Looking for a Few Good Cooks

By Susan Russo / Photography By Chris Rov Costa | April 22, 2017
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Chef Colin Murray in kitchen at Mess Hall, Liberty Public Market

Joe Magnanelli, executive chef of Urban Kitchen Group, agrees: 

"We need line cooks and prep cooks, not chefs." The problem is that everybody [who applies] thinks they're already a sous-chef and doesn't want to take a job as a cook."Though definitions are fluid, a chef is someone who holds a culinary degree or has extensive hands-on experience in professional kitchens, manages the kitchen personnel, orders the food and has creative control over the menu. A cook, in contrast, is responsible for daily food preparation and execution of the chef 's menus. Chefs and restaurateurs cite multiple causes for San Diego's cook shortage, starting with low hourly wages. They agree that most line cooks make as little as $11 per hour, which isn't a living wage in San Diego.

Lhasa Landry, a San Diego–based chef, with 12 years' experience, claims, "We have a pay shortage." She laments, "I know cooks who make $11 per hour and need two jobs to pay their rent. And most people have a roommate because rents are so high in San Diego."

White agrees: "The cost of living in San Diego is triple what it is in Spokane....Running a restaurant in Southern California is much more expensive. You have higher leases, water and sewer bills.... A lot of [restaurant] owners have to pay chefs less money to keep the restaurants profitable." Kolanko would like to see skilled cooks make $20 per hour but says it's unfeasible for many reasons, namely most restaurants' small profit margins. Magnanelli says while their higher-level cooks can earn up to $14 or $15 per hour, owners are constrained by what they can budget for labor. Many cooks face transportation problems, particularly if they work in North County.

Magnanelli, along with Matt Gordon, executive chef and owner of GW Restaurant Group, which includes North Park's Urban Solace, both admit that staffing their North County restaurants is more challenging, given San Diego's underdeveloped public transportation and dearth of affordable housing. Magnanelli says they try to entice workers with extra pay for North County positions, but that the onerous commute often makes it impossible for cooks to manage long-term. In addition to such concrete problems, many young people, culinary students and nonstudents, have unrealistic expectations of a chef 's life.

Kat Humphus, a former executive chef with the San Diego–based Cohn Restaurant Group who left the industry in late 2014, blames food reality TV: "TV has done an injustice to the restaurant industry. Kids in culinary school have this perception that they're gonna be a celebrity. They don't realize that real kitchens rely on hard work and team effort." White, who participated in the 13th season of Bravo's "Top Chef," says, "A challenge on 'Top Chef,' is stressful, but, there, you stay or you go home," he says. "An executive chef has stress all the time, and he can't just go home when things go bad."

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This glamorization of the restaurant industry also affects diners. Arturo Kassel, managing partner and CEO at Whisknladle Hospitality, claims food reality TV has "desensitized the general public about how darn hard we work to provide them a great dining experience. But, ultimately, it's a choice to do what we do, and money, glamour and fame can't be the driving factors." Then there's the screaming pace of restaurant growth over the past few years that Kolanko says has left "the industry stretched thin, from a staffing standpoint."

Is San Diego's restaurant industry experiencing a bubble akin to the 2008 housing crisis? Kassel thinks so and

believes "it is going to pop." He says, "There's just no way all of these restaurants are going to make it." Kolanko says, "I don't know what the bubble is, but I do know eventually bad places close and better ones stay in business. Mediocrity gradually gets less acceptable."

So what are restaurants doing to address this cook shortage?

At Urban Kitchen Group, Magnanelli says, they create a "culture of teaching" and have recently instituted a junior sous-chef program that targets their most dedicated, skilled cooks. "We want to help them build a career

as a chef and not just see it as a job," he says. Kolanko says he has hired many people with zero kitchen experience who have become indispensable cooks. Inspired by their success, he is currently developing a formal culinary program that will be integrated in their restaurant collective.

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Kassel says they have "a rigorous and ongoing training program" for all of their chefs at Whisknladle Hospitality. As a result, all five of their current executive chefs started off as line cooks. "It's quite an investment in people to grow this way but the payoff is most rewarding," he says. Investing in people is paramount to White, who likens the owner and chef relationship to that of a parent and child:

"You wouldn't send your kids out in the world and say, 'Figure it out.' You don't hire a chef and say, 'Open a restaurant.' You have to invest in him or her and the team every single day. If you don't invest in them, they're not gonna invest in you." Investing in people isn't just about paying them more, insists White; it's about helping them set goals and giving them the support

needed to accomplish them. Magnanelli shares White's sentiment, which is why he says they limit overtime for hourly workers and cap sous-chefs' hours at 44 to 55 hours per week to "offset low pay."

 

Ultimately, it's about "creating a culture of respect," says Gordon, where chefs mentor cooks, not denigrate them. As Humphus notes, "If you treat your cooks like family, it creates a stronger kitchen culture and a more cohesive environment."

A stronger kitchen culture can lead to happier cooks. "We want our chefs and cooks to have a higher quality of life," says Magnanelli. "If they're able to spend time with their families and loved ones, they come to work more motivated and inspired." It's been marvelous watching San Diego's restaurant scene grow over the last few years, but we'll have to resolve some of these fundamental issues to keep getting better. It's reassuring that folks in our restaurant industry are already working on it. Now, if we could just get them to work on the Chargers.

 

Article from Edible San Diego at http://ediblesandiego.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/looking-few-good-cooks
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