The abiding nature of this mindset can in part be explained by the very nature of hospitality, in which the needs and desires of guests reign supreme.
“We have spent a long time in this industry trying to turn it into a respectable profession,” says David Nayfeld, chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s Che Fico, and an emerging voice for change. “Almost all of our attention was guest-facing. We wanted the guest or the consumer to see us as professionals.” Mission accomplished, but at a cost: “The one thing we have not done,” says Nayfeld, “is to, in any way, attribute the cost of humans to what we do.”
It’s impractical to speak of ideal salaries in generalities because of the variance in cost-of-living across different localities, and the wide range of businesses that exist under the restaurant umbrella—a diner, a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant, a chain eatery, a destination fine-dining darling, and everything in between.
“The biggest determinant of a salary is sales volume,” says Brad Metzger, president of BMRS Hospitality Recruitment and founder of the LA Chef Conference. “A restaurant doing $2 million a year will pay differently than one doing $8 or $10 million a year. It doesn’t matter where the place is; that’s the biggest determinant.”
The rules also vary from state to state and even city to city. Camilla Marcus, owner of West~bourne in New York City and founder of Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR ), says that the industry is “overtaxed and over-regulated, with a lot of pitting owners against their own teams, which in the vast majority of cases is not well founded.”
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.
To the casual observer, that might seem like a dish created by food snobs for the one percent. But, says Nayfeld, it’s what’s required to source the best ingredients, enlist the most talented cooks, and help ensure that workers down the supply chain, like farmhands, also earn a decent wage. Asked to explain the chasm between the $20 cost and the $75 price tag, he launches into a detailed delineation of the restaurant eco system: before the bird arrives at the restaurant (farmers, delivery truck drivers); the cost of owning and operating the restaurant itself (rent, back-house employees, taxes); the cost of taking in and preparing the chicken (porter, butcher); the cost of cooking the chicken during service (cooks and an expediter); customer interaction (wait staff and bussing team); and the cost of breaking down the restaurant at night when customers head home on a full stomach without a care in the world.
Add it all up and “the $75 chicken is actually the proletariat chicken,” says Nayfeld.
Nonetheless, even in a city like San Francisco, long associated with liberal values and politics, Nayfeld believes that even as he begins trying to educate customers about what it takes to provide the restaurant meals they love, charging that much for a chicken is, for the moment anyway, a bridge too far.
At this crucial juncture in the evolution of restaurants, it might also be useful to acknowledge the strange place cooking occupies for many of its practitioners. Food, of course, is sustenance, and a restaurant’s primary function is to prepare and sell it. But a great many aspiring chefs are drawn to what might be deemed the artistic aura of the profession, which provides an outlet for self-expression.
We think nothing of it when a creative soul chooses to suffer for their calling. We even have a term for it—“starving artist.” But the notion of a starving cook is an irony whose time has clearly passed.
Andrew Friedman is the author of Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll and producer and host of the podcast Andrew Talks to Chefs.