The custom of tipping has received lots of attention these days with talk of the minimum wage hike and what it means for restaurateurs, and more general conversations about how we got to this place of default 20 percent gratuity with every meal.
Still another less discussed issue is whether or not to tip kitchen staff. A dirty little secret of the restaurant industry -- or maybe as a society we know but we just don't care -- is that most kitchen staff don't make a living that can be described as gainful or sustainable. About $11-$13 hourly is the going rate for a good line cook in an independent Twin Cities restaurant, very often less, and sometimes a couple or a few dollars more for very high-end or corporate establishments.
One Los Angeles restaurant, Alimento, has announced it is adding a line for kitchen gratuity on all of its guest checks. Owner Zach Pollack said he made the change to address the longstanding pay gap between front and back of house.
Social media response has reacted positively to the news, especially in cook's circles. There is an enduring "Us vs. Them" mentality in many restaurant environments -- so established that it is truly part of the fabric of the industry -- with kitchens harboring an undercurrent of resentment about the amount of cash servers take home for fewer hours and arguably less work. The divide can manifest in the form of good-natured ribbing to downright seething anger and verbally abusive vibes between the two entities.
Kyle [last name withheld] is a longtime professional cook who has worked at many local restaurants, and has recently retired from the profession, in large part due to the unsustainable pay.
"If I don't want to move into management, there's nowhere to go for someone who has learned their craft. What incentive is there for me to continue to hone my craft if I have to wind up going to a country club to get health care and a decent paycheck?"
Moreover, he says he got tired of servers going home with twice as much cash in their pockets for half as many hours.
"How are servers any more entitled to gratuities than kitchen staff? If you go into a restaurant and have a wonderful meal, you should reward the craft, skill, and life-long dedication of the person who crafted that meal, not the person who took your order, punched it into a computer, and then brought it to you. That's monkey shit."
Jacqueline Hanson is a frequent diner and says if local restaurants were to institute such a system, she would be concerned that guests will reduce what they're giving the server to direct it to the kitchen.
"In some states restaurants can pay wait staff below minimum wage since they assume they'll make up the difference in tips. This could really hurt some of those individuals."
Kyle says it shouldn't be his job to subsidize restaurants who choose to pay their servers less than a living wage.
"We believe in this capitalist society until we go out to eat. I mean, if this is the case, then the last place I should be tipping out is at La Belle Vie if we're talking about employer's capacity to pay."
And if a gratuity line for the kitchen won't work, then servers should simply be tipping out the kitchen, he says.
"How is that any different than tipping out a wait assist? If a cook isn't there making the food, then you have nothing to courier to the table."
By law, employers cannot compel employees to tip out other employees, and Kyle says he was once fired from a cooking position for urging servers to tip out dishwashers.
Some restaurants have a line item on the cocktail menu offering a "round for the kitchen," usually in the $15 range. It's a nice gesture, but as a former professional cook myself, I say: Give me the cash and I'll buy my own drinks.
Cory Anderson is a sous chef at 6Smith in Wayzata, and says that he has asked front-of-house staff why they don't tip the kitchen. "All I get is a chuckle," he says.
There are a handful of establishments where servers will tip out cooks, but generally only on very busy nights, and it is by no means an industry-wide practice.
Hanson admits that a restaurant experience is a total package experience, and sometimes food trumps service:
"I realize that I'm frequently tipping due in no small part to how much I enjoyed the dish on my plate versus the quality of the service, so I'd be able to more accurately direct my 'gratitude' with this option."
Tom Peterson owns the 318 in Excelsior and said that he thinks the idea is interesting, but he wouldn't implement it because he fears it might be off-putting to guests. Besides, he says his servers do tip out the kitchen.
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