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There’s A Shortage Of Cooks In America. Here’s The Simple Solution.

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 21/10/2015 Shane Ferro
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Despite what some viral videos would have you believe, there are too few cooks in America.

High-end restaurants are having trouble finding cooks who are skilled enough to prepare their dishes, according to a New York Times report published Wednesday. Restaurants have spent years putting off raising the pay at the back of the house, and it's finally catching up with them.

There's a lot of handwringing from established chefs about how kids these days aren't willing to submit themselves to the tough conditions to which junior members of the kitchen staff are traditionally exposed.

"Many chefs blame television for presenting unrealistic versions of life in restaurant kitchens, and they are outraged that the skills they have mastered over decades are viewed as optional by the new generation," the Times' Julia Moskin writes.

It's possible, though, that there is something much simpler going on: Would-be cooks don't think the work is worth the pay. Below is a chart showing the median annual pay of cooks and head chefs since late 2001. The orange lines show where that pay would be if it had kept up with inflation. Not only is pay for the average chef quite low, especially for the first few years -- it's actually getting worse. 

That said, the Times story itself is not exactly concerned with the average hash-slinging job. The real work shortage, according to the Times, is in the high-end kitchens:

The demand is up for chefs who can produce elegant food and know their way around a pair of tweezers, but many young cooks reject entry-level kitchen jobs -- with their harsh conditions, low pay and long hours -- where those skills are taught ... To effect change, [restaurateurs] say, they will soon be forced to raise prices.

What's happening is that foodie culture and celebrity chefs have vastly expanded both the demand for complicated food and the aspirations of chefs looking to make their mark on the industry. But every new trendy restaurant needs several line cooks who can execute an ambitious menu for a relative pittance. Outside of the truly exceptional restaurants with multiple Michelin stars, those worker bees are getting harder to find. This is particularly true in large cities with soaring rents, and in small cities where there just aren't enough experienced cooks to go around. The sweet spots, where things seem to be going OK, are biggish-but-not-too-expensive cities like Seattle, Houston and Portland, Oregon, according to the Times.

It's pretty clear the solution here is to raise wages. Making life better in the kitchen might help a little, but nothing attracts people to jobs like cash. The problem is that restaurant margins are nearly always thin -- so there's not a lot of room to raise wages without raising prices. And that risks giving loyal diners sticker shock, particularly in an economy where customers' paychecks aren't exactly getting more robust. You can see why restaurateurs might want to put off this course of action as long as possible.

But it looks like change is finally on the way. A number of minimum wage laws are coming down the pike, particularly in New York and California, that are likely to force restaurants to change. And the industry is making some moves of its own. 

Last week, restaurateur Danny Meyer made a splash by announcing in Eater that he's eliminating tipping from all of his restaurants in New York, joining a select group of restaurants in the city that have already done away with the practice. Instead, Meyer said, he will compensate his staff fairly by raising prices across the menu. The real winners in this new system will be the cooks, who don't share waiters' tips under the traditional arrangement.

Eater's Ryan Sutton explains the way things work at a fancy New York restaurant: "Some of the city’s top servers easily clear $100,000 annually. But the problem isn’t what waiters make, it’s what cooks make. A mid-level line cook, even in a high-end kitchen, doesn’t have generous patrons padding her paycheck, and as such is, on average, unlikely to make much more than $35,000 a year."

Meyer explicitly says in that story that his concern is the dwindling supply of talent in the kitchen. 

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