Based on television, you’d think that chefs and restaurateurs spoke exclusively about their favourite ingredients and places to eat. In real life, spend 10 minutes speaking to these people, and you’ll get an earful about the shortage of qualified cooks, ever-increasing costs, and how the local government is trying to strangle small-business owners with regulations — and that’s not to mention the minimum wage increase that went into effect January 1 (with another bump planned for 2019). It’s not often that anyone proposes solutions to these problems.
As a leader in Canada’s restaurant industry, Fred Morin — co-owner of celebrated Montreal restaurants Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and Le Vin Papillon — is someone chefs tend to listen to. But when it comes to the issue of labour, the challenge of finding, hiring, paying, and retaining good cooks, his fans are not going to like what he has to say: restaurants have become too fancy for their own good.
“It’s getting too complicated,” says Morin. “Part of it is the chef’s ego. How many people work for nothing just so a guy can see himself in the pages of the New York Times? There’s a lot of vanity in that.”
That restaurants are fancy, too fancy, may sound obvious to the home cook. One reason we dine out is to enjoy an experience with more pageantry than we would create at home.
But Morin takes aim at ambitious chefs and the demands that their long, complicated menus — 18 elements on a plate and garnishes that need to be applied with tweezers — put on cooks, as partially responsible for creating their own labour problems.
“The future is cooks making more, customers paying more,” says Morin, “and the food itself, the menus in the restaurant, the whole industry and the media around it, promoting a more simple type of restaurant experience.”
Over the last decade, it became trendy, and then expected, for restaurants to make products they once bought. It began with charcuterie, then expanded into bread, pickles, mustard, olives, pasta, and so on. I once heard a chef admonish their sous-chef for ordering marinated white anchovies from Italy. The product was exquisite — but couldn’t they be making their own?
This demand for perfection, for everything to be made by hand, has created unsustainable labour demands. Cooks come in early for their 12-hour shifts so they can help less experienced team members catch up to the speed of production needed to be ready for dinner service.
When you speak with restaurateurs about industry problems, they tell you that customers have to start paying more. And of course, as costs rise, consumers should expect to pay more for goods and services. But nobody wants to raise menu prices.
Just listen to the complaints any time a restaurant charges for bread, a product that requires skilled labour, but that many people still expect to get free.
Prices will rise. But there’s a limit to how quickly you can raise prices when customers already believe (mistakenly) that restaurant food is too expensive. Meanwhile, burnt out from 80-hour workweeks at low pay and with no benefits, experienced cooks leave the business.
Added to all this, the minimum wage has increased to $14 and will rise again to $15 a year from now. And the public is increasingly concerned that cooks should earn the liveable income servers do — and moreover, that they should get health benefits and should not be subjected to physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. So how do you achieve meaningful change when the product you create requires 12- to 14-hour workdays and there is no margin in the profits for a significant wage increase?
- Cult cuisines: How charismatic chefs command their kitchens
- The good and bad of restaurant reviews
- Ontario's overhaul of labour laws is great — unless you work in the restaurant industry
This brings us back to Morin and his appeal for reform.
“Sometimes I look at a menu, and I ask, why is there 10 different peeled vegetables on this one plate?” he says. “Maybe it could be charcoal-roasted potatoes with beer cheese, and that would be a simple dish.”
Morin’s restaurants are known for prioritizing big flavours over ornate presentation. And while it’s not a compelling argument to say that all restaurants should be clones of Joe Beef, you get his point.
“The gap in time that offers is not to be filled with a more complicated dish. It’s to be enjoyed by sitting down, having your break, having your coffee — not racing to get ready.”
Trish Gill, executive chef of the Twisted Apron and the Chef Next Door in Windsor, agrees that restaurants should have simpler menus instead of working cooks to exhaustion.
“It’s like Heinz ketchup. Everybody was on a kick of making house-made ketchup,” recalls Gill. “But Heinz is obviously the best.”
Following the same wisdom as Morin, Gill is already outsourcing one of her most popular items: “We get our perogies from St. Vladimir’s church. The babas are making them for us.”
In response to the increased minimum wage, she is downsizing her menu from 43 items to 30.
While Gill describes Windsor as a blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes town, shorter menus and more outsourcing are a radical prescription for chefs who dream of glory.
“One of the biggest bullshit jobs in restaurants — that we all do like robots — is making stocks,” says Morin. “It’s always the thing people slave over. Skimming the stock, roasting the bones, burning onions, carrying big vats of fuming liquid. It’s like half of the time of the cook is to make stupid stock. And in reality, if you braise meat, with a bit of water, it’s just as delicious. You don’t need all that.”
Most chefs would disagree that water is as delicious as a braising liquid. But stock, bread, and other products can also be outsourced.
“In France, they came up with this 35-hour work week. It forced people to work with companies that make prepared goods. If the alternative to not buying it is making it, then people are working too much, and making something that in the end is just going to go with a bit of butter and shallots on top of a steak. ”
Some chefs justify making everything from scratch on the basis that they really do make things better than anyone else. But how many can be the best, rewarded with placement on top-10 lists? Why should everyone else in the midrange of the dining sector have to live up to that standard?
Coupled with the public’s newfound expectation for artisanal everything, overly fancy food is keeping the restaurant industry from making progress with its labour problems.
“That simple menu, you’re going to save money on time and losses from ingredients,” says Morin. “That money is right there to be used to pay people.”
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.