L'Escargot was located in a blue-collar neighbourhood just behind the Delta Bingo, nowhere near the city’s trendy Hess Village. André was confident of his talents at the stove and knew people would come to him and, more importantly, he knew what he could afford.
As a new apprentice, I found some of André's habits strange. He worked a European split-shift day, taking a 3-hour break before dinner service, and when returning in the afternoon would rifle through the kitchen garbage to ensure we hadn't thrown out anything of value. On those rare occasions when one of us did create needless waste, we would swear a pact of silence among ourselves and smuggle the offending evidence out in our backpacks at the end of the shift. Better that, then suffer the shame of having evidence exhumed from the depths of the bin.
Besides André, there were two of us in the kitchen, a young man with slightly more kitchen experience than I had and myself. It was a basic hierarchy. There were no titles and definitely no sous chef—a luxury a 30-seat establishment couldn't afford (even one run on Swiss efficiency).
I look at restaurants today through the lens of that experience and am grateful to have started with a chef that had a keen business sense. I frequently wonder how small restaurants in Toronto survive when leasing space in high rent locations? I find the math difficult to do when I hear of a small restaurant with three or more owner/investors (who don’t even possess the physical space). I worked for a chef whose restaurant was yanked from beneath him at the peak of his career by a landlord with an appetite for cash. I’m glad I can’t unlearn that lesson.
Chefs frequently scrub the business realities from the profession. The romantic idealism of professional cooking—of doing something for love rather than financial return—is far more appealing. The shadow side of this ideology can be used to support some shady, Dickensian labour practices. Maybe it's my age but I shudder when I hear a chef adopt the hero’s rhetoric and wax on about the noble sacrifices needed to be a chef. I'm very clear about what it means to invest in a career but I refuse to romanticize the need to earn a living and pay the bills.
One of our dirty secrets is that we want a workforce that is cheap and young. Culinary schools comply by producing young cooks at a rate that meets industry need. And, given that I once heard someone express the industry retention rate five years out from school as a single digit figure (meaning 90% of culinary students exit the industry within five years of graduation), the need is not likely to decline any time soon. It’s an endless cycle of training the young to replace the young.
In the main, our need for cheap and young employees is not a moral defect. Rising operating costs are a reality. The financial pressures of our current real estate market on a restaurateur are acute. Something has to give and restaurant owners and executive chefs frequently resort to trimming labour costs. But that downward press on wages has an impact that can be felt by an executive chef needing to fill senior positions, like sous chef.
A cook with experience costs a price our industry may not be able (or want) to pay. It should come as no surprise that the poor wage return on career investment affects retention in professional cooking. A few years into their careers and many young cooks catch on to this and leave the business, believing it more prudent than staying.
Celebrated executive chefs are quick to point to a lack of commitment in our young while turning a blind eye on their own failure to invest. On the commitment front, we want young cooks to do as we say, not as we do. Employers invested in building a kitchen team of substance, out of which sous chefs naturally rise, are rare (and clustered mainly in fine dining, hotels and large operations). I suspect that is the natural domain of the sous chef, not small restaurants.
It began to dawn on me while reading a recent National Post piece about the shortage of sous-chefs in Toronto that the industry I know no longer exists and that the position of sous chef is defined differently today.
To me, a sous chef has been five or more years out of school with progressive experience in good quality kitchens including some management experience. Her/his résumé has depth and often includes international stages. Practically speaking, a sous chef will order most ingredients into a kitchen, process all meat and fish, prepare sauces, oversee production quality, and expedite orders during service. S/he is a stand-in for the executive chef and hires, orders and manages at that same level. Today s/he should earn $18 to $20/hour or more, given that an entry-level cook begins at $12/hour. (That’s still a pretty lean living in Toronto.)
But today the title of sous chef is frequently bestowed on a young cook with much less experience. They’ll trade on the wage to have the title and will likely earn a wage just above entry-level. That formula fits our industry’s current economy. We’ve discovered the financial benefits of hiring a sous chef just out of school versus hiring a cook who has diligently worked up through the stations of a kitchen.
I'll confess I was always the sous chef, never the chef. And in a world where the executive chef is still the “I in team” that didn’t garner me much respect. Aging European chefs that I rubbed shoulders with late in my career were quick to point to this as a deficiency—as if being a senior team member in a great kitchen was a personal defect and cause for shame. We’ve lost some vital respect for all the positions of the kitchen and then wonder why young cooks emerge from schools with minds fixed on being executive chefs.
I invested more than ten years of my career in two of Canada's finest restaurants. As sous chef I was paid a reasonable wage (in line with the figure I’ve already stated), I received a fair cut of the tips, I was fed well, and was financially sponsored while doing stages in international kitchens. I finished my career working collaboratively with a chef who had enough self-respect to treat his team well. I contributed to the menu, was given my due and was publically recognized.
The hypocrisy of expecting our young to invest in experience while we behave as if we can’t afford to pay for it should not be lost on us. Rather than asking where all the sous chefs are I think the better question to ask is why so many young people bail on this business so early in their careers? Why does going the distance and gaining the experience to be a sous chef seem like such a losing proposition for our young? Are we so cash strapped (or mad frugal) that we can’t make the investment worth the wait? There are still a few executive chefs who know the benefits of paying a wage in line with experience and they’ve got the teams to show for it. Their restaurants generally last.