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News & Press: Industry News

NYTimes: Not Enough Cooks in the Restaurant Kitchen

Monday, October 26, 2015  
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The drumbeat began about five years ago, as the restaurant industry started to recover from the recession. The sound was faint, but chefs noticed. Openings for junior jobs like prep cook and line cook were taking longer to fill, and the applicants had weaker skills. Cooks with just one or two years of experience were applying for jobs better suited to 10-year veterans. Stagiaires, aspiring cooks who once begged for unpaid internships, were leaving after a day of work, or not showing up at all.

But the chefs’ concern was muted: After all, the industry was surging back, producing more ambitious restaurants, new culinary destinations, higher check averages and ever more culinary school graduates, all driven by Americans’ heightened interest in food and the glamorous image of the professional kitchen.

In the last year, though, the sound has become deafening. At conferences, over beers and on social media, chefs and restaurateurs are openly worrying (not to say complaining) about a crisis-level shortage of cooks. In scores of interviews via phone and email, chefs and restaurateurs confirmed that the shortage has affected their hiring. They included Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in the Napa Valley, Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Jeff Michaud of Vetri Family Restaurants in Philadelphia and Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde in New York, and large-scale restaurateurs like Ralph Scamardella of Tao Group, Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago and Chris Himmel of Himmel Hospitality Group in Boston.

For some, it has even affected their food, forcing them to simplify dishes, to focus on basic, scalable restaurant concepts like pizza or burgers, and to hire virtually anyone who walks through the kitchen door.

“I have given up expecting that every single one of my line cooks will be able to season correctly or understand heat,” said Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan in Manhattan, where he has added dishes that he can cook himself, in advance, so that his line cooks need only heat and serve.

On a much larger scale, Mr. Scamardella, a partner in the Tao empire, with restaurants in New York and Las Vegas and 4,000 employees, said the company compensates for the shortage by deliberately overhiring. “We see who of our new hires work out and weed out those who don’t make the cut,” he said.

Whether you call them aspirational or ambitious or chef-driven, these are the restaurants that lead the food world, and all of them report that hiring is a pain point. Up the scale from fast food or casual chains like Applebee’s, they range from seasonal cafes and wine bars to the priciest and most heralded establishments. Patrick O’Connell, the chef and owner at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, said even the prestigious Relais & Châteaux properties no longer attract enough talent; most of them now have a full-time recruiter on the payroll. He is the group’s president for North America.

But what feels like a crisis in the kitchen may be more like growing pains for an industry that has expanded rapidly over the last decade.

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