I remember when I was a student at The Culinary Institute of America one of my chefs told the class, "If you're interested in making money don't become a chef". I thought how strange it was that a CIA chef would make that statement to a kitchen full of aspiring chef students. While I had several years experience working in kitchens prior to my enrollment at CIA the assumption was that after I graduated, with a diploma from the greatest culinary school in the world, I would see a significant increase in wages. But as I searched for a "professional" chef job after graduation, I noticed that I was offered close to the same wage I made before I attended The CIA.
Culinary School when I attended in the early 90's was relatively affordable. I took out a small school loan, but felt confident I could pay it back. I'd return to The CIA for a conference 20 years after I'd graduated, and while speaking with a current student was horrified to hear how much he had taken in student loans to attend. This young man would graduate with over $130,000 in student loans. I asked him, "How could you ever pay this loan off, going out into the foodservice workforce? When it's hard enough to make a living working in foodservice, without having to pay off loans?" This young man, on the brink of graduation simply told me he would not be taking a job as a chef, or in the food sector because of this exact reason. He'd be looking into getting into sales, or possibly going back to school for computers. It reminded me of Chef Johnson telling the class, "If you're interested in making money don't become a chef".
The restaurant industry, and those working in it, have suffered over the years. Qualified chefs weren't being compensated, and thus were leaving the industry. Restaurants would hire underqualified chefs, but the food would suffer, and patrons would stop coming. This was the cycle of most independent restaurants. Many chain restaurants would lure in qualified chefs, but would augment the low salaries with work/life balance, benefits, and the promise of upward mobility. But even this left the industry unbalanced.
Fast forward to post pandemic 2021, and Help Wanted signs hang in almost every restaurant- many of them rehiring to replace staff they let go during the Pandemic. Fast food restaurants with Promises of $15-$20/hour, flexible schedules, and yes, many of them offering health benefits. Uber Eats and Door Dash presenting a new avenue of cashflow for many restaurants, making the bump in salaries possible. Professional Chef salaries easily cresting six figures, with ghost kitchens, food trucks, and meal delivery companies presenting new opportunities for growth! Alas, have we finally found a happy medium? A place where restaurants can pay workers what they're worth, and workers, after being laid off for almost a year, are looking to return?! Maybe...seems we again see an imbalance in the industry. Workers want the attractively offered wages, the flexible schedules, and the health benefits they probably didn't have pre-pandemic...but it's like the bully apologizing after he beat you up- its too late. Restaurant workers shut out during the pandemic, realizing just how vulnerable they were, mentally exhausted, disillusioned, and searching for something better, are reluctant to return to the industry.
I do love my industry, and want to see it thrive- not only for me personally, but for all the communities where restaurants bring people together, and create a buzz. Give young teens their first job, and help people celebrate weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. I used to view a "Help Wanted" sign in the window as an indication of growth. But lately it seems to simply be a sign of desperation, an actual sign for help...