The kitchen topic of the year is not about how we’re all going to be eating insects, it’s not about vegetables and it’s not, even if media would like you to believe it is, about food waste. The big topic and one that’s been brewing to the surface for many years is staff sustainability and kitchen welfare.
The idea of chefs working endless shifts without holiday, sick pay or benefits is still an unfortunate reality for many the industry but there’s an increasing debate around kitchen working conditions that’s now being driven forward by some of the biggest names in the industry.
Pushed by the global shortage of quality chefs and amplified by shifting attitudes towards what a healthy work environment should look like, the restaurant industry is undergoing one of the biggest shifts since Escoffier introduced the brigade system. Kitchens are changing: staff hours, hierarchy, shift schedules and benefits - the topic of how to actually sustain the chefs inside a kitchen is bringing about a lot of positive change.
With this in mind we wanted to highlight some of the new work models being tested across the industry, from restaurants that close on weekends to systems that allow all kitchen workers to become a partner in the restaurant.
Zakary Pelaccio - Flattened Hierarchy
Chef Zakary Pelaccio runs the Fish & Game restaurant in Hudson, about 2 hours outside New York. The restaurant sits in the beautiful Hudson Valley and is surrounded by fresh, seasonal and super delicious produce. Pelaccio opened the restaurant with the aim of stepping away from the madness of New York kitchens and he’s tried to bring an open, creative and collaborative approach to his own kitchen. That’s because rather than the military style structure of top-down hierarchy found within almost all kitchens, Pelaccio and his partners encourage every member of the team to get involved with the creative process.
“We sit down and we have discussions about everything, it’s less hierarchy and more that we all fit into complementary roles, ideas for a menu will come from one person, another might discuss the merits of the technique involved, and then another person will understand whether or not it can be made into a dish that will actually run everyday on the menu.”
This might not seem like a big change but head chefs encouraging those further down the line to be involved with the creative process is relatively new - think of Noma and their Saturday Night Projects, an activity that sees all the kitchen staff, even stagiers, present their own creations to Rene Redzepi who said the whole idea came about to stop the robotic chef movement he was trained in.
Greg Baxtrom - Better Holidays
One of New York’s young restauranteurs and chefs, Greg Baxtrom offers up a great starting salary of $50,000 a year and two-consecutive days holiday a week. It might seem like the norm but it’s not, the holidays alone make Baxtrom’s policy standout and we've heard from numerous chefs who are now bringing in two, sometimes even three consecutive days holiday to allow chefs to have a life away from the kitchen, as you'll see further down, this is also being coupled with a reduction in the hours many chefs are now being asked to work.
Sat Bains - Working Week
Sat Bains was one of the early chefs to stand up and change his restaurant model to make it more attractive to chefs. Bains reduced overall hours by choosing to drop to a four-day-week, giving chefs three consecutive days off a week - unheard of just a few years back. The chef admitted the new model would cost six figures over the year but that the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of the applicants he now receives has greatly improved.
Danny Meyer - Kill Tipping
Another change being driven to make kitchens more attractive to work in is the idea of demolishing the existing tipping structure so kitchen staff can share in the benefits of dining room tips. In some U.S states, New York being one example, kitchen staff are not allowed to share in dining room tips because they don’t spend enough time customer facing. This leads to a major disconnect in some restaurants where waiters can be taking home more money than the chefs who prepare the food they're serving. Meyer, who owns the Union Square Hospitality Group, was one of the first big restaurateurs to test a different model by eliminating tipping in place of higher food costs and blanket service charges - which can be shared evenly between front-of-house and the kitchen.
“When I learned a statistic that for the first time in my entire career, that we had more culinary grads working in the dining room than in the kitchen, that was the moment when I said, 'That has to stop,' because they didn’t go to cooking school to be servers.”
Listen to Meyer speak on the topic below.
Rene Redzepi - Kitchen Partnerships
Want all you staff to get behind what you’re doing? Want them to worry when you worry and care as much as you do? Why not offer them a piece of the pie?
This was exactly the logic of Rene Redzepi at Noma when he offered his long term dishwasher and all-round kitchen talisman, Ali Sonko, a partnership in the restaurant. This was a huge move that shows how restaurants are and will continue to change to make themselves more attractive places to have a career.
Magnus Nilsson - Better Work Hours
One of the most outspoken chefs on the matter of staff sustainability is Magnus Nilsson who claims he nearly closed his restaurant because of problems with the kitchen work environment. Nilsson now speaks openly about the issue, encouraging other chefs to get involved with changes and his own restaurant invested more money to create a staff schedule that means chefs only ever work 8 hour shifts - not the norm in most kitchens. Nilsson also created a way of work that takes double shifts out of the occasion and allows his chefs to have five weeks holiday every year.
Restaurants have not gotten very far in terms of staff sustainability, which is strange because people have been talking about it my whole career,” he says. “There are surprisingly few restaurants who address that issue, like seriously! We’ve tried for the last three years and we’ve succeeded really well, and we’re beginning to reap the benefits of that now in how long people stay and things like that. ”