I’ve been a chef for all of my adult life. As a twenty-something kid, the allure of free food, cheap or free alcohol, and a work atmosphere where I could be myself was so strong. Sure, I spent a lot of years wondering what it would be like to have a normal job and be able to go do things like other people, to even have things like health insurance and sick days. And sure, other people wore regular clothes, while I basically lived in a pair of chef pants and whatever free t-shirts we could get from the liquor reps. But don’t get me wrong: the restaurant business has been pretty good to me. I’ve been able to make a decent living. I’m certainly not getting rich but my kids are taken care of, and as I’ve gotten older and more experienced my quality of life has been OK. Lucky enough to work for some good owners over the years, I’ve been able take time off as needed for my two sons and I’ve had paid vacations since my mid-twenties.
But what now? I’ve had a fear my entire career that I would end up as the kitchen manager at some dead end bar-and-grill, knees and back hurting, mopping the floor in my late fifties at 11pm when I should be planning my retirement. At 48 I know the 12–14 hour shifts are really starting to take their toll. My longtime fear seems to be getting closer and closer to reality.
I probably should have opened my own place by now, but the thought of putting five or more years of grueling hours in with no guarantee of success has always scared me. And now of course Coronavirus has turned everything in the restaurant industry upside down. I’ve had to sit down with every one of my kitchen employees several times since it started last year and tell them, “I have to take you off the schedule,” or “I can only give you one or two shifts a week.” These are people that have worked with me and for me for over five years, one of the hardest-working, most dedicated crews I’ve worked with in my entire thirty-year career. It’s been rough. All of this has brought my fear to the fore. What am I doing?
I need a better plan. In fact, we all need a better plan. I’ve spent a good portion of my career advocating for my kitchen crew with some success, but often the response I get from an owner is something along the lines of, “Why do we have to give them a dollar raise, how about 50 cents?” I have staff in the kitchen with ten-plus years of experience who work an eight-hour shift and walk out with $90 at the end of the day. On the other hand, a server can come in and work four hours and walk with $150. There’s a discrepancy there that doesn’t make sense. We all contribute to the guest experience. The server could not do their work without the dishwasher who is probably working sixty hours a week at two jobs and barely getting by. What can we do as an industry to flip the business model? It hardly seems worth it for an owner with margins at 6–8 percent. Any other industry would shut the doors at this margin. This pandemic has made it clear how many other industries’ fates rest on the backs of the service industry. It’s time to tell our story, and to charge the true cost of the goods and services we provide.
I’ve watched as our community has rallied behind us, telling us how important we are in their lives. They recognize the value we bring, giving them not just a cheap plate of food but camaraderie and care, a social scene and attention at the end of their own long days. It’s time for us all to recognize: the restaurant industry has no other choice but to evolve. And as a result, it’s time for me to evolve, to learn a new way of not just taking care of my kids, but taking care of the family that has nurtured me for thirty years. This transformation, in me and in the industry, won’t be easy. I’m scared but it’s time for some of us to step up in a big way and lead the change. How can we transform this industry and make it worthwhile for restaurant owners while recognizing how important it is to take care of the people who make it happen day in and day out? Today I’m committing myself to the long term viability of my industry as a whole. This blog is going to explore that commitment while also bringing you stories from a life in the kitchen.
You have to start somewhere. I’m starting here.