I write a lot about problems in the restaurant industry. Now allow me to propose a solution to a few of them. It’s not going to magically sort out labour shortages, rent/fuel/wage increases, sexual harassment, or wage theft. It’s just a simple trick that could help chefs hire and retain cooks. And it won’t cost a dime.
Stop poisoning your staff with the attitude that being a top chef is the only measure of success.
At a recent fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society, “Eat to the Beat,” featuring food from 60 chefs, all of them women, I found myself having a series of conversations about the value of having a personal life while running a kitchen.
Trista Sheen said she’s been infinitely happier since leaving her post as chef at Toronto’s popular Bar Begonia. She teaches cooking students now, at George Brown College, occasionally filling in at a restaurant to enjoy the pure pleasure of cooking without having to take on the headaches that come with being a manager: “It’s so brilliant. All I have to do is cook. And the restaurant is so busy, so I get my ass kicked every Saturday.”
Alida Solomon (owner of Tutti Matti, downtown) said it’s nearly impossible to maintain a relationship as a restaurant owner. The night before, she had intended to spend time with her boyfriend, but — predictably — she got called in to her kitchen at the last minute to cover someone else’s shift.
“Money can’t buy time,” said Solomon, who works five or six nights a week. “I would have loved to have had kids. But when was I going to do that?”
Winlai Wong (executive chef, the Badminton & Racquet Club of Toronto) said she was grateful her current employer had allowed her the flexibility to take care of her dying father, something she would never have gotten at her previous job as executive chef of an international airport.
“Prior to the club, I was at Pearson Airport. I opened 13 restaurants and a commissary in two terminals. In less than a year,” she explained. “My father was diagnosed with progressive dementia while I was there. I had two young kids. I was married. And the job never ended.”
Their uphill battle to be chefs who actually have personal lives brought to mind a call I received last year from a well-known local chef who was worried I might come after him in print.
He wanted me to know, first off, that he was a good guy. Maybe his payroll needed cleaning up. But he was trying to grow, to pay people fairly, and to treat his employees with respect. He acknowledged the labour shortage and the industry’s high burnout rate but noted that on account of his reputation, there was always a queue of young cooks eager to work for him (for free, if necessary). He asked me for new ideas: How could he do better? How he could avoid exploiting his cooks?
I suggested an attitude change.
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Ontario offers so many career opportunities beyond Toronto’s top-chef bubble. But too often, I pointed out, cooks who toil in fancy kitchens for sub-minimum wage are called quitters if they leave the field, or even if they go to work in a hotel, museum, hospital, or any other less-creative but better-paying gig.
So when a cook, with 10 years’ experience, who is physically, mentally, and financially broken, decides to take a corporate job, perhaps in order to start a family, how about celebrating that, rather than contributing to a whisper campaign about how they’ve “lost their passion”?
Young cooks entering the fancy side of the industry often see restaurant ownership or having a TV show as markers of success, but few manage to reach those heights — and most burn out first. Maybe if they were allowed to view the huge variety of less-glamorous but financially stable jobs as anything other than treasonous, they would stick around longer. In the current system, you either rise to the top or are fed to the lions. Why not encourage cooks to see their time at the bottom of the ladder as preparation not just for chefdom, but also for the possibility of other jobs — the kind that might allow them to have a life?
He was not interested in my suggestion. It even seemed to offend him. Why, he asked, would he congratulate someone for being a quitter? Why would he hire someone who wasn’t driven to be the absolute best?
So that was the end of that conversation. The chef simply couldn’t imagine that the single-minded pursuit of excellence might be partly responsible for some of the problems he was looking to tackle.
After the Cancer Society fundraiser, I called Sheen, Solomon, and Wong to get their opinions.
Solomon agreed that the industry is unkind to anyone who switches career paths for a better life: “We’re not nice to people who take the corporate ladder. But you can go work for other people. And it’s not a cop-out. You don’t need to own seven restaurants to be a hero.”
Sheen, who was happy to put in her hours and not have a life in her 20s, said her peers have probably branded her a quitter. “I’m pretty sure that’s what people think I’ve done. I kind of disappeared after ‘Top Chef All-Stars,’” said Sheen, who appeared on two seasons of Top Chef Canada. “I was like, fuck this. I can’t take it anymore, losing staff. As soon as one person puts in their notice, three more people put in their notice. And you’re finding a whole new crew. It was just bullshit after bullshit. I was over it. And coming out of a stressful situation like filming ‘Top Chef All-Stars,’ I needed to start thinking about what makes me happy. Because this whole restaurant/chef thing, I’m not happy with it right now.”
For people outside the industry, the idea of encouraging employees to consider a job trajectory that values their physical and mental health might seem too obvious to be worth mentioning. To those within, it may seem too blasphemous to be worth considering. Don’t believe that. And don’t believe me. Instead, believe these three chefs who’ve learned it the hard way.
“You can have your cake and eat it too,” says Wong. “You just have to make some choices in life.”
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