Over the past several weeks I’ve had contact with a couple of women, both in sous chef positions, one I know who is working in a new restaurant, and the other I met for the first time at an event. Both have stellar credentials (and interestingly a shared history at one of Toronto’s top restaurants). In both cases I couldn’t shake the question rising in me: Given their resumes, why weren’t they calling the shots in the kitchen? I reached out to the woman I know to ask why she wasn’t the executive chef? I was assured it was in the works and trust it will happen. The other woman assured me it was the next move after gaining international experience. I encouraged them both not to wait too long.
My impatience is part projection. I’ve written candidly about having spent too much time as a sous chef. In a recent Guardian feature, chef Dominique Crenn says, “Right now we are in a place where we’re suppressing diversity.” How does this apply to women in professional kitchens? As a culture we stall their progress into executive chef roles, and a big career trap is spending too much time as second in command.
By the time a woman works their way into the position, they are likely six or more years into their career (it’s worth noting their promotion is slower than their male peers). Sous chef is a final step before becoming an executive chef and should amount to a one or two year term tops. Any longer and the odds are it will become a career. It’s a point in a woman’s professional trajectory to begin planning for what lies ahead and to ask the essential question, ‘what's next for me?’
In failing to move onward and upward, women play a part in suppressing diversity. I didn’t stop to consider how being a sous chef for six years fit the dominant culinary culture of men-on-top. (To be fair, I worked hard to hold on to my stake, often in isolation.) Looking at a lot of kitchens, too often the position becomes the finish line, the highest rank a woman can hope to achieve.
Most chefs don’t know what it means to be an ally, and there are few women up to the task of challenging the dominant culture's idea of “wokeness.” I don’t care how many women your favourite chef takes to culinary events, or poses with in Instagram selfies. I have a pet theory there's an inverse relationship—the more women are used as props, the less likely they’re holding important positions behind the swinging kitchen door. The Toronto kitchen these two women have in common is part of a growing restaurant group, with no women as chef de cuisine or executive chef. There’s no history, and quite possibly no will, in the organisation to advance them. If this sounds like a current employer, it’s time to consider the next move.
For most small kitchens, progress beyond sous chef means looking elsewhere. Large organisations create complex hierarchical structures—junior, senior, and executive sous chef—to hold on to people with experience. Remaining a sous chef beyond a reasonable time should trigger serious reflection. Does it suggest a lack of confidence in a woman’s ability to lead? Is there organisational evidence of gender bias in leadership roles?
Rarely will a promotion be delivered to the sous chef station. The sooner that sinks in, the better. Women need to lay plans early about the kind of kitchen they’ll lead. Actively pursuing the goal means reaching out to headhunters and trustworthy senior members in the community, and gathering support from peers and family. Treat investors stepping in to fund the dreams of young men as another source of opportunity. No one can guess at a woman’s value, they must speak of personal achievements and ambitions with forthright confidence. Ask for everything they want (it should feel uncomfortable) and run it all by someone without a stake in it.
Shedding the sous chef trap is not just a matter for women in professional kitchens. It turns up under so many guises in the culinary world. What would happen to culinary events if we took women out of the role of logistical sous chef? How many celebrity chefs would have their name on cookbooks if women stopped signing contracts to “collaborate?” There’s a ton of emotional labour women assume when they take up the role. And just like me, a lot of men end up calling the shots and claiming the glory.
Let’s start measuring a chef’s worth by the number of women they promote inside or outside their kitchens. Let’s start asking them directly how many executive chef positions they’ve filled with women? The closer the number is to zero the more reasons there are to proceed with caution. If a sizeable culinary operation lacks female executive chefs, it's a red flag. I’m not talking token representation either, one or two women don’t cut it. If there’s a glut of women in career sous chef positions, run away quickly. Do the research, ask questions, take responsibility for discerning if the talk matches the action.
Moving into an executive chef position literally or metaphorically requires women to own their careers. Surrendering ambitions to men in senior positions is squandering talent. It’s irresponsible. I suggest women manifest their destiny—get a plan and act on it. I remain curious about the women I meet, press them to take action, and encourage them to draw a line to define when the wait is over.
Happy International Women’s Day 2019!
I’m collecting demographic data for Canada’s top kitchens (think "Canada's 100 Best Restaurants"), and would be grateful for your help. If this interests you please send me an email to chef(dot)reid(at)gmail(dot)com. I will use the figures to report a story, and will fact-check with you and any restaurant in question. Under no circumstances will I identify you as a source.
I taught Jamie Harling as a young chef. He was one of those eager-to-learn students with a passion that wasn’t puffed up talk; it was backed up with commitment and talent. I was sure he would go places. We were kindred spirits from the start and remain friends more than a decade later. We meet when we can, in Toronto or Calgary, to talk about life and what's next. In some small way, I've known the pleasure of professionally mentoring him.
We share a commitment to social activism, and I admire his keen support of communities in need through “Chefs for Change” and countless local charity events. He’s been a fixture of the prairie food scene participating in events like Raw Almond in Winnipeg and the Prairie Grid Dinner Series. His cooking and affable personality won him the admiration and respect of his peers and the attention of national and international food media.
Not long ago he sent me a note to say he was accepting a position with the Calgary Fire Department. We met for lunch over Christmas to talk about the realities of the Canadian restaurant world, and the future he was looking toward. There was a lump in my throat the day he posted a selfie on social media in his new uniform.
I'm happy for him and fully support his new life. I'm proud to know him and to have his trust. My respect for him grows knowing he's making family and quality of life a priority.
But I also need to speak of the small crack in my heart left by his departure, and to register the loss of a great Canadian chef.
In culinary schools and restaurants in Canada, we train the young, to replace the young. We voraciously chew through talent. That's the sum of our culture. The lofty talk of a new order falling from the lips of chefs on the "cool" conference circuit is hollow. We lap it up without asking hard questions. The reality is most chefs and restaurateurs lack the will and stomach to do the hard work of changing. When pressed, they drag out the tired, worn-through argument of tight margins. We don't pay chefs with experience their value, our demands on them are relentless, and we think nothing of interfering in their private family time.
The Calgary fire department is lucky to have you, Jamie. Maybe one day soon my knees will be under the table in a firehouse kitchen when you're at the stove. I hope there’s still stuff for us to talk about for a long time to come.
A. is actively searching for an executive chef position. She spent ten years working in great restaurant kitchens in Ontario and Montreal, has European training, was executive chef for an island retreat for political leaders and executives from around the world, and has led a unique food project in South America. What she hasn’t done—what so many women haven’t done—is follow the path of the traditional brigade system. And that stumps a lot of men who are hiring.
We met recently, and she told me a couple of her job search stories. I’m sharing what I said to her below. Looking squarely at the ways we keep women out of the top spot in the kitchen is one step toward change. When I hear a chef bemoan the shortage of talent in our industry, A’s story is one of many that jump to my mind.
When a man in a position to hire tells you he is struggling to see how you fit in the business, at a time when you’re ready for an executive chef position, look on him as a dangerous gatekeeper. He’s delivering a message that’s been spinning for female cooks for ages. He's telling you, you don’t belong.
It’s not entirely true he couldn't see a place for you either. He sent you line-cook job postings in mediocre corporate roadhouses. When a juicy position that was a perfect fit came up, he told you it was a long shot. Look on this as a measure of his lack of talent, not yours.
When an executive chef leading multiple restaurants tries to convince you not to go it alone in one of his establishments, but instead become an executive sous chef (as if that job title isn’t warning enough), remember that a lot of men like having women in that position. They parade them around at events as evidence of their wokeness. Of course, it works for them because it follows the natural order of men on top. But sous chef today is a position reminiscent of pastry/garde manger when I was an apprentice. Both are pink ghettos where a lot of female talent gets parked indefinitely.
He’s also the chef who thinks so little of your decade of stellar experience that he wants you to come in and do a stage before he decides if you’re a good fit. Stop and ask yourself if he’s getting men with similar experience to jump through that hoop? They’d tell him where to get off. So should you.
Sadly there’s no shortage of men continuing to participate, consciously or not, in the toxic masculinity that pollutes culinary culture. They came up through the brigade system and slavishly still cling to it. Instead of getting rid of a broken military model, they make a problem of anyone who doesn't fit it. Few are the men who possess the courage to change, and many are the men who pay lip service to it. But don’t think we can’t see the ways they plod along serving their brothers and the status quo.
When you hear the message that you don’t belong, in all of its gross and sly manifestations, RUN THE FUCK AWAY. Do not internalise it. Take too much of that in, and pretty soon you’re talking yourself out of your greatness. Just know the barriers thrown up against women moving into a position of authority are still formidable.
Let us take pleasure in dining out on the stories of these men. We must warn our female colleagues about who's practising this brand of bullshit.
Hold out for the people who recognise and want your kind of special. Sadly, along the way, you'll have to show your back to plenty of unworthy motherfuckers. It’s not your job to teach men how to be decent humans and leaders, but it doesn't hurt to point directly to the things that are problematic in their offers.
Put me on speed dial for those rare occasions when you start to give in to it.
Note: This is the second piece I have written to a woman who came to me for professional guidance. Here is the first.
This photo circulated in my Instagram feed in mid-January. I found it irritating for obvious reasons. In 2018, any organisation flaunting a token woman has made a conscious decision to do the bare minimum on matters of gender equity. The equation is simple:
Token woman = Secure status quo.
As far as rank goes, Jenna Reich is the only commis (junior chef) on the Bocuse d’Or Canada team (and she's a culinary student). From the perspective of her power and solo status, she's not in a position to challenge the “world-class team of Canada’s leading chefs” on any issue. And evidence suggests that’s just how they like it.
The event’s PR team, led by Brigitte Foisy, has been working overtime to produce “woke” content. Their home page has a video featuring team candidate chef Trevor Ritchie and chef Reich. The banner features images of Canadian chefs including Mark McEwan, Jonathan Gushue, and Jason Bangerter alongside photos of mostly unknown young women and Foissy herself. To celebrate International Women’s Day, they posted this photo. I’d place a Vegas bet most of the women here are culinary students. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, but none of them qualifies as a peer of the male chefs associated with the event. It’s painfully ironic that the Bocuse d’Or Canada is using images of young women to promote the competition and appear gender friendly while having just one woman, in a junior position, on the team.
It could work if the objective is to attract more young women. But where are the female chefs who are peers of McEwan, Gushue, and Bangerter? There’s also an acute exclusion of female chefs among the band of eight senior chefs on the team. Why are they absent from the ranks? How will young women get a vision of their future without them? Regarding mentorship, it’s a serious omission.
As far as team demographics go, 2019 represents progress. Here is the competition team in 2017 and 2015. And the chefs honoured as Bocuse d’Or Canada laureates are, brace yourself, all men.
The team’s fathership is the CCFCC Canada (Canadian Culinary Federation) whose mission is, “...to unite chefs and cooks across Canada in a common dedication to professional excellence.” (You’re not out of the loop if you’ve never heard of them.)
It should be no surprise that the ten members of the CCFCC’s National Executive, are all men. But hold on, there are two women serving as junior board reps. Recognize that pattern?
Many Canadian culinary institutions require CCFCC certification for their teaching faculty. Meaning, the membership has a significant population of culinary educators. So the chefs teaching young culinary students, a body that’s reached gender parity, are being certified by an organisation that, for all appearances, is hostile to women.
Most Canadian competitions are affiliated with culinary schools. There's often a designated faculty member overseeing young student competitors. I can’t speak to how many female faculty members are assigned to this, but I’d hazard a guess the number is disturbingly low.
It's a tangled web of institutions with a special kind of cultural blindness that allows this biased infrastructure to exist. The trickle-down effect of those values is worrisome. I’d argue you can see them at work in the demographic makeup of the current Bocuse d’Or Canada team.
The team has no sponsors listed on their website, but the CCFCC has plenty. The footer banner on their website lists the companies tied to their organisation. Wonder if their corporate sponsors are aware of the bias toward men.
I don’t know how long it will take for the Bocuse d’Or Canada or the CCFCC to accurately represent the culinary industry at large. The CCFCC's mission statement to "unite chefs and cooks" is laughable, and without women “professional excellence” is impossible.
Before I depart, here’s a word on the dull and predictable response of ‘no women applied.’ First, it’s the preferred refrain of this set. When I hear it, I know I’m dealing with lazy, status-quo-loving individuals. Change takes strenuous and prolonged effort.
When William Drew opens his defence of The World’s Best Female Chef Award with, “The world is sexist,” you know where he’s headed. It’s reasonable to expect the sentence to end, and so are we. He’s not off to a great start in defending the award and positioning the host organisation, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, as advocates of “affirmative feminism in action.” A cursory glance at their record since 2002 quickly reveals his brand of feminism as a sham. In 2016, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants could only find one woman on the planet to bring into their fold, Chef Elana Arzak Espina, and she’s not a new member of this privileged club.
William Drew’s spin that the award is meant to, “shine a light on supremely talented female chefs with the aim of inspiring future generations of young women to reach for the heights of their chosen profession,” might pacify some. But female chefs share a different perspective. They view the award with suspicion, like a shiny bauble that distracts organisers, jurors, sponsors, and participating chefs from the fact that the host awards, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, is a boys club.
The gendered award has always felt like a consolation prize. That runner-up feeling amplified, as Charlotte Druckman astutely points out, by the fact that rarely does the World’s Best Female Chef land on The World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. The Michelin Two Star restaurant, Atelier Crenn, owned by last year’s winner Chef Dominique Crenn wasn’t up to their standards. In April we’ll find out if Mr Drew will deal the same hand to Chef Ana Roš.
The award came into existence to solve a problem. Female representation on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list went from an average of nine percent (2002–08) to four percent in 2009, and it’s never risen. Some prominent women took note and began agitating on social media. In 2011 the award was born, and Chef Anne-Sophie Pic was the first recipient.
Was it a neat solution? Did the award allow the organisation to continue with business as usual and do nothing about the obvious gender bias? Can we accept the decline knowing that the number of female chefs leading great restaurant kitchens continues to grow? In 2016, not only did Chef Dominique Crenn’s restaurant fail to make the grade; female representation on the prestigious list sank to its lowest level, at two percent. It’s hard to hear Mr Drew talk of affirmative action while the organisation behaves in a manner toward women that could be construed as openly hostile.
And what of the jurors? Should we worry about the imagination of the “1000 ‘influential’ people from within the restaurant community” who in 2016 couldn’t come up with more than one female chef worldwide to include on the list? Given the repetition among award winners, it's reasonable to question the terms of the search. Are most of the jurors making rounds of the same international tables, playing some high-flying game of musical chairs?
Are top ranking chefs like Massimo Bottura, Daniel Humm, and Rene Redzepi okay with being celebrated by an organisation that marginalises women? I’d like to hear them explain the ranking to the female chefs in their kitchens. What would they say? It’s not just the ‘best’ designation female chefs lose; it’s the media exposure and economic benefits that accompany it.
But why should female chefs worry about that when Mr Drew's tasked the World's Best Female chefs with cleaning and scrubbing the industry of all its woes:
“Between them and their fellow female winners, they are campaigning to attract more women to the industry, to improve traditionally anti-social working conditions and poor wages, to address work-life imbalance, to drive changes in food production methods and the treatment of farmers, to promote LGBT rights, to provide opportunities for the under-privileged, and to celebrate their respective localities.”
And while they’re busy nurturing the industry, what are the boys doing?
Who is the “we” that Mr Drew invokes? Are they content with gender segregation as a solution? The silence from the men associated with the awards suggests they’re not bothered by the way it plays out for women. Maybe they believe William Drew when he says, “It is not an award that seeks to separate female cooking or define it as ‘other.’” Most female chefs will recognize that statement for what it is, delusional and the talk of a man with a big stake in maintaining the status quo. As it stands, the World’s Best Female Chef award gives a false impression that all involved are concerned about equity when the evidence clearly suggests they're not.
I could hardly believe my good fortune when your email arrived on November 23, 2016. When you wrote, “I wish I could hug you,“ about my writing on female chefs and social justice issues in the professional kitchen, my heart sang. It’s one thing to have readers connect to my work and another thing altogether for a young female chef to find meaning in it.
When you asked, “How did you know to bow out? There is no doubt in my mind that it is the SMART thing for me to do, but somehow I feel like I haven't yet achieved what I wished to achieve,” it took me back to a critical juncture in my career. (The photo of me is from that period.)
In 2000 I did a six-week stage at the River Cafe in London. It was a pivotal moment in my 13-year career. I was sous chef in a top Canadian restaurant and my path to that point was stellar (and in some ways insufferably long).
The democracy and absence of hierarchy at the River Cafe were a revelation. There were so many women working in Ruth and Rose’s kitchen. It was a dream. When I returned to Canada, I wasn’t the same. I felt ready to take the last step in my journey to becoming an executive chef.
But nerves, self-doubt, and too little opportunity proved formidable foes. I left the kitchen within a year of my return and struggled for several years to find a place for myself off the trajectory where I had spent my entire young life.
I did grapple with all the feelings that remained after the thing I had made tremendous sacrifices for was laid to rest. I spent time mourning, and the most cursed thing was, I mourned alone. That’s one of the biggest final humiliations of working in a male-dominated culture; your absence goes unnoticed.
I don’t know if it was the smart thing to do. I'm a wonderful cook, and I do think about what could have been. I’ve felt shame and some regret about not having steeled my nerves and forged ahead.
Your words are powerful. When you write, “I am tired of putting on a brave face and acting like some kind of martyr. The thought of starting at another new restaurant and proving my worthiness while I watch younger less experienced men start above me is exhausting and insulting,” please know that you are not alone. Young female chefs worldwide share your disappointment and anger.
A lot of young women leave professional kitchens within five years of graduating cooking school. You’re a rare and talented woman if you’ve made it to ten.
The other great exodus for female chefs is just before they take the final step. I offer my story as a cautionary tale. I might have done things differently had someone encouraged me to stay all those years ago.
With ten years of experience behind you, there’s no more need to prove yourself. The time for letting an executive chef dictate your position is over. Say goodbye to Garde Manger (and pastry) FOREVER. Seriously question the intelligence and integrity of any executive chef who wants you in that station with your experience. It’s time for you to decide what position you want in a kitchen. One of the reasons all those “less experienced male cooks” start above you is that they ask for what they want.
I’m exhausted and insulted reading that you’re paid a day rate of $100 for 14 hours of work. That’s $7.14/hour, a full $3.61/hour below minimum wage in Quebec. Just bridging the gap to minimum wage over the course of a year would put $7220 more dollars in your pocket (and that’s without overtime). Think about that the next time you pay rent. Day rates and salaries almost never benefit cooks. They’re often a red flag that wage abuses are likely to occur.
Please don’t make earning minimum wage your goal. It’s too low. At ten years, you’re responsible for the return on your investment and wages are something to negotiate. I’ve talked to countless young women who found out they were earning below their male peers in large part because they didn’t ask for more. Role-play, practice, do whatever it takes to cook up the chutzpah to secure a wage in line with your experience. Make it a figure that gives you reason to stay.
Figure out what you burn to achieve and go for it. Don't waste any time. I hope all of it scares you shitless. For many women, a sure sign you’re ready is to think that you’re not. Go for it with everything you’ve got. Show those futhermuckers who's boss.
I’m with you in spirit. So are countless other female chefs. Let me know when you land the position of your dreams.
…that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior
crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.
I was audited early in my culinary apprenticeship. It began with the restaurant that employed me and rippled out to include all staff. At the time, the government had set its sights on the underground economy and the restaurant business, with its tipping culture, was fair game. Omissions were discovered in my accounting. I wanted to minimize my time with the government and not incur excessive fines so I settled up quickly. I did feel resentful. I wondered why the government was shaking down an apprentice for such a paltry sum. The cash in the envelopes I received was like a gift to me, boosting my meager bottom line and my spirits. There’s a lot of room for fuzzy thinking in benevolent systems like tipping. As a young cook, I couldn’t imagine what the financial outcome of the audit was for the restaurant and staff or what taking aim at the tipping economy in the industry would yield on the whole. I would come to see my sense of entitlement enabled a covert system of accounting to thrive.
My story is not unique. With some regularity, news rises out of the restaurant industry of top tier chefs dogged by multi-million dollar lawsuits related to the improper accounting and distribution of tips. The legal proceedings are exposing a hierarchy of benefit that suggests some of the financial reward stays in the business through accounting loopholes. What remains is divided unequally among employees, with cooks traditionally receiving the smallest portion. Suspicions rise as more lawsuits are settled in favour of employees. Cooks are left wondering if the chefs and restaurateurs encouraging them to work for passion—and not for money—are reaping the business benefits that come from underpaying staff.
There’s also a sense many restaurateurs could be exaggerating the hardships of their slim profit margins. There’s no denying the pressures of ownership. Real estate in particular is a formidable expense. But it doesn’t seem to stop the flow of newcomers wanting to open restaurants. I spent my career working for highly successful restaurateurs who didn’t appear to suffer economic hardship. I don’t want to deny owners their right to success; I just don’t want it to be at the cook’s expense.
Our image has been further tarnished by media reports of poor working conditions in independent restaurants including charges of sexual harassment, threatening behavior, and incompetent oversight by management. There’s growing awareness in chain restaurants of the high salaries and dividends enjoyed by executives and shareholders and those of their employees who struggle to prosper. Add to the pot a lack of affordable housing and other social safety nets that make living in cities impossible on a cook’s wage.
The industry response to disheartened cooks who leave our ranks has been apathy. We’ve dodged dealing with the needs of maturing cooks and been naïve about the trickle-down effect their exits have had on our young. Cooking as a career is largely a ruse. It’s marketing propaganda used by culinary schools to woo the young. It’s one thing to enter the trade from school with the expectation that working for a minimum wage will be the reality for a while but it’s the length of the wage squeeze in our sector that drains our culture. How long can a cook work in the absence of any return on investment? Five years of quality experience in the business can net a cook a whopping $15/hour—or less if they’re working for day rates. Passion often doesn’t survive these conditions.
Many young cooks assume the financial pressures they feel extend to all in the business. When asked to speculate on the earnings of high profile chefs, many imagine between $40,000 and $80,000 annually. They’re surprised to learn the figure can be much higher. Some of their favourite chefs from culinary school earn above six figures. They’re too green to question the moral fibre of a high profile chef who publicly complains about a lack of quality cooks in the business, while acting in their kitchen like they can’t afford to pay for experience.
There are chefs who pay their staff well but they’re the exception, not the rule. I can think of one chef in Toronto with a stellar reputation who for decades has employed career cooks. He is proof it’s not as difficult as some would have us believe.
Restaurateurs are looking to overhaul the tipping system in order to improve cooks’ wages. The response has been mostly predictable. Restaurant associations warn of customer and job loss. Restaurant oligarchs like Drew Nieporent prefer the system to remain the same. (For the record, his net worth in 2015 was estimated at $42 million dollars.)
Powerful opposition to increased wages comes from the fast casual sector. Its profits depend on cheap food and labour. Allied with restaurant associations, it forms powerful political lobbies to influence legislation to cap the minimum wage. To date, it has been persuasive. The hospitality industry often holds the top spot as the largest minimum wage employer.
My ire rises when I hear an executive place blame for increased consumer prices on the backs of minimum wage workers. I want to know if rising consumer prices are impacting their million dollar earnings? Workers pushed to the brink have inspired great labour movements and unions, looking to make new inroads in an organization, view these conditions opportunely.
Evidence to support change is coming from the front line in places like Portland Oregon, where the minimum wage was raised citywide to $15/hour in February. Early reports from restaurants say all the fuss has amounted to much ado about nothing.
Poor wages are making it difficult to attract and retain talent. Chef Amanda Cohen and restaurateur Danny Meyer, both in New York City, are betting the safest place to be is out front, finding ways to increase cook’s wages. They sense the inevitability of change and know failing to act is affecting their business.
Substantive change is not easy. Being brave and facing it is admirable. Cohen and Meyer are not simply addressing the obvious injustices in the arbitrary system of tipping. They’re also setting out to prove that reasonable profit and quality working conditions are not mutually exclusive in the restaurant business. To make it work, they’re counting on customers to embrace higher prices. They’re hoping the desire to improve the lives of cooks is shared.
Most restaurateurs are comfortable to spectate these outlier moves. But they may soon have to surrender their bleacher. If wages rise in one part of the industry it will be impossible to stem the tide in the rest of it. But for every cook looking hopefully to this future, there’s a naysayer hoping the experiment will fail.
The business of cooking is losing its lustre. We don’t look good. That’s some of what Cohen and Meyer are trying to escape. Amanda Cohen has talked prolifically about the ridiculous conditions of professional cooking. The truth of the matter is it’s a bit of an embarrassment that a move to look after cooks is seen as such a radical act. That says so much about who we are. We’ve cared less about the living conditions of the cooks we employ than the farm animals we cook.
When I failed to claim all of my income in those early days I was head over heels in love with cooking. It was everything to me. Fast forward some eight years later and I was weary of handouts from benevolent patrons. I longed for opportunity and financial reward in line with my experience. I couldn’t find it. I left the kitchen. For too long that’s been my loss alone. Now there are some who are counting the loss as theirs as well. I’m grateful.
It makes me cringe hearing a chef advise young cooks to take to the stove for love, not money. I get it. Passion is the pilot light that sparks a career. It’s a key ingredient in great cooking. Passion binds us to our masters, peers, and customers. But I’ve spent enough time on-the-line to recognize the subtext. In the business of professional cooking we want cooks with low expectations. It’s best when they want little.
I’ve heard this message twice in the past month—once at a culinary conference and again in the documentary For Grace. In the film, chef Grant Achatz discusses his professional commitment (and in turn, his expectations for his staff). He tells us that after a 12-hour shift in the restaurant he feels conflicted about whether to go home to his girlfriend or continue to work. We understand that when it comes to love, the restaurant usually wins. He tells potential employees that if they have pets they will need to find someone to care for them because they won’t have time. It’s clear from a video on Alinea’s website that 16-hour days are the norm.
I admire Achatz’s achievements but there’s a small voice inside me insisting that his practice is crazy, beyond the realm of reason. In pushing labour’s limits has he lost a sense of humanity? Is he normalizing working conditions that are socially (and legally) exploitive?
Must cooks be socially and personally deprived in order to create culturally enlightening cuisine? Why can’t a restaurant like Alinea—where the cost to dine is astonishingly high and customer demand never wanes—hire more cooks? Run a second shift? What’s the business case for this? Where does Grant Achatz draw the line?
Partners, lovers, and pets are the things that make us most human. Does doing it for love mean abandoning the ones we love? Missing weddings, funerals, and important events is a badge of honour for most cooks. But what does it say about the sanity of our culture?
The companion issue to long working hours is compensation. There’s an uncomfortable scene in For Grace that takes place on the doorstep of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago. Chef Trotter greets chef Curtis Duffy (who has plans to dine in the restaurant that evening) by ordering him explicitly to get off his property. Duffy had reaped the financial rewards from a class-action lawsuit launched by Beverly Kim, a former Trotter employee, over lost wages due to overtime work.
What’s striking is Trotter’s indignation. He clearly still feels justified in a practice that a court of law found problematic. His sense of what was right for his cooks needs correcting. I think of this abuse of labour (and power) when I hear a chef tell young cooks to do it for love. The perversity of Trotter’s indignation is clear to one writer: “Perfecting your craft is important, and in many professions you have to work your way up through the ranks. But the idea that you don't get paid a fair wage for the hours you actually worked? Maybe if you're an artist or a scholar and your work doesn't produce any revenue, that makes sense. Last time we dined at Trotters, the bill was over $1,000.”
Most restaurants these days deal with the issue of overtime by offering a flat day rate. In Toronto, rates average $140 to $150 a day. A 12-hour shift (not unusual) paid at minimum wage is roughly $143.50 ($10.25 x 8, $15.38 x 4). Because most cooks are doing it for love they don’t do the math and are unaware that they’re working for minimum wage. I sat with a cook recently with two years of culinary school training and five years of the best quality experience in Toronto restaurants. She was surprised by this bottom line. What surprised me was the indifference her employer had for her professional experience. I think of that when I hear chefs telling young cooks not to worry about the money.
Labour issues are like a simmering pot in our kitchens. It’s getting increasingly difficult for chefs to predict when it will boil over. Batali, Boulud, Puck, and Colicchio are just a few of the chefs who have met Trotter’s same fate. Chef Daniel Boulud makes it clear just how pervasive wage theft is: “If I was the only one in New York being into these things, I will be upset…but I’m not the only one.” It’s hard to tell from this statement if the offense—stealing wages and tips from employees—even registers as problematic to him.
It’s ironic that those being force-fed the rhetoric of working for passion must call to account chefs who appear to be doing it for the love of money alone. The interests of a chef or restaurateur can be at sharp odds with those of the cooks they employ.
‘Slim profit margins’ is the standard business response to these thorny matters. There’s no denying that rising costs—not the least of which is real estate—put considerable pressure on a restaurant. But something about this system works for business interests. If it didn’t, many of our most esteemed chefs and restaurateurs wouldn’t lobby governments to cap the minimum wage.
This isn’t limited to Canada. This past week restaurateurs in New York State were warning of job losses if the minimum wage were increased. It’s far easier to squash the financial ambitions of cooks than to ask customers to pay more. Imagine if such talented and esteemed members of the culinary community set their minds and experience to finding a way to adequately compensate the cooks they employ rather than investing so fiercely in the-sky-is-falling narrative.
Who determined that customers weren’t interested enough in the quality of the lives of cooks on-the-line to pay them a decent wage? In the same way we’ve had to teach customers about the value of quality products we will have to teach them that providing legal and humane working conditions may mean that meals cost more.
I don’t want young cooks coming to us without passion. But I do want them to come to the profession expecting a whole lot more. What would the business of cooking look like if we valued balanced lives? If we appropriately reimbursed cooks who contribute to a restaurant’s profits? Do we damage our profession when we expect rising talent to live on passion alone? In light of our recent history, and in the absence of any demonstrated leadership from chefs who matter reimagining the future of professional cooking will likely fall to cooks working on-the-line.
 Anthony Todd. “The Darker Side of Charlie Trotter’s.” Chicagoist. August 2012.
 Robin Kawakami. “Chef Daniel Boulud Responds to Lawsuit Over Employees’ Tips.” Speakeasy Blog. Wall Street Journal. June 17, 2014.
“My soul hurts.” That’s Richie Nakano’s grief talking. He’s mourning the loss of his beloved Hapa Ramen. Strange to say but when I read his story in Inside Scoop SF my soul hurt too. I’m a long way from San Francisco, with no connection to the restaurant or Richie, but reading about this talented young chef and his lost dream was hard. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of restaurant business partnership.
It is damn near impossible for any chef to single-handedly fund a restaurant’s development. Many must get hitched, in the business sense, in order to see their dreams come true. To understand how difficult it is to find a good match, do a Google search of chefs and business partners. There’s an endless stream of stories of famous and not-so-famous chefs involved in bitter legal battles. At root they’re all about the same thing—the partnership wasn’t right.
Richie Nakano’s business partner was from the tech sector and had a long list of accomplishments at companies like Amazon and Facebook. It’s unclear if he had previous business experience in restaurants.
In return for the cash injection Richie Nakano sold his soul. He signed away the rights to the Hapa Ramen name and brand, a business he’d been building since 2010. Those terms should make a chef nervous. They should make their legal counsel nervous too. I wonder if Richie was advised that his talents were business assets? That the life he breathed into Hapa Ramen had value?
The unraveling comes early and begins with profitability. Four months in to the venture and the investor’s looking for return. Was he expecting the same fantastical profits he’d experienced with online start-ups? Restaurants don’t work that way. Covering expenses and paying down some of the capital costs in the first year is a triumph. Unrealistic financial expectations would have backed Nakano and his artistic integrity into a corner.
Deborah Blum, restaurateur and advisor to the tech investor, pointed to Nakano’s social media personality as a pivotal issue in rapidly deteriorating relations when Nakano publicly challenges a mediocre review by a well-established San Francisco food critic. His reputation as a straight talking chef was part of the Hapa Ramen brand; it's not a sudden shift in character. Shaming Nakano is a weak attempt to evade responsibility. But there’s something else in her finger wagging. Could it be that the investor (under poor advisement) didn’t practice due diligence in researching his investment? Were the financial accounts for Nakano’s market stall and pop-up events reviewed? Did the contract specify Nakano’s obligations to balancing the books? Was that tied to bonuses or penalties? It seems that the big pile of cash didn’t come with a whole lot in the way of restaurant business grey matter.
I’m reminded of a story told to me by a successful female restaurateur. Before striking a deal, she and her potential partner had a lawyer take them through every possible worst-case business scenario. She described the experience as traumatic and told me it struck fear into both of their hearts. They signed a deal and their restaurant partnership lasted more than 30 years.
I suspect it was a less rigorous, more optimistic beginning for Nakano and his partner. As a chef, I stand with Richie. I’d like to wave a wand and restore his dreams. I wish he’d found someone with business talent to match his own.
What remains between them is a lifeless brand. I hope that after the grief, something new comes. I’m sure that the mind that created Hapa Ramen from scratch can create more and next time he’ll know the value of his soul.