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The Sustainability of the Chef

The Sustainability of the Chef

The ongoing chef shortage is forcing restaurant owners to update the way they run their businesses, something that might affect us all.

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Zero-waste, farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, closed-loop. It’s impressive to see how far chefs have come in their quest for ‘sustainability’. A farm on site, a beehive on the roof, aquaponics, hydroponics, heirloom varieties, species protection: the list is endless. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has launched a specific sustainability award and the s-word is banded around at food congresses in every other presentation. But what about the sustainability of the actual chef?

There’s something wrong with the fact that chefs—the people who routinely work 60 to 80 hour weeks in a job with a high risk of burnout—are the same people we turn to for nourishment. That a group fighting for sustainability across traditions, the oceans, farms and forests, are the same group working a job that might not be able to sustain itself.

Research commissioned by the tourism group VisitEngland in 2015 showed that 47% of job vacancies posted for chefs were difficult to fill because of a lack of skilled applicants, and that chefs alone account for around 20% of shortages in skilled trades. The same sort of figures apply to America and at almost every level of the industry, but especially fine dining where high skill levels and strong techniques are required.

This shortage, coupled with steady growth in the opening of new restaurants, has forced a new conversation. The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics said 200,000 new chefs jobs will be created by 2025, but how do you attract chefs to a profession that is so physically  and mentally demanding? And one that, in most cases, offers such small monetary reward?

“We’re on course to really mess things up if we don’t start getting better at what we do,” said René Redzepi in a 2015 article for Lucky Peach. The Danish chef discussed how the outdated culture of the kitchen needs to change. “Maybe the old way has worked so far. But in the long run, it burns people out. There’s a reason people are struggling to find cooks right now. Our industry is populated by young people. As they get older, they fall out of the trade because they can only take the abuse when they’re young and strong. How many of your cooks are thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four years old? Maybe the head chef and the sous chef—that’s it.”

The discussion is leading to some interesting ideas aimed at making the job more attractive for new applicants and more sustainable for those already in the system.

“People want to work in the industry but they don't want to do the 80 hours. And why should they?” said chef Sat Bains who recently dropped opening times at his restaurant from five, to four-days a week. An attempt to offer staff better working conditions and “more free time.”

He said he “will lose money” from the move, around £180,000 annually, but reducing hours while maintaining salary  immediately increased the number of chefs applying to work at his restaurant.

The matter of pay is a big one, the ugly discussion you should never really have at a dinner table. In a study of 1200 chefs in America, many working without benefits, over 50 percent said they either ‘always’ or ‘frequently’ come to work sick. 45 percent of these chefs said they did it because they couldn’t afford to lose the pay, I wonder how many would tick a ‘not-being-the-one-who-blobs-on-service’ box. Many chefs, especially in The States, earn much less than the people serving the food they cook.

One way to fix the problem of fairer pay is by eliminating tipping, something the American restauranteur Danny Meyer did last year in all of his restaurants.

Meyer said the decision was motivated by a need to address the imbalance between kitchen and dining room pay. The lost revenue of gratuity will be picked up by customers as it is added onto menu items.

In the most recent story on the matter by GQ, chef David Chang talked about how tipping must end to offer living wages to cooks. “This allows restaurant owners to remix the way their “service” charges are distributed to their staff,” he said, “which we gotta do if we’re going to hang on to the best kitchen talent.”

The matter isn’t all on the restauranteurs, the culinary schools training young chefs, or the Millennials who refuse work in the type of environment many of today’s great chefs were schooled in. The responsibility also lies with consumers, you and me, we never take into account the true cost of the dishes we eat.

If chefs are ever going to earn a living wage and work in an environment that remains attractive for the future, we’re all going to have to take a hit. As Chang said, “the bottom line is that food needs to get more expensive.”

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