Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

How a Dire Cook Shortage is Wrecking American Restaurants

Editor's Note: This story is the second in Kevin Alexander's alarmingly obsessive three-part investigation into the state and meaning of American food and drink in the year 2016. You can read part one and part three here. 

There is a crisis in the kitchen of America’s restaurants. It is going to get worse before it gets... well, it may not actually get better.

For the past year, I’ve been traveling around the country eating and talking, and in every city I’ve been to, the chefs gripe about the same thing: It is impossible to find cooks anymore. You see it everywhere. Almost every local paper has a story that kicks off with a lede featuring a chef begging anyone who can hold a pan and pick a paring knife out of a lineup to come work for him or her.

Most stories out there talk about the more pedestrian, short-term problems that come with a cook shortage. Dumbing down menus, a boom in double shifts, not knowing who to go to for advice on tattoos featuring cleavers, etc. But what they don’t mention is that this shortage has the potential to fundamentally change restaurants in America -- from the way we eat out and what we pay to eat out, to what we pay the people who cook what we eat out, and how they’re treated in the kitchens.

There is good and middling and bad that could come of this, I’ve found through dozens of conversations. The good: Restaurant workers, long worked and whipped like redheaded mules, may suddenly find themselves treated like actual human people with feelings and souls and college debt. The middling: You might have to pay a little more for your burger to fund this humane treatment. The bad: The whole industry might collapse in a huge column of bacon-infused smoke and all your date nights henceforth will center around when to take your Trader Joe’s wood-fired Naples-style uncured pepperoni pizza out of your parents’ oven.

Chef shadow in kitchen
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The idea that being a chef involves a period of hazing is ingrained in our collective American frontal lobe, an entire cluster of neurons pulsing with images of Gordon Ramsay spitting at people, and young chef wannabes traveling to France to julienne potatoes in an unheated basement for a year before anyone even considers acknowledging their basic humanity. There is even a Toyota commercial currently on steady rotation during The Voice featuring an angry chef with a Friends Season 3 Chandler Bing-style goatee dumping out the food a young female cook prepares, before she hops into her new 2017 Corolla and sings along to Grace’s “You Don’t Own Me” loudly while somehow simultaneously getting funding for her own food truck.

For many, many years, this is just how it was. Partly because there was always a surplus of people wanting to work in “good” kitchens because there weren’t a ton of “good” restaurants. And partly because there always was a steady flow of immigrant labor coming in (some documented, most not). So chefs thought, Well, I’m going to treat the cooks in my kitchen like shit, because, A) If they leave, so what? I have a line of cooks begging to get into this place, and, B) When I was a young cook, I was also treated like garbage. Do Unto Others and all that.

But then the Good Food Revival happened, and the idea of the restaurant kitchen changed. For one, more people all over the country became interested in restaurants, which not only meant an increase in applications to cooking schools, it meant an increase in cooking schools, period. According to the Career Index at Education News, in 2006 there were 447 culinary schools in America. By 2010, there were 578. The culinary education explosion coincided with a huge jump in the number of restaurants opening, as more and more real estate investors and tech people and athletes and cardboard box moguls saw status and potential for casual sex in coat check rooms by throwing money into a restaurant. From 2004 to 2014, the sexy mathletes at the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that more full-service restaurants opened than in any other part of the industry, including fast food. And it’s not expected to stop soon. They project that, 10 years from now, there will be 200,000 more chef and line cook jobs available.

Meanwhile, the once steady influx of immigrant labor (especially from Mexico) shrank considerably. According to the Pew Research Center, since 2009, more Mexican immigrants have actually gone back to Mexico than migrated here, thanks to a strong Mexican economy and tightening immigration restrictions stateside. And that’s certainly not going to get any better with our current president-elect. With that pipeline disrupted, kitchens are forced to hire more young, middle-class, culinary school graduate Americans carrying, on average, around $30,000 in school debt.

And yes, more of those people are coming out of culinary school, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to get. Just as many Generation X-ers went to law school with no real plan to practice law, culinary school grads are no longer locked into a restaurant kitchen role. Corporate gigs at tech companies, airlines, upscale nursing homes and grocery markets, the Food Network, hotel and casino groups, and catering can all tempt them away with better hours, better treatment, and better money. Even the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 Restaurant Industry Forecast ominously states that the “labor pool is getting shallower” and “recruitment and retention of employees will re-emerge as a top challenge.”

Here’s the reason the restaurant industry makes as much sense as a Harmony Korine film: Restaurants don’t make any money. Pretty much ever.

Now I’m not a licensed economist (yet), but I’m pretty sure when the number of jobs available in an industry go up, usually the pay and benefits in those arenas do as well, as more companies compete for fewer candidates. But here’s one of the main reasons the restaurant industry makes about as much sense as the plot-line of a Harmony Korine movie: Restaurants don’t make any money. Pretty much ever.

According to the National Restaurant Association, when all expenses are paid, most independent restaurants with an average check around $25 or more are basically looking at 4.5% operating income. And for newer restaurants that operating income isn’t going into pockets -- it’s going towards helping to pay for the initial costs of the build-out of the restaurant, the Edison bulbs, and reclaimed barn wood, and Lancaster metal window back walnut chairs, and that new range hood, and the lightly used fire suppression system, and all those cool matchboxes with your restaurant name on them that look like Maxell cassette tapes. And even if they’ve managed to pay off all those operating costs -- normally a goal within three to four years -- those newfound profits are then used to finally pay back investors.

Now, the low base-pay might not matter to the front of the house staff, which works almost exclusively on tips and has -- over the last 30 years -- seen their wages increase 200%. But the back of the house rely mainly on their hourly wages, and those have only gone up 25% over the same time, creating a discrepancy that would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. “I was getting paid more in Australia as a dishwasher than I ever was in the United States as a sous chef,” says Daven Hassell, 29, a former sous at Domenica in New Orleans, who spent a year working as a dishwasher and cook down under. Meanwhile, American customers are led to believe they’re already paying a pretty penny even though those tips are only creating financial solvency for the ex-theater majors in the front and not the ambitious lifers in the back.

“It’s a sad irony of the job,” says Essam Kardosh, general manager at Del Popolo in San Francisco, “that the people who usually make the most money are the ones reluctantly doing it part-time while they try and get into something else.”

Which leaves us with an alarming situation: We have an entire industry exploding with growth, creating an ever expanding pool of job opportunities that are as deep in availability as they are shallow in money and benefits. “You look at the number of places opening and then you look at the number of places already open already struggling to keep cooks,” says Kardosh. “And unless a place has a hook -- like a popular or famous chef, or comes from a super respected [restaurant] group -- you wonder who the hell they’re going to hire. Robots?”

Assuming that robots are off the table, what is a restaurant supposed to do when it needs people to take its jobs, but it doesn’t have extra money lying around to pay them more? Well, for one, chefs stop being abusive monsters. And two, everyone accepts the changing red pill reality that is... Working with millennials.   

Chefs hit with spatula
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Over the course of researching this story, if I gave out a superlative award for “most popularly maligned group of persons,” the millennials would win it in a landslide. In dozens of interviews, informal conversations, and awkward urinal run-ins with chefs, general managers, and other senior industry folk, the newest members of the taxpayer class were called everything from “total punks” and “lazy disrespectful entitled babies” to, somewhat confusingly, “the reason Trump won the election.”

When I suggested to chef/owner Jason Vincent of the popular Chicago restaurant Giant that perhaps the negative millennial stereotype was a bit overblown, he quickly disagreed. “You’ve never worked in a kitchen with them.”

He went on. “I actually blame Lucky Peach. They write these stories, and they put swears in them, and these kids feel like -- instead of actually moving to Spain, they can read about Spain and come in and tell the chef everything about Spanish food. And the chefs like, ‘Cool, but we’re not doing it that way,’ because half the time the [young cooks] are wrong anyway, and so they just leave, as opposed to saying ‘Well, teach me the way you do it.’ And it’s not just Lucky Peach, it’s the TV shows, it’s all of this stuff. But that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Pittsburgh chef/owner Sonja Finn of Dinette and the new Café Carnegie put it a different way. “Because of the nature [of the cook shortage], you have to woo these younger cooks, and so they feel entitled and a lot of times have egos they didn’t necessarily deserve, but you try your best to deal with it because you need a body on the line.” She laughs. “It doesn’t make it less infuriating.”

But no one was harsher than David Chang. He told me young people “have bad manners and contempt for authority.” Working himself into a lather, Chang added, “They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Oh wait, that wasn’t David Chang -- that was SOCRATES, bitching about millennials 2,500 years ago.

If I gave out a superlative award for “most popularly maligned group of persons,” the millennials would win it in a landslide.

The entire Old Man Yells at Sky aspect of talking about millennials entering the workforce notwithstanding, there is a point here. They represent the sharpest of double-edged swords -- a generation raised almost completely in the semi-public limelight of social media, used to airing grievances for all to see, able to stand up for themselves and demand change in a way previous generations might find embarrassing or at least over-the-top. But they’re also, as Sarah Varley, manager of SF’s Marlowe puts it, “stone cold job mercenaries.”

Already peripatetic by nature of their age, even millennials who’ve attended cooking school don’t necessarily believe they’re restaurant industry lifers, and so they become culinary soldiers of fortune, favoring avarice over loyalty. But you know what? Good for them. Whether it’s inflated millennial self-worth or not, the newest class of chefs are just flat-out not willing to eat dumpsters full of shit every day of their lives.

Hassell is a great example. A graduate of the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in NYC, he moved down to New Orleans with his now-wife and got a job as a line cook at John Besh and Alon Shaya’s well-respected and popular Italian restaurant, Domenica. Within less than a year, he’d been promoted twice, from line cook to head of production, to sous chef, both of which he modestly attributes less to being a great cook, and more to, well, showing up. “I think I was okay,” he says, “but I was dependable, came to work on time, and didn’t skip out on shifts. And in this industry, just doing your job consistently actually makes you stand out.”

Despite the promotions, Hassell decided to leave the industry altogether this past year and go back to school for mechanical engineering, citing the limitations of making cooking a lifelong career and actually paying your bills. “I love cooking and loved the pace of working in kitchens, but it just didn’t make financial sense in the long run.” He cited Domenica’s policy that cooks could only get a one dollar an hour raise per year. “If you’re coming out of culinary school with thousands of dollars in debt, moving from $13 an hour to $14 isn’t going to help pay that off,” he says. “It’s just not possible. You have to just decide that you love it so much that none of that matters. Or change the nature of the job so people can love what they do and afford to stay in it.”

“The days of treating and paying your employees like shit are gone,” says Del Popolo’s Kardosh. “It’s rewarding and empowering to hear that the people in this industry who are assholes are finally getting their due, because people just flat out won’t work for them.” He relays the story of one prominent SF chef who now can barely keep a staffed kitchen because word got out that “he’s just a horrible guy. And frankly, he’s not nearly good enough to be that horrible.”

Hassell agrees. “If you’re getting treated like crap, and you can walk down the street and get another job, why wouldn’t you do it?

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

In order to keep and retain chefs, Vincent says he does two things: A) He casts a wide net (“It’s like when you’re trying to get laid in high school — you’ve got to talk to a bunch of people and hope that one of them feels sorry enough for you to join up”). And B) He’s kind to people because, as he so gloriously puts it, “when you’re in a 44 seat restaurant, you can’t have some swinging dick shithead fuck it up for everyone.”

Almost all of the industry folk I talked to mention that, though it’s hard to pin down the younger cooks, the only way to do it is to figure out the way to thread the needle and establish some loyalty. “You have to create an altruistic culture where the staff is happy going to work,” says Kardosh. This could be in the form of perks — I’ve heard of everything from equity in the restaurant and paying for further education in food and drink, to helping pay off student loans, offering cash bonuses, feeding them fancy staff meals, and buying them comfortable work shoes.

“You’ll be going along thinking they’re all just selfish little shits,” says Varley, “but then you find one who sticks by you because you invested in them and it restores your faith in humanity.” She pauses. “Well, briefly.”

When I asked Hassell about what he thought of the perks restaurants are now offering to try and retain cooks, he was clear-eyed in just what he was getting. “All the other stuff, the paying for food/wine education, more nights off etc., doesn’t change the nature of the work. You’re still going to have to work nights and holidays. And unless restaurants start charging realistic money for the food and labor so they can pay cooks fairly and make enough money to survive, you’re still going to be underpaid. ”

Which brings us to you.

Though young cooks currently find themselves in the rare position of having leverage to demand better pay and perks and that their bosses don’t throw hot skillets of oil at them, as I mentioned before, there are not exactly piles of money sitting around in the restaurant industry waiting to be handed out. In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that chefs and head cooks mean annual wage was around $46,000 nationally, which is below the national mean annual wage of $48,000. And that’s for people at the top of the restaurant food chain.

So if kitchens are going to make serious strides to better compensate their staffs, and continue making that melted raclette cheese scraped table-side onto cauliflower rice you’re currently “obsessed” with, they will be forced to increase costs. And that means that, in the future, your $14 grass-fed cheeseburger might turn into an $18 grass-fed cheeseburger.

Whether or not you’ll be OK with that is a source of intense debate amongst the restaurant people I spoke to.

“On one hand, I feel like the simple solution is just to elevate prices and just be super transparent explaining it to the customers,” says Finn. “But then again, most of those customers are usually salaried, and the last time they were making hourly wages, $10 an hour was great, so I’m not really sure how they’d react.”

Recently, down in Tennessee, I tried to find out. Sitting at the bar at Little Octopus, a hip East Nashville restaurant, I awkwardly intruded on the conversation the three women in their late 20s were having next to me.

“Excuse me, ladies,” I said, as they looked up, seemingly bracing for a cheesy pick-up line. But instead of telling them that I want to live in their socks so I can be with them every step of the way, I asked if they’d consider a hypothetical question: Would you support a 20% increase in food prices if it meant paying the cooks and dishwashers in the back a fair, living wage?

At first they all quietly stared at me and one another, as if trying to figure out why a union organizer would be eating ceviche next to them, until I explained a little more about why I was curious. One of the women, Kristin, spoke up. “I’m all for paying fair wages, but if prices across the board go up 20%... ” she trailed off for a second. “I’d still want to go to these places, but I don’t think I’d go as often.”

Her friend, who didn’t give her name, chimed in somewhat conspiratorially, “To be honest, I’d probably only be upset about it if someone else pointed it out.”

Kardosh thinks he’s seen a preview of what’s to come nationally if restaurants raise their prices in San Francisco’s Health Mandate surcharge (a fee SF restaurants add to the bill to help cover the city-mandated cost of giving their workers health care), and it’s more in line with the second Nashville woman’s comment. “People were so pissed when the mandate passed, and there were stories in the news about it, and we started adding the surcharge to the bill,” he told me over an extremely fancy donut at a breakfast spot in the Outer Sunset neighborhood. “They would demand to speak to the manager, and claim they were taking it out of the tip, and all sorts of apoplectic behavior. But a year later, they adapted to it like everything else and now 95 percent of guests tip on top of it.”

He bites into the posh donut. “Most people are decent and honest and good, and will come around to price increases as long as they make sense.”

He chews for a second and looks at me. “So I guess the question is: Do they?”

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large and is resigned to eating cereal at home from now on. You can yell at him @KAlexander03