Not long ago, though it seems like a lifetime, I was running a small, casual suburban neighborhood cafe kitchen. The sort of place that was all-scratch, but you could still rely on it for a great burger, something for the kids, something for grandma, and something for you if your tastes ran a little adventurous.
I had been working there part time as a cook, and when the then-chef got axed for all sorts of bad behavior, I fell naturally into his position. It was a wild ride, and one that I wouldn't give back for anything in the world despite the many headaches, woes, hours worked, miniscule paychecks, back aches, foot aches, et cetera.
Though my biggest woe, by far, was the lack of good culinary talent. Of any culinary talent. I inherited this kitchen, serving brunch, lunch, and dinner, with a skeleton crew of one lunch guy, one dinner gal, and one heck of a dishwasher who came to work come hell or high water, taking a daily hybrid public transportation/walk from Little Canada to Lake Minnetonka because he needed the job, and his work ethic was impeccable. Would that that guy could be carbon copied.
In the coming weeks, the lunch guy had to be fired for constant insubordination, the gal went on to her "real" career, and I went on to continually flail to keep warm bodies in control of the hot stoves. A perpetual Craigslist ad had only one mocking thing to prove: There were no experienced chefs or cooks available. Not at all.
I went on to hire any individual who might fog a mirror, any person who could stand up straight, stay sober for more than four hours (many couldn't), and take more than one direction at a time. I made lots and lots of lists. And signs. So very many signs. ("Guess what? You can't freeze lettuce!")
Now, why might this be so? I had found this wonderful, maddening career the old fashioned way. Because it was what I loved. I was willing to work the long hours, at minimal pay, to get relatively good at it. It mattered not to me if I was not making a living wage or could go to the doctor or the dentist if I had an ache or a pain. Hell, I even accepted jobs, on a regular basis, without knowing what my hourly wage would be. There was just one big elephant in the room when it came to this equation: I had a husband with a well paying job, and he paid the bills. Throughout the course of five years in professional restaurant kitchens, I rarely made more than $12 hourly, until I moved into catering, which could afford to pay marginally better hourly kitchen rates thanks to lower overhead.
So when I became a chef, naturally I expected to find a steady flow of same, right?
That scrappy neighborhood restaurant, which operated on a shoestring and little else (and don't be fooled— all restaurants operate on roughly a 5-6 percent profit margin, so no one is getting rich, not even the fancy chef), offered this to any cook walking in the door: $12 hourly, no benefits, a schedule that only guaranteed hours based on business (you'd be cut when lunch or dinner rush tapered off), and a lot of hot, heavy, backbreaking work that culminated in a lot of sweaty cleaning at the end of the night, plus a gratis shift beer. No benes, of course, so if the backache gets to be too much? I dunno. Get a massage if you can afford one. (You can't.)
In the end, I was lucky enough to pluck two barely-21-year-olds, with no culinary experience to speak of but with good home training and hearts of gold, who happened to enjoy my company enough to spend the summer humoring me. They were both in college, and good on them, pursuing other careers that will give them a quality of life for themselves and their families when they are old enough to marry and spawn.
I would never badmouth this exhilarating, exhausting, bone-thrillingly strange and wonderful business, and every time I pick up a chef's knife I feel like the world is my oyster. Thanks to it, I've got confidence, grit, and tenacity, not to mention a way with profanity (and whiskey) to make the gentlemen of Fleet Week blush.
But this cooks shortage is not a coincidence. Nor is it only because there are "too many restaurants." We gotta do better for the men and women who put the parsley in our chimichurri. I love this business — and the people in it — too much to see it go any other way.
More reading on the national cook's shortage: