that the ratio was not an accurate reflection of the chefs' contributions, Sharma requires the servers to share 30 percent of their gratuities with the cooks and dishwashers.

At chef Doug Flicker's new restaurant, Piccolo, the staff divides the gratuity pool among every employee. The front of the house still makes the lion's share, he says, but the gap is not as extreme. (As an example of how much money a server can make, Flicker mentions that one of his servers worked at Cucina during "the glory days." "He'd walk with $400 to $500 a night," Flicker says.) "A good server is a good server, and it makes all the difference in the world," he says. "But on the flip side, a good cook is a good cook, and a good dish is a good dish." Flicker has found that sharing gratuities has helped instill a greater sense of teamwork, focus, and community to his staff, thus eliminating some of what he refers to as "that front and back of the house cat-and-dog stuff."

Chef Mike Phillips of the Craftsman notes that while servers can make a much higher hourly wage, they are more at risk of having their hours cut when business is slow, whereas cooks' scheduled hours are more likely to be guaranteed. Phillips throws out the idea of eliminating tipping entirely—and raising prices slightly so that everyone on staff would be paid a higher, livable wage. He acknowledges that the suggestion would probably never fly, as diners like to maintain their perceived control over the experience and servers would likely not stand for the pay cut. Phillips points out another difference in the way servers and cooks see their roles: a majority of servers see their position as temporary, while cooks are more likely to see theirs as a career and are therefore more willing to start at a low wage in the hopes of working their way up.

Chef-restaurateur Erick Harcey has taken the boldest approach to the dilemma: When he recently restructured at Victory 44, Harcey eliminated servers entirely, so the cooks take orders, serve plates, and bus dishes. (Margaret Doran's Margaux has a similar arrangement, but it's a one-table, one-woman operation.) Harcey says the move was prompted by his desire to keep prices low enough that neighbors would be encouraged to come in several times a week so he could cultivate a base of regulars. At the same time, he wanted to improve the restaurant's food, and to pay for more and higher-caliber kitchen talent, he says he had little choice but to cut the servers.

The cooks at Victory 44 work like a team: A few primarily play offense (taking orders, clearing plates) and a few play defense (cooking), though each player can shift between roles when necessary. If a cook finishes the last ticket in his queue, he might run the food out himself instead of waiting for a teammate, even though it's likely he might arrive at the table sweating and wafting the scent of burnt arm hair.

Harcey describes his core team—James Winberg, Geoff Hausmann, and Mike Brown—as guys who are able to cook well but also be "socially acceptable enough that we can let 'em out in front of other people." (Harcey says he relegates himself to the kitchen. "I'm probably the worst server on the floor. I just don't have the skills.")

The new Victory 44—Victory 2.0—made me feel a little like I was hanging out at a fraternity house kitchen, with a Current-worthy playlist blaring and questions being shouted between the dining room and the stoves. Our server used the phrase "right on" and carried around a torch that seemed better suited to plumbing work than dining room service. It was like a bunch of guys had gotten together to tinker with something, but instead of overhauling a Camaro engine they were cooking up whimsical gourmet fare.

For example, one dish arrived in a deep bowl, looking like one of those tiny snow globe worlds: a Monet haystack of house-made noodles in a tangled coil, a rectangular tower of pig trotter, and a halved quail egg that resembled a pair of yellow eyes peering up. Our server-cook flooded the scene with a kimchi-infused consommé, and the result was delicious. The rich, lightly spiced broth was spiked with bites of egg, salty meat sinews, and sweet bits of date that had been tucked into the trotter.

Our server's only slip was neglecting to tell us the noodles were not completely cooked and that we should deconstruct the stack so the noodles were heated by the broth. Instead, we lingered over our previous course and the clumped noodles tasted floury and raw.

But his culinary expertise, in general, provided us with more information that heightened our enjoyment of the dishes. For example, when we asked about the sweetness in the bottom of a bowl of duck agnolotti: Was it honey? He confirmed our suspicions by bringing out a large blue tin of honey imported from Tasmania and let us take a heady whiff of the orange-colored, floral-scented goo.

The kitchen reaches peak fervor with its charcuterie and dessert plates. The first is an abundant diorama of everything from headcheese to sweetbread terrine, decorated with caper berries, cornichons, streaks of mustard, and coils and curls of foie gras mousse and pickled vegetable puree that resemble decorative frosting on birthday cakes. The dessert tray is presented like an architectural model: a scoop of chocolate mousse topping a meringue pedestal, a donut hole accompanied by artful smears of yuzu and cherry purees, and tres leches cake topped with a chocolate wafer that our server melted tableside with the previously mentioned construction torch. It's a lot of prep for an $8 dessert, and it's also a lot of dessert. My friend and I persuaded the couple at the neighboring table to split it with us—how's that for cultivating community?

The chef-as-server setup has its kinks; perhaps it was the reason for the lengthy stretch that elapsed between the moment we received our first course and the time our server returned to let us order our second. But Harcey says that having employees who have a broader perspective of the business should help continue to streamline the process. The cooks may not always clear from the right or tell funny jokes, but their knowledge of and enthusiasm for the food seem to make up for any lack of finesse. It wouldn't work at every restaurant, but for a casual, neighborhood place like Victory 44, I think the arrangement fits.

Plus, sharing all the gratuities gives the cooks greater incentive to do their best work. "They can make the wages of an executive sous chef or a chef in a small restaurant," Harcey says. "They earn the money that they deserve." 

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