Shortchanged in the restaurant kitchen
Photo by Life & Thyme in Los Angeles
In November 2016, the Guardian newspaper reported that Le Gavroche, the three-star Michelin restaurant of famed English chef Michael Roux Jr., was paying some of its cooks as little as £5.50 per hour (C$9.16), well below Britain’s £7.20 (C$11.98) legal minimum for people over the age of 24.
“It angers me,” remarked a former employee. “You become a chef because it is your passion, so you take the low pay and the conditions because that is how it is, but after a while you begin to ask why … It needs to change for all of us.”
Despite making more than $416,000 in profit in 2015, the $353-a-head Mayfair restaurant saw cooks logging more than 65 hours per week. Shifts would start often at seven in the morning and not finish until close to midnight. According to one source, cooks regularly eclipsed 14-hour working days, earning $624 before tax for a 68-hour week. At the legal minimum, those hours should yield $815.
Le Gavroche has since responded to the public backlash sparked by the Guardian’s investigation. Roux Jr. plans to give thousands back to his cooks and eliminate a discretionary 13-per-cent service charge from the menu, the revenue from which was never shared among the staff.
Underpayment is a systemic problem in the restaurant industry. Upscale eateries like Le Gavroche, whose menu features a $104.53 lobster hors d’oeuvre, are hotbeds of precarious work in an increasingly uncertain labour market across the West. In Britain, more than one in five workers could lose their jobs at short notice. In Canada, close to 40 per cent of people are employed in some form of unstable or short-term work.
Cooking attracts passionate and skillful workers, but the discrepancy in pay between kitchen jobs and other skilled trades is staggering. According to Statistics Canada, certified entry-level tradespeople earn an average hourly wage of more than $22, six per cent higher than other occupations. Cooks work like labourers, yet earn an artist’s wages. A typical full-time salary barely tops $35,000 a year.
This exploitative system of low pay, limited job security and few to no benefits is underscored by a tradition that values culinary dedication and painstaking drudgery over financial security. In the words of Globe and Mail columnist Corey Mintz:
Embedded in the fabric of restaurant culture, as deep as the belief in fresh ingredients and sharp knives, is the idea that asking for fair compensation is greedy or lazy…. Cooks and chefs describe it as a badge of honour to work so hard with so little financial reward in aid of greater goals — like ownership, camaraderie and personal culinary greatness.
Most restaurants are privately owned small businesses and provide cooks few opportunities to chart a career path or earn enough to pursue ownership. Like similar low-wage service industries, the culinary world shuns unionized employment. Gains made by workers in other trades — more benefits, guaranteed overtime — have not materialized for cooks.
Case study in disparity
A cook is one of 56 designated Red Seal trades in Canada (the certification sets common standards to assess the skills of tradespersons across the country), but it pays substantially reduced wages. Labelled a “creative industry,” tipping is meant to augment earnings that are lower than for different occupations requiring as much physical work, although it’s seldom fair. The restaurant business is a case study in income disparity. Waiters, especially those in upscale establishments, earn much more than those preparing the food, creating an imbalance between talented young cooks making near minimum wage and front-of-house staff pulling in $250 a night. In the interest of greater fairness, some owners have eliminated tipping and increased menu prices to boost wages and redistribute profits across the board. Others add a flat service charge, and fully compensate their staff with a salary. But these are exceptions to the punishing rule that discriminates against cooks.
Then there’s the blood, sweat and tears. Cooks spend most of the day on their feet, working with sharp blades and hot surfaces. Erratic hours negatively affect sleep patterns, and the constant pressure to perform without regular breaks inflicts significant psychological stress. The all-consuming commitment required to succeed in the industry drives many young people away from it altogether. After all, the average cook puts in at least 20 years at lower wage levels before rising to an executive chef position.
The allure of climbing the ranks in the restaurant kitchen has suffered as new economic obstacles are hurled into the path of aspiring chefs. As Roberto Ferdman writes in the Washington Post, “long hours, low pay and a series of other cultural and economic factors have made lower-tier restaurant work a much less desirable path than it once was.” Add to this the reality that most big cities across North America and Europe have become almost totally unaffordable. Young people simply cannot sustain the crippling limitations set by basement wages and soaring rents.
For some, getting paid fairly is peripheral. The most important currency in the business is passion. “If you want to be a winner in the restaurant industry,” says one Winnipeg-based sous-chef who spoke with CD, “you have to cut out most pleasures in your life…. You have to pay your dues. It’s a military-style brigade system [brigade de cuisine] and there’s a hierarchy of who’s in charge. That’s how the kitchen is run. It’s not fair, but it’s been done like that throughout the ages. I had to give a lot to get to the place that I’m at.”
Culinary jobs have long been underappreciated, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. But young cooks are wising up to the value inherent in their labour. Responses to the fundamental flaws of the tip system are an important first step to addressing imbalances which exist in nearly every kitchen. Strengthening trade regulations to replace ineffective certifications with apprenticeship and work-based systems, such as those in France and Switzerland, would further improve culinary education and reward cooks accordingly.
In the United States, the Fight for $15 movement was initiated largely by fast-food workers striking for increased pay and the right to form a union without retaliation. The same political energies have yet to take form in the commercial kitchen.
Restaurants are a creative enterprise where the skill, creativity, insight, and even genius of cooks is rarely if ever matched by equitable compensation. Yet generalized exhaustion and a culture that glorifies overwork are not conducive to collective organizing for better wages in the kitchen and tend to reinforce the prevailing attitude of subordination to the authority of restaurant owners.
The future of the trade is uncertain — particularly because widening income inequality magnifies our reliance on cheap food — but the financial plight of cooks in the restaurant kitchen deserves recognition. The professional artisans who prepare culinary magic for strangers ought to be rewarded for it.
Harrison Samphir is Canadian Dimension’s web editor and office manager. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Sussex.