FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHEF & COOK SHORTAGE

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The articles continue to flow pointing to a real dilemma that is facing the restaurant world. Everyone has an opinion on why this is so and many are free to point fingers at this potential cause or another. So, to put this to bed, from my perspective, here are some thoughts.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but no one cause is evident as the definitive culprit. If it were that easy, then the solution would be as well. Regardless of where we collectively point the finger, this is a problem that will have significant ramifications for a long time and may contribute to a complete overhaul of the business of preparing and serving food. Let’s take a moment to identify what has occurred over the past few decades to bring us to this juncture and in doing so start to envision a way out.

[]         MUCH OF THE FAULT LIES WITH THE INDUSTRY: Now before everyone runs right to the issues of compensation (certainly a huge factor), hear me out. At some point in time, maybe forty years ago, the restaurant industry gave up on real training and turned over this responsibility to culinary schools. Now, those schools welcomed this responsibility and built an educational empire around it. As a result, the expectation is that graduates would enter the restaurant ready to hit the ground running without need for any serious training. When the reality of the job hits that student squarely in the face, things would often begin to fall apart. First off, after incurring sizable debt from two to four years of college, these graduates were less willing to start as a prep or line cook – expecting a sous chef position or higher. When this didn’t happen there was disappointment on both ends.

There was a time when restaurants knew that to develop strong cooks and eventually chefs, they needed to make a commitment to training – building skills gradually through formal or informal apprenticeships until the individual had earned the opportunity to take on more and more responsibility. This commitment to training would build stronger teams, realistic expectations, loyalty, and longevity. Without this commitment we have created a situation comparable to free agency in professional sports. Cooks move around based on who will pay them the most or move them up the career ladder as quickly as possible.

Secondly, the industry as a whole has done very little to market reasons why young people might consider a career in the kitchen. Instead, we have allowed television to do this through their exaggerated, and some times ridiculous modeling of what it is like to work in restaurants and be a chef. In the end, many young people enter the business or enroll in school with misguided expectations.

We (restaurants) should be in schools early on (elementary school) talking about the work, the opportunities, the challenges, and the process of becoming a cook. Forget the competitions, we should invest time in making an impression through support of school cafeteria programs and building a culture of food enthusiasm at an early age. Look to the food operations in elementary schools in Europe as an example to consider. We (restaurants and the National Restaurant Association) should invest time in helping elementary and secondary teachers portray the value of great food preparation. Help local schools arrange field trips to farms, build school gardens, get students involved in growing and harvesting, and tasting real food.

We, as an industry, should lobby for the return of home economics classes to elementary school curriculum. This is an important life skill that will build on that appreciation for food and in turn the important role that cooks play in society. If their only exposure to food preparation is watching “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Chopped”, then we are allowing a disservice to take place of epic proportions.

[]         THE CULINARY SCHOOL DILEMMA:

Consider the exponential growth of culinary schools over the past forty years and then think about the competitive dilemma that has been created. Schools responded with enthusiasm to try and meet the needs of a growing restaurant industry. Following the success of a handful of schools in the late seventies and early eighties, the number of programs has grown to over 1,000. Every one of these schools invested heavily in facilities and equipment to support programs that also demanded small student to faculty ratios. You can’t teach cooking classes to a group of 30 students. Class size in most programs is 18 or less requiring more faculty members to cover sections. As more and more programs started up, the need to fill seats to support the investment drove many schools to soften their admissions standards and heavily discount tuition that had risen significantly. This made it more and more difficult for students to afford the cost of education without taking out crippling loans, which they did.

In an effort to maximize the cost of finding students, some colleges implemented baccalaureate degrees emphasizing that they were preparing students for a faster track to that management position while at the same time driving student debt even further. In the end, when students graduated, the majority were faced with starting on the line at $12-$15 an hour, a longer road to the top than they expected, and an inability to pay back student loans. You see the vicious cycle that has emerged.

When major schools begin closing their doors because they are unable to keep this cycle up or meet the expectations of government for viable employment compensation packages that match the debt incurred, then we can see a system begin to crumble.

[]         THE COMMITMENT OF TIME:

I have never bought this as a problem that needs lots of attention, but that’s just me. I believe that any career that provides opportunity for growth requires individuals to immerse themselves in it and dedicate more time than a typical forty-hour week. However, I have never met a chef who is told when or how much to work. More often than not, the excessive schedules that chefs work is based on what they feel is necessary, they want to work, or they fear is necessary because their team is unable to meet expectations without them. This needs to be addressed and should be viewed as a result of insufficient management and leadership training.

[]         THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM – COMPENSATION:

Of course, almost anyone who works can claim that they do not get paid enough. The larger question is – how much is the position worth and how much can the business afford to pay. The food business is a low margin business and as such can only afford to pay so much in a labor-intensive industry. The pie is only so big. This being said, an industry that does not figure out a solution to poor benefit packages will always find employees viewing their job as temporary. This is a larger issue than salary or rate of pay.

_____________________________________________________

We can scratch our heads and point to the effects of the problem and feel that someone needs to fix this, or we can begin to act on collaborative solutions. Here are some thoughts:

[]         BRING BACK APPRENTICESHIPS IN HOTELS AND LARGER RESORTS: We need to take back some of the responsibility for training.

[]         PARTNER WITH CULINARY SCHOOLS: Work with your local and regional culinary programs to provide structured internships and externships that bring real-life experiences to their programs.

[]         VISIT YOUR LOCAL ELEMENTARY AND HIGH SCHOOLS: Offer to work, on occasion, with their cafeteria crew as a guest chef, support classrooms with field trip planning and maybe even that school garden. Show up in your chef whites and demonstrate pride in the profession.

[]         PLAY AN ACTIVE ROLE IN THE NATIONAL RESTAURANT ASSOCIATION AND AMERICAN CULINARY FEDERATION: Press for more active marketing to young people about the opportunities that exist in food careers.

[]         REALIZE THAT THE KITCHEN IS LIKELY TO CHANGE IN THE FUTURE: Out of necessity (costs of labor and ever-increasing government controls on food production) we will need to find ways to decrease the number of staff members needed while increasing the skills that they will be required to have. This is the only way that salaries and benefit packages will improve.

Pointing finger at others will not solve this challenge. Reliance on restaurants as part of the American lifestyle is continuing to increase and will result in steady growth in the number of restaurants from coast to coast. Without the right staff to make this work, our industry will not be able to meet the challenges of this opportunity.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training

  6 comments for “FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE CHEF & COOK SHORTAGE

  1. Donn Buchfinck
    January 5, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    Working in the cooking industry is an apprentice program. You come from wherever, dishwashing position and/or a culinary program and you get a job and you work your way through the stations learning. But at some point you look at your bottom line and realize that if you move to sous chef that you will make LESS than per hour than what you made as a line cook and be in manegment hell and working 12 hour shifts. Then you look to the hotel jobs and union jobs which pay well but you are a cog in a machine and you are just that. There are sacrifices that are made to work in a creative kitchen but at the end I need to be able to pay my bills and be able to have a little extra money and time to enjoy it. Real wages have stagnated for 30 years in the kitchen. 30 years ago a line cook could top out at 12-15 an hour and that would pay the bills. Guess what the pay is still at topping out at 15 a hour and that does not pay the bills. Servers went from $3.35 an hour to now $12+ an hour while also they used to get a 10% tip on a $50 bill. Now they get a 20% tip on $200 bill. They tip out 40% to the others but they are still taking $24 and they don’t have to declare all of it to uncle sam. I teach in a culinary program and I am blunt with the students. I tell them to go next door into the welding program if they don’t really want a career in the food industry. But I also tell them that I am training them to be chefs someday. To have the answers. I tell them how it is and I tell them what has happened to me through working at 22 restaurants in 32 years. I tell them to own their education and hold chefs to what they will offer you as to the experience of a kitchen. A chef expects you to show like you say you will, well they have to offer you the opportunities that they said they would. But Chefs, to be honest, the experience you give a cook is still not reason to stay in a kitchen that does not pay a living wage. And in the end I would love for someone to explain to me how servers deserve to earn 3-5 times what I make in a day for a third less hours worked. When you come up with a plausible well thought out well delivered argument then I will go along. And unless you CAN come up with a plausible reason other than “well it’s the way it’s been.” which isn’t true. Then you as a chef and/or owner are part of the problem.

  2. George Higgins
    January 5, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks, Paul. Well-reasoned, well stated. We (yes, you and I) have witnessed the growing dilemma first hand, and know that the current trends cannot be sustained. You offer thoughtful solutions that would effectively improve matters for all concerned. Hope, always, for the best.

    Happy New Years, my brother.

    George

    >>> Harvest America Ventures 01/05/16 11:57 AM >>> culinarycuesblog posted: ” The articles continue to flow pointing to a real dilemma that is facing the restaurant world. Everyone has an opinion on why this is so and many are free to point fingers at this potential cause or another. So, to put this to bed, from my perspective, h”

  3. cathy
    January 5, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    Wonderful article! Very succinctly articulating what I’ve been whining about for several years now. After reaching out to several different culinary schools in my area I actually found that walk in applicants for line positions are easier to train and retain. They also tend to be much more excited about preparing my menu.

    Thanks for pointing out the Elephant in the room. I’ve named my particular elephant Rahm Emanuel.

  4. Cheryl Markwardt
    January 6, 2016 at 1:53 am

    Some of what was said here is true, some I found not so true where I worked. I was in Southern Californina. 90% of all kitchen staff was undocumented immigrants and owners of the restaurants wanted it that way. Now that the immigrant population influx is slowing down, there is a shortage of cooks. As for becoming a member of the ACF. Please explain how that would help the situation. The membership fees are expensive, and what do you get for the money? Most cooks are struggling to make it, how can they afford memberships to ACFand NRA. The bottom line, most talented cooking staff are grossly underpaid, and that needs to change.

  5. Joanne Bulle.
    January 20, 2016 at 5:43 am

    Very interesting. Something which is very close to my heart. In Australia, we have had massive changes in the Food Industry within the last 15 years. Having undergone a Apprenticeship as a mature age female, in a country restaurant in Victoria Australia where we made everything on-site except for puff pastry and A4 tomatoes. I was extremely lucky to work under a “highly talented early Innovator” before the word became popular. What are we currently “teaching our apprentices” ???
    Modern day Chefs and Short Order Cooks – many these days do not have the skills they require – “or the work ethic or staying power” – just give them a box cutter” – a large proportion are just piece/process workers. I have the unique combination of an Industry Trade Certificate in Cookery (25 + years in commercial cookery environments), combined w/ a Diploma in Food Technology & extensive additional PD in Food Safety. I also deliver food industry endorsed training under the AQTF and in compliance to food safety regulations. 7 years Food Industry hands on experience within FMCG (product development) environments has been valuable experience, exposing me to the v good, good, bad and the ugly. Chefs must be prepared to be committed & passionate, unfortunately in Australia, Apprenticeships in Cooking do often (not always) attract young people that cannot get into other courses – it becomes the default setting for our youth.
    I would be interested to be part of this discussion on-going.

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