Kitchen workers need opportunities for growth besides "opening your own place"

The restaurant industry needs more ways to the top besides ownership.

The restaurant industry needs more ways to the top besides ownership. iStock

I bumped into a talented young cook who had been displaced from a top local restaurant that had recently closed.

It closed because the owner was opening a couple of newer, fresher restaurants. Now the young cook is biding his time in some other important restaurants, waiting for the opportunity to get his own place.

“I just want a little cafe. Something small,” he says.

It’s what almost all talented young cooks say. “I want my own place.” They have a vision, they want to do things their own way, they don’t want bosses breathing down their necks. They want to prove themselves.

But they also do it for reasons beyond the general desire to achieve. They want to do it because there are very few avenues to “the top” in the culinary industry aside from executive chefdom and ownership.

So the march toward more restaurants, with fewer and fewer talented people to work below the chef, continues.

“People think they’re buying themselves a cooler job when they open a restaurant,” a prominent restaurateur recently told me. “But in fact, it’s way harder. If you want to cook, you’d be better off keeping your line cooking job.”

Fair enough. The problem is, line cooking positions, except at a very few select elite places, are not sustainable careers. It’s why so many people get out of the business before they hit 40. It’s why many American restaurants rely on immigrant (and sometimes illegal) labor for kitchen work. It’s why there is an acute culinary labor shortage nationally.

Meanwhile, the number of new restaurant openings has never been more robust. That may seem exciting, until you realize a depressing implication: There may be more choices for mediocre restaurants, but very few emerge as truly excellent ones.

Perhaps part of the trouble is in the “brigade” system, quite literally a military formation that organizes many French and American kitchens. The kitchen worker has little choice but to want to rise within the ranks and graduate away from the infantry and become his or her own leader.

But then without an infantry of support, a leader cannot shine. Ask anyone currently running a restaurant what their biggest challenge is, and they’ll inevitably say, “Finding and keeping good help.” And there has been very little progressive change in the industry that could address the problem creatively, much less radically.

The problem of a culinary labor shortage happens to coincide with a national — and a very contentious local — debate over minimum wage hikes and tip elimination in restaurants. Restaurant owners argue that they cannot possibly weather a $15 hourly wage for all employees without pocketing the tips that servers usually make and then redistributing that money. Servers are predictably irate over the prospect. But barring that solution (redistributing more evenly the full cost of dining out, which includes 15 to 20 percent gratuity), when does life improve, financially, for the restaurant cook?

Money is only one piece of the bitter pie. Most kitchens operate under the acuity of a restaurateur, or a chef, and possibly a sous chef, sometimes all three. A line cook might get the occasional opportunity to invent a special, but the overall vision and tone of the restaurant is set from the top down. In other words, get on board with the chef’s vision, or move on.

And many do just that.

Thanks to the low pay and the lack of opportunity for creative input, many cooks use kitchens as a training ground. They learn how to master fresh pasta, say, or how to butcher whole animals, or dabble in pastry. And once those techniques are duly achieved, the cook moves on. Apprenticeship is one of the few perks of the job, and as a result, staying on at any one kitchen for less than a year has become standard, and the chef has to contend with the problem of training in new staff over and over again. It’s just the way it is.

So, is anything ever going to give? Will the existing restaurant ever become a place where adults can thrive creatively, make a living, and stay on, instead of the constant churn or the full-on career change?

There are a few glimmers of hope. The Tributarians is a local collective of restaurant professionals who have come together to make a project where all parties have a vested interest and will receive profit sharing. Benjamin Rients of Lyn 65 is one of the founders, and there are currently nine other main members. Each individual has an equal and important role in the management of the project, roles that play to his or her own individual strengths, whether it be food, beverages, product sourcing, or service.

The Tributarians are in the process of creating a new restaurant, scheduled to open in the fall, Popol Vuh. The restaurant vision is built around the talents of chef Jose Alarcon, originally a line cook at Lyn65 who Rients wanted to retain by any means necessary.

“Everything he does is perfect,” said Rients.

And why would he want to see perfection depart? Instead, the Tributarians group asked Alarcon about his own personal vision for a restaurant, and then set about making it a reality for him. But everyone on the team will contribute to the end result. Other projects include a food truck, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a working farm, to name a few. And there’s another perk to the structure: Each time the Tributarians get another successful project off the ground, it’s easier to piggyback on the financing so that dreams become realities, not just for the individual, but for the collective good.

A few highly successful restaurateurs, like Tim McKee, have retained great talent by placing them in lead positions under their own umbrella. When McKee was still a consulting chef with Parasole Restaurant Holdings, a prominent restaurant group with a half-dozen concepts, he placed Tyge Nelson and Stephen Hesse in the chef positions at Chino Latino and Libertine, respectively. But even they have gone off to open their own place, as partners in Pajarito, a new Mexican restaurant on West Seventh Street in St. Paul. The siren song of “my own little place” is just too seductive.

What’s wrong with the restaurant industry? Other trades, from software development to construction, identify good talent, and try to retain it: through pay increases, through incentives, through opportunities for growth. But this industry tosses its hands in the air and says, “That’s just the way it is,” and those of us who love the kitchen either leave it, or forge ahead with the extremely onerous task of trying to operate an independent restaurant. There are few paths in between.

I envision a restaurant industry with not so very many middling choices and everyone going off in separate self-centered directions. Instead, how about more pooling of resources and ideas to achieve more compelling, excellent experiences for all?

Could chefs set aside their egos to make it happen? That’s another question for another day.