Where Have All The Cooks Gone?

Where Have All The Cooks Gone?

By David Meyers

I often receive calls from Chefs, from all parts of the country asking for help in finding Sous Chefs and Cooks. Kitchen staffing has always been a challenge but in today’s world it’s become very frustrating as many Clubs can’t even get people in the door to apply. Many Chefs tell me they are short-staffed which only compounds the problem. Chefs themselves are forced to cover open shifts or schedule staff to work long hours allowing fatigue to set in and taking away their time with family. Staff becomes frustrated; management gets upset with additional overtime labor costs and Chefs spend their day trying to keep their head above water as opposed to creating and focusing on member satisfaction. The diminished labor pool in the hospitality industry is a serious problem that in my opinion has reached EPIDEMIC PROPORTION.

Let’s face it, the perception of the hospitality industry in our country pales in comparison to other countries that view hospitality jobs as a profession. There is pride in service and cooks need to do extensive apprenticeship training just to work the line. Cooks seek out mentors in recognized hotels and restaurants and work for low wages to gain knowledge and build their resume. In some cases cooks wait for years to get into a particular restaurant because of the backlog of applicants. Why then is this so different here? That’s a good question because there is no single element that has caused this epidemic and no easy cure.

Unfortunately hospitality jobs are viewed as lowly and sometimes degrading labor positions. They are temporary positions that people are forced to do to earn a quick buck or in-between positions; work at part-time when attending school or, and I dislike saying this, but don’t have a green card to work in the profession they learned in their country. They settle for the hospitality industry.

The hospitality industry in general must work to change this perception. The reality is, working as a cook or a server is very hard demanding work. Think about this; a hospitality worker handles food and beverages and must do so in an efficient sanitized manner always with a smile. A sense of urgency is absolute; they must be responsible as the lives of their customers can be affected through an unhealthy experience. Hospitality workers should be applauded as opposed to be looked at as menial; they deserve recognition and not critique.  National chains like Chipotle have done well creating happy, youthful cultures where personnel feel they are an important component of daily performance.  But this is not case throughout the industry. So … where do we start?

Working conditions and wages need review. The number of hours the Chef or cook is expected to work vs. what is humanly possible is an issue. Hard-core Food and Beverage Managers and General Managers have expectation of continual cost improvement. This often creates a situation that drives quality down for financial gain. Budget engineering is a bad tradeoff that may work in the short run but when you are in the happiness business, pleasing the membership is an overriding priority. There are 21 shifts in a full service operation and Chef’s cannot possibly be there for every meal period, every hour of the day. An eight (8) hour a day shift five (5) day workweek should be the goal.

Hospitality industry wages need review as they should be set at levels that attract and retain staff. Being a former Club Manager I fully understand the importance of the Club Budget. When I was actively managing clubs the goal for the food department was to at least break-even if not make a few bucks. Please understand that Club membership is not for everyone; it is a luxury and there is a cost associated with it. Club food service operations should be subsidized similar to the clubs golf, tennis or pool operations. Just imagine what an extra $50 to $75,000 put in the kitchen labor budget would do to attract and retain staff. The reality is Clubs need to look at aligning their costs to meet member expectations. Think of additional budget funds as a tool to help the Chef build the “best team” possible.

When we discuss working conditions, an important consideration is facilities and equipment. Facilities and equipment must be current or you will NOT hire and/or retain the professionals with modern skills that are capable of putting out plates that members are asking for. Trust me, facilities and equipment is important to Chefs and if you are hoping to hire the professional culinarian you need to uplift your operation making sure your F&E is in good order and that Capital funds are available for future improvement.  So we ask… what is your perpetual Capital Budget value for BOH improvement?

Finally, let me touch on what I believe to be critical to recruit and retain staff and that is how we handle our people. My partner Dan Hugelier, CMC really put it in perspective when he said, “Chefs, Golf Pros, Tennis pros, Groundskeepers, Assistant Managers, Cooks and Servers are like an expensive Stable of Horses.” We all want Thoroughbreds in our stable but this is not always the case. There are plow horses, race horses, fillies, stallions and Clydesdale horses that all have a place on the team. They all have different strengths and skill sets that contribute to the operation. This really got me thinking because I am a lover of animals. I know how much we nurture, care for, worry about and invest financially in our animals. We care for them and spend money to make sure they are healthy and have what they need. We also tell them how much we love them and positively reinforce their good behavior.  Get the connection? … Staff must be nurtured, appreciated, involved and supported. Work with them and continually communicate to insure they understand expectations. Build em’ up, invest in their development and praise them at every appropriate opportunity.

Take care of your Thoroughbreds and their progenies; help them shine 😊

Now, Make your Mark!

Posted in Editorial
4 thoughts on “Where Have All The Cooks Gone?
  1. Peter L. Cooper says:

    Excellent article. I know Chef Dan. He is a true pro. The industry over the past 40 years has seen a rise in the respect for the American chef. Among the problems we currently have is Supply and demand. More people than ever are eating out in general. The business model seems to be a rush to the bottom. Meaning, smaller margins for greater volumes. This may not be typical for Clubs but is an industry wide epidemic. Thus to squeeze profit out of a business this requires the lack of full commitment by the industry to employees. Lack of benefits. Lack of commitments to full time employment. Lack of a true living wage for the work you described. It is not easy or comfortable in a kitchen when temperatures rise and hum its levels sore. The awful choice many restaurant and club businesses have to make is survival vs doing what is right.
    The young people of today see this and are searching for other options. Prestige and Reality are clashing.
    There was another article about a relatively young chef/owner leaving the industry due to the unhealthy and disparaging traits the industry imposes.
    I just turned 65. I have proudly been part of our Culinary world for over 50 years. This weeekend I Catered a wedding like when I was 35. Non stop work for the past 3 days. Moving equipment. Cooking. Planning the logistics of creating a Kitchen in an empty venue and serving a Plated dinner for 160 people. A young mans game. Problem is there are few young men willing to go the distance. To go the extra to take the steps required to do what you have to do.
    Was it an inspiration to those I worked with? Yes. But while I was still working close to an 18 hour day. They were in bed.
    How do we fix this. Cost of dining has to go up. Wages up. Benefits up. Get the government out of running our businesses and allow us to once again take control of treating people well without government dictating what we can and cannot do. Developing a relationship with our staffs. Having flexibility to reward them in a manner that reflects pride in doing a job well. That creates loyalty on all sides.
    Management needs to be allowed latitude in managing.

  2. Jim Story says:

    Great article David!

  3. Benjamin says:

    David. Well said…Ben

  4. W. Dennis Percevecz Jr says:

    You touched on all the reasons I am not cooking these days

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