Maybe, the old adage: “what goes around, comes around” is true in the case of cooks and chefs. There was a time when individuals worked in kitchens for one of two reasons – they were either destined to do this work, or they fell into the kitchen out of necessity and grew to love it. Then the 1980’s happened and suddenly it became “cool” to put on those starched whites and apron, sharpen your overly expensive Henkel knives, brush off the dust from that fresh culinary degree, and walk into a kitchen as if you owned it.
Loads of people and events led up to this – the advent of the Food Network, the rise to glory of “celebrity” chefs, an abundance of cookbooks and tell-all novels about kitchen life, and the exponential growth of both restaurants and culinary schools were the culprits. Suddenly cooks were not overlooked, but revered by the press and the dining public. Knowing a chef was a feather in your cap, and celebrating young people pursuing a degree in cooking was a common pastime. Society glorified the position, supported this attention with the tools of the trade, and applauded schools that built beautiful, yet unrealistic kitchens to help young cooks justify the expense of a degree.
By the 1990’s there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 culinary schools, free-standing restaurants in the U.S. exceeded 1 million, and the restaurant industry quickly became one of the top employers from coast to coast. Television sought out storylines about kitchens – showing in many cases, the jaded underbelly of working in front of a range, and suddenly Americans were spending 50% of their food dollars in some type of restaurant. What a great time to be a cook.
Fast forward 30 years and things begin to change. As the economy grew stronger and unemployment numbers dropped significantly – young cooks who jumped in for the fame and glory found that they could earn more money and pursue a more reasonable lifestyle outside of the restaurant business. The pirate’s life of the kitchen warrior became less appealing; the temperamental chef who may have been talented, but had no business leading others was suddenly faced with “hostile work environment” lawsuits, and the all in commitment that could lead to success was suddenly far less attractive.
Still there were some who entered this business for the right reasons. They weren’t in it for fame and fortune, they didn’t have the funds or see the need to invest tens of thousands in a culinary education, and they were perfectly happy to work at keeping an edge on that $50 Chicago Cutlery French knife. They joined the kitchen brigade because they simply loved to cook, they enjoyed the heat and the sweat, they were passionate about building flavors, they were fine with the commitment as long as they had a chance to work with their team, and they would never call out when they knew that the team depended on them. They were in it to have the opportunity to cook and place a beautiful plate of food in front of the guest. Even if they stumbled into kitchen life because they needed a job – many of them soon discovered that this was what they were meant to do.
In 2019, we find ourselves in a confusing position. Restaurants continue to open in record numbers and guests are dining out, as a part of their lifestyle, at a rate that no one could have anticipated. At the same time, fewer and fewer people are taking the leap into kitchen life and many who did so initially for fame and fortune are changing direction. Much of the culture of the kitchen that focused on a love of cooking and a sense of purpose through teamwork is being tested and restaurants find themselves scratching their heads, blaming a younger generation, scrambling to find an answer, and at a loss with regards to how they will get the job done.
Will this cause the restaurant industry to plateau and move from growth to decline, or will the industry change its methods of operation to accommodate a diminishing labor pool? Is this possibly a good thing? Maybe being a “cool” profession is far less important that being the right profession for those who find it part of their genetic code.
As is the case with many other industries there is a time for correction and adjustment, and in some cases dramatic shift. As an industry we certainly need to reflect on what changes are essential – changes that will recognize and reward those passionate team members who are choosing a career in food for all the right reasons. Change is essential, but many aspects of the business will remain because of the nature of the work. We might think twice about over glorifying hard work and pointing to some of the seedy past associated with the kitchen as something to be proud of.
Culinary schools are going through a major adjustment phase as their numbers diminish, costs are re-evaluated, and their method of delivering a culinary education is scrutinized. Restaurants are faced with similar challenges as they deal with a changing audience, dramatically increasing costs, challenges with lease arrangements, and the monumental challenge of finding, training, and retaining good employees.
Being cool was fun for a while, it helped to increase awareness of the work, and in many cases emphasize the value and talent of those who are serious about cooking. Let’s return to a focus on the food, on fair pay, on attracting people who are truly serious about the craft, and creating a work environment that inspires.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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