WHERE HAVE ALL THE LINE COOKS GONE?

balsams

How often have you heard stories like this: “Jake and Carla have worked for years to get to this point. Both are culinary school graduates, both spent the past ten years working in great restaurants as they built their skill sets and understanding of restaurant operations, and together they have managed to figure out a way to keep their relationship strong while working in the restaurant business. Thanks to a generous investor, they are just two months away from opening their own place. The help wanted ad that they placed has only yielded a handful of applicants for cook positions and most of them are not qualified to prepare the type of menu they have planned. They attended Job Fairs at regional colleges, including their alma mater, have talked with other area chefs, and even offered signing incentives to try and fill their schedule with the team players that will make the restaurant a success. It appears that other restaurants in the area are suffering from the same problem. They are worried that all of their well-planned menus and designs are in jeopardy and they haven’t even opened their doors yet.”

Those of you who follow this blog know that I am a strong advocate for line cooks. My feeling has always been that they are the soul of the kitchen and any level of real success depends on their ability, commitment, passion, and desire to be part of a restaurants team. I have, over the past few months, addressed the issue of the line cook deficit in bits and pieces, but with the recent flurry of commentary about the problem, I thought that a more comprehensive approach was necessary.

Recent articles in trade magazines, on Linkedin, and other forms of social media have inferred that the problem might be that young people don’t want to work hard any more, or that there is a growing number of restaurant competitors for a diminishing pool of cooks. Some also addressed the growing concern over compensation for cooks who, unlike some of the quick service restaurant staff in the news, have a real commitment to cooking and a skill set that has significant value to restaurants with more extensive and complicated menus. I choose to build a model that addresses all of the issues that resulted in this human resource perfect storm.

THE ISSUES:

[]         A LACK OF RESPECT FOR LINE COOKS

With the complexity of operating a modern restaurant kitchen it should be no surprise that although the chef may plan menus, develop flavor profiles, and build standards by which menu items are prepared and presented, most of the cooking that takes place in a restaurant is handled by line cooks. The chef would not be able to accomplish his or her job without a great team of dedicated and competent line cooks, yet far too many restaurants view them as interchangeable parts. The chef is obviously a critical player in the operation of a restaurant, but the line cook is the lifeblood. Respect them for the role that they play and let them know how much they are valued.

[]         SCHEDULES MEAN NOTHING IN A KITCHEN

The nature of the business is such that “in the moment changes” constantly require chefs to adjust cooks schedules. It is not unheard of to find your schedule change two or three times in a week. This makes it impossible for a cook to plan and have a life outside of work.

[]         A LACK OF INVESTMENT IN TRAINING AND TEAM BUILDING

Training sounds nice, but most operators (chefs included) are ill prepared to effectively train and always find reasons to defer on this need for the sake of some other emergency that crops up. Cooks are often times left with training themselves, working with the buddy system for problem solving, and trying desperately to not screw up.

[]         MEAGER PAY FOR THE SKILL SET REQUIRED

A line cook may find that their rate of pay ranges between $10 and $15 per hour. This is not an unskilled position! The line cook is expected to understand ingredients, know flavor profiles and be able to adjust seasoning to accommodate variables in raw material quality, be able to multi-task and maintain sometimes dozens of cooking processes at the same time, and have the ability to artistically present dishes for guests with the pressure of timing looming over their heads. This takes months or even years to master and has a value that goes beyond typical rates of pay.

[]         LACK OF UPWARD MOBILITY

If a line cook is truly serious about his or her craft, he or she will want to eventually progress to sous chef and eventually chef. In private restaurants, these opportunities are very limited unless the restaurant is part of a group or chain. There are some exceptional chef/operators who continue to open more restaurants so that there are opportunities for their best employees to grow.

[]         LACK OF BENEFITS

Talk to your average restaurant line cook and unless they are part of a restaurant group or chain, they probably do not receive healthcare, retirement plan options, sick day pay, life insurance, or even vacation pay. Even with Obamacare, the restaurant is not required to provide healthcare options unless they meet a minimum staffing number.

[]         EVERYONE NEEDS TWO DAYS OFF

It is very common for cooks to be scheduled for 10 plus hour days, six and sometimes seven days per week. Sure, there may be overtime pay involved, but without a time to recharge, deal with the demands of home and family, and an opportunity to do something that is not food related, the person will get stale, become disgruntled, and lose their level of efficiency.

[]         CULINARY SCHOOLS MAY BE MORE OF A PROBLEM THAN A SOLUTION

It would be easy to simply state that culinary graduates have unrealistic expectations when they leave school, but why is this the case? The cost of a culinary education today, far exceeds a person’s ability to pay back loans with current line cook wages. With a huge debt looming over their heads, and sometimes erroneous promises from school admissions offices – graduates are not inclined to work their way up to that sous chef position. They expect it too soon even if their skill set is not mature enough to handle the responsibility.

[]         THE NUMBER OF RESTAURANTS HAS NOT GROWN EXPONENTIALLY OVER THE PAST DECADE AS SOME MAY INFER, BUT THE NEED FOR TALENTED COOKS AND CHEFS IN OTHER SECTORS HAS

Those segments of the food business that most cooks stayed away from for years have changed. Grocery stores, hospitals, business food accounts, college feeding, and even food manufacturing are not only looking for talented cooks, they are paying well for them, offering terrific long-term benefits, investing in training, and praising their performance. Why wouldn’t a good cook look to this option in lieu of the sometimes-thankless demands of full-service restaurants?

SOME THOUGHTS ON SOLUTIONS:

[]         EFFICIENCY YIELDS BETTER OPPORTUNITIES FOR ATTRACTING GREAT COOKS

Restaurants work with low profit margins, yet without the talent of great line cooks; their ability to please the guest would be greatly diminished. Operators might consider investing more time in strategic planning of restaurant menus and selection of efficient equipment that could mean fewer cooks with even more comprehensive skill sets who can thus be offer better compensation.

[]         PARTNER WITH SCHOOLS, DON’T JUST TRY TO HIRE THEIR GRADUATES

Become actively involved with your local or regional culinary school by offering supervised coop programs, well-designed and managed externships, and special event staff options to help prepare their students for the rigors of the industry and help to fill your staffing needs at the same time.

[]         MODIFY THE ROLE OF THE EXECUTIVE CHEF

Look at what the chef does on a daily basis and build in a requirement for training. Hire chefs that are good teachers and trainers and insist that a portion of their everyday activities evolve around building the kitchen team through effective training.

[]         RESPECT YOUR COOKS AND CELEBRATE THEIR SUCCESS

This can be as simple as a thank you to programs that involve recognitions, bonus programs, reimbursement for attending conferences and classes related to their profession, payment for memberships and subscriptions, the purchase of uniforms with embroidered names, provision of health benefit options, vacation pay, sick pay, etc. Try to build a scheduling format that is consistent enough that a cook can plan his or her life outside of work.

[]         CREATE AN APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAM ON SITE

You might begin with an internal program and eventually grow to affiliate with the American Culinary Federation’s formal apprenticeship. Programs require commitments from the property and the individual cook that would include: 2-3 years of employment, scheduled raises based on completing certain criteria, rotation to various positions within the kitchen, scheduled training sessions on everything from cooking technique to cost controls, and even affiliation with local community colleges for complementary business courses.

There are many cooks who would like to attend culinary school but simply cannot afford the tuition or the time away from a paying job. Apprenticeship is a service and benefit that would be extremely attractive to serious young cooks. It does require a real commitment from the property and the chef or manager to live up to the promise.

______________________________________________________________________________________________

The solution to the problem of a dwindling pool of cooks goes beyond dealing with the effect of unfilled schedules. Those operations that invest in long-term planning that deal with the causes will be the restaurants that win in the end.

PLAN BETTER- TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

  3 comments for “WHERE HAVE ALL THE LINE COOKS GONE?

  1. August 11, 2015 at 1:49 am

    Chef Paul- As a member of the ACF national apprenticeship committee I would like to discuss ways to promote apprenticeship. If you have the time please email me at chef@missouri.edu.

    • August 16, 2015 at 11:27 am

      The restaurant growth in Pittsburgh and the decline of culinary schools in the area this story is absolutely true. Thanks for some insight and ideas.

  2. Steve DeShazo
    August 11, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for this well written article and thank you for offering solutions to this important challenge. El Centro College in Dallas is well positioned to offer a solution with our ACF apprenticeship combined with extremely low tuition of $3560 for in county residents, $6660 for out of county and just shy of $11000 for out of state residents. The food and hospitality industry in Dallas is growing and healthy and is a great place to start a career with relatively low cost of living and a great restaurant scene.

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