In the continual wake of the pandemic, the industry, comprising myriad independent businesses, is more united than ever, but with so many variables, how does it begin to tackle the fundamental question of salary?
Jodi Liano, founder of San Francisco Cooking School, suggests that a reasonable baseline is a wage that would allow cooks to live within the city where they work. Currently, that’s far from the case: Many if not most cooks in major cities commute vast distances, often late at night and on public transportation; they serve the denizens of great metropolises, but cannot afford to live among them.
“A cook should be able to live reasonably within the city where they work, certainly within a commute of forty-five minutes or less,” says Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City. “But very few cooks can afford that, unless they live with a lot of roommates.”
The problem is exacerbated by a stagnated restaurant ecosystem.
“Salaries around ten years ago are about the same as they are now for a $4 or $5 million restaurant,” says Metzger. “An executive chef salary has been $80,000 to $90,000 for last decade.” That’s because, he says, revenue hasn’t kept pace with inflation. “One reason why salaries haven’t gone that high is that the costs for running a restaurant have increased, but menu prices haven’t.”
The psychology of dining also works against the house. The average restaurant guest might not be able to replicate the sublime pleasures of a professionally cooked meal, but they are capable of shopping and cooking something. As a result, they tend to undervalue both food and labour, and are hugely resistant to price increases even as they insist on the best ingredients and most ethical practices.
Erick Williams, chef and co-owner of Chicago’s Virtue, suggests that craftspeople such as plumbers are more valued than professional cooks by American society. “Plumbers stand together in unity to be sure even the cheapest plumber isn’t cheap,” says Williams. “It is very difficult for chefs and operators to pay at the same wage that we should be paying our plumbers when consumers are asking for our wares at a discount.”
And so, diners interested in facilitating change would be well advised to open their minds to higher menu prices.
Nayfeld is currently planning to institute a new in-house minimum wage of $50,000 per year, with most cooks earning between $62,000 and $64,000. “That puts them in a position where they can afford to live in or around the city,” he says. “It won’t make them rich but will support them while they are learning and working.”
“For us to do that, our minimum price per person in normal times will be about $105, which is a 35-to-40% rise in prices.” He’s quick to add that the increase won’t significantly impact the restaurant’s bottom line, but rather will merely enable it to compensate its workers as he believes they should be.
And, even at that level, certain luxuries will likely remain out of reach. Like many Bay Area food cognoscenti, Nayfeld admires the chickens raised by Riverdog Farm in Guinda, California. Fed on a diet of corn, chilies, and other ingredients humans would be lucky to subsist on, the chickens are humanely raised to the highest standards and produce what Nayfeld describes in near-religious terms, employing adjectives like “euphoric” to sum up the flavour. Home cooks line up to purchase the birds at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, paying upwards of $20US for a 3 1/2 pounder. Nayfeld buys a lot of his produce from Riverdog, at top dollar, but can’t square the cost of their chicken at Che Fico because, in order to upgrade from the (excellent) chicken he currently uses to Riverdog’s, he would have to charge about $75 for a chicken for two.