crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.
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.