Food & Drink

Are There Too Few Cooks for Kitchens in the Twin Cities? Examining MSP's Alleged Labor Shortage.

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We’ve all heard the common phrase, “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Maybe you’ve said it. Maybe you've (unfortunately) been on the receiving end of it, because, well, you were the problem. Either way, it’s a common adage. But what happens when our entire world is turned upside down, and the problems becomes not too many, but too few cooks in the kitchen?

If you’re paying attention to the local restaurant scene here in MSP -- beyond the donut shops and dive bars, that is -- it appears we’re in the midst of a severe labor shortage, causing a rise in kitchen positions around the area. Despite a lot of media coverage supporting this notion, there’s actually some fairly mixed perceptions within the Twin Cities' chef community.

We reached out to over 25 professional chefs and restaurateurs to get their thoughts on what's going on in the MSP food industry. Though responses varied, several similarities shot to the surface about what is happening in our kitchens, and most agree an endgame is still up in the air.

So, is there really a shortage?

Well, it depends who you ask. According to Birchwood Cafe chef Marshall Paulsen -- who served as Woody Harrelson's personal chef while Harrelson was in town over the summer shooting Wilson -- there's no cook shortage at all.

“For Birchwood, although hiring and staffing is not always the easiest of responsibilities for us, this is not currently our biggest challenge," he says. "Not everyone will stay somewhere forever; it would be foolish to have that expectation. I don't feel there is a cook shortage. We have really great people cooking at Birchwood.”

Chefs Lenny Russo and Doug Flicker, of St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant and Minneapolis’ Piccolo, respectively, echo that sentiment, but offer a few slight caveats. To Russo, there may be plenty of bodies, but not enough skilled labor to help carry the load of new restaurants that just won't stop opening. At Heartland, Russo says, cooks that aren't highly skilled are hired at the get-go, then trained.

Flicker, who also co-owns Sandcastle on Lake Nokomis, claims he’s never had trouble finding cooks for Piccolo, and has never even had to take out a help wanted ad when looking for new cooks. Of course, that could have something to do with the high-profile nature of his flagship restaurant. But as for Sandcastle, that's "a totally different beast," as he puts it, due to the quick service, seasonality, and the fact that "cooking at a beach shack" is apparently not that appealing to everyone looking to work in a kitchen.

"Last year was an incredibly difficult year for staffing cooks at Sandcastle," he tells us. "I don’t think we were ever fully staffed.”

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Are there just too many restaurants nowadays?

Yes... according to some. Chef Ryan Cook (nope, we won't make the obvious joke here), of the acclaimed seafood restaurant Sea Change, believes there is a definite shortage, and attributes most of the issues to the sheer volume of new establishments. “With so many new restaurants opening, there are a lot of positions to fill and restaurants that have been open are feeling the shortage,” he says.

For the diners of the world, of course, the incessant opening of new places is a pretty great thing: it marks a culinary revolution... and another place you can spend your Saturday night. But in the Twin Cities, as we’re starting to see, this kind of renaissance tends to come with its own set of problems. The Star Tribune reported that by October 2014, 91 restaurants had already opened in that year alone, with several more set to launch by year's end. 2015 continued to see more and more openings, with a number of chefs stepping out to open second or third locations. And 2016 appears to be no different.

Given those kinds of numbers, as well as how large each new restaurant seems to be, it’s no wonder labor is becoming scarce.

What else could be causing the supposed problem?

An apparent lack of respect for the job. Many of the people we spoke with suggested that attitudes in the kitchen seem to be changing. Employees are more likely to leave after just a couple of months, which is something chef Carrie McCabe-Johnston of Uptown's Nightingale believes could be the new normal.

"People jump from job to job for either the next big new place or for a slightly higher wage. Gone are the days, it seems, where an employee puts in the work to grow personally and professionally at a single workplace.”

The Rabbit Hole's Thomas Kim has also noticed an overwhelming number of young cooks who seem less than interested in the job. “In the last six years," Kim claims, "I have definitely noticed an increase in the I don't know and I don't care response in the workforce when it comes to how and why things are done a certain way. I encounter many people, 25- to 30-year-olds, who do not know how to answer, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?'"

Well, crap... is there anything to be done?

That's what we haven't figured out yet. Think about it: if cooks are continuously unmotivated, jumping from new location to new location for either more prestige or a slightly higher paycheck, what can Twin Cities chefs do to help inspire loyalty and passion among their cooking staff? The obvious answer would be to pay them more. Sounds great, right? Well, sadly, it's not so easy.

With the recent minimum wage increases, additional restaurant dollars are being spent on front-of-house employees. Also, with no tip credit available in Minnesota -- which would allow restaurants to pay servers below minimum wage, so long as their tipped earnings made up the difference -- it has only managed to cut into their bottom lines.

Plus, as some big cities around the country have seen, the idea of doing away with our modern system of tipping is becoming more and more popular among restaurants these days. Several places have already adopted this as a way of redistributing the money traditionally associated with tipping to the entire staff -- perhaps also as a way to cover the increase in labor cost, specifically payroll taxes and insurance.

The ultimate question then becomes: how do those changes and increases impact restaurants? Will fewer people go out to eat if prices go up to cover the costs of quality labor? Or will they just absorb the increases as part of the experience?

Also, will they care?

“I think it will hurt a bit," says chef Stephen Hesse of Libertine. "Good cooks are expensive, and everyone wants them, so you have to pay them a little extra. I like to get all my chefs involved with everything we do. I want them to learn, and not leave for a dollar more an hour, but rather, to be a sous chef or a chef."

While it would appear there are definitely enough people out there to put asses in seats, the onslaught of new restaurants has put good help in high demand. Until restaurants are able to figure out a way to pay cooks more money, or laws change to reflect earned income on tips, we may see more restaurants go through tough times, which is obviously a less than desirable outcome for restaurateurs and diners alike.

Bottom line: if you’re a cook in the industry who is willing to put in the hard work and learn, and maybe even care a little bit, the world is your oyster.

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Keane Amdahl is a veteran Twin Cities food writer who proactively tells young people to start cooking just as frequently as he tells them to get off his lawn. Follow him and his confusion on Twitter @FoodStoned.