But if Masson’s predicament exemplifies the current crisis, a recent glimmer of hope for her might also reflect the solution, or at least a piece of a patchwork remedy.
Earlier this summer, Masson - who once worked in the pastry departments of such esteemed New York City dining destinations as Restaurant Daniel, and was pastry chef of The Red Cat in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood - finally made a new hire, but he was not a seasoned baker, or even versed in how to use a point-of-sale system. Her lone employee is a 24-year-old she’s known since infancy, whose most recent jobs were at a furniture store and cleaning swimming pools.
“It’s just the two of us,” says Masson. “I’m teaching him how to bake. He likes it. He’s good at it. He reminds me of myself in an internship.”
Like Masson, rather than wait, potentially in vain, for seasoned workers to return in the fall, an increasing number of restaurant and foodservice operators believe the answer, at least somewhat, lies in recruiting new talent, and training them from scratch to be cooks or dining-room professionals.
In New York City, two programmes have been established to speed the injection of fresh blood into the industry: First Course NYC, planning to launch in September, is a culinary training program modelled on the traditional European apprenticeship system that trains people and helps place them in entry-level jobs. And Hospitality Hire offers recruitment services with an eye toward pairing eager new employees with their first restaurant jobs.
The prospect of training new hires from the ground up may sound daunting, but historically speaking, it’s nothing new. In the grand scheme of things, culinary schools and hospitality training programs are relatively recent resources for aspirants and businesses alike. Traditionally, cooks learned knife skills and basic cooking techniques on the job, from their chefs and sous chefs. And dining-room personnel started as bussers or back-waiters, moving up to customer-facing roles as those positions opened up.
In reality, some chefs have never stopped functioning in that mode, and they embrace the opportunity to introduce new employees to the industry.
“I actually like the blank slate,” says Douglass Williams, chef-owner of Boston’s Mida restaurant, who opened a second outpost in Newton, Massachusetts, in June.
“A lot of the cooks in my kitchen have no experience, or maybe they worked in a deli,” says Williams. “They don’t have the muscle memory, but what they do have is the understanding of what they don’t know yet.”
“I love [training people from scratch],” says chef Chintan Pandya, of Unapologetic Foods, which owns and operates Rahi, Adda, and the red-hot new Dhamaka in New York City.
“I feel that those people are more hungry to learn new things, and more focused on delivering the product.”
“We’ve been doing that from the get-go,” says Greg Baxtrom, chef and owner of Olmsted and Maison Yaki in Brooklyn, NY, of hiring new or relatively new cooks rather than pine for those with fine-dining experience. Though he’s had to bring on more such cooks in recent months than in the past, he observes that a constant is that, “it’s on the individual to seek out an education and put in the work. That hasn’t changed.”
A silver lining to having to invest in teaching new cooks and dining room team members is that many chef-owners report that by investing in those employees, they curtail one of the most irksome aspects of running a restaurant today—frequent turnover. It’s been common practice within Unapologetic Foods for years to nurture talent and move employees up the ranks when possible, and in return, many stay and grow their careers within the company rather than marketing their newly acquired skills to competing restaurants and organisations. For example, the woman who runs the perpetually packed dining room at Dhamaka started as a server at Rahi, and the woman who runs the dining room at Rahi started there as a back-waiter.
For a generation or, arguably, two, media attention and foodie culture drew a steady stream of hospitality aspirants to the restaurant business. That stream may have dried up for now, but chefs and owners willing to seek out and train new hopefuls with little or no developed kitchen or dining room skills, may find that they’ve reversed their fortunes sooner than later.