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Keeping cooks in the kitchen at your restaurant

Posted by Judith Goldstein on Jan 27, 2017 8:45:00 AM
Judith Goldstein

In the 2015 New York Times article, “Not Enough Cooks in the Restaurant Kitchen,” there was finally mainstream recognition about the drought of talented cooks in restaurant kitchens across America.

For many years, chefs across the globe have been struggling with this dilemna – a lack of talented aspiring chefs due to more and more lucrative cooking opportunities outside of a restaurant, and increasingly difficult economic situations.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics supports this claim. Between 2004 and 2014, more new full service restaurants opened and hospitality employment projections rose by 15%, which in turn created a demand for 200,000 new kitchen workers. This means more and more restaurants entered the market, while fewer and fewer chefs entered the workforce, making talented chefs in greater demand than ever.

Due to this fact, it’s never been more important to attract and retain skilled cooks. Nowadays, it’s not good enough just to be a great restaurant – owners and chefs need to make their workplace more inviting and attractive. But how do we do that? Here are a few ideas.

Pay Better

This is a no brainer, right? The truth about the restaurant industry is that restaurant margins are already razor thin and there is little wiggle space for staff expenses. Therefore it’s not realistic to substantially increase pay.

However, there are ways that restaurants can cut costs and find solutions that should give employees a slight financial incentive. As Bergamot owner Keith Pooler states in the Boston Globe, "Restaurants may have to start charging more or find ways to use technology to cut costs."

One idea that chefs such as Danny Meyers, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz are setting into place is eliminating tips. By including the service fee in the cost of a meal, restaurant owners have an opportunity to divide the profits more equally, giving chefs a fairer salary, closer to their front of house counterparts.  

“Some of the city’s top servers easily clear $100,000 annually. But the problem isn’t what waiters make, it’s what cooks make. A mid-level line cook, even in a high-end kitchen, doesn’t have generous patrons padding her paycheck, and as such is, on average, unlikely to make much more than $35,000 a year.”
– Ryan Sutter, Eater

Create Externship Programs

Need more qualified, talented and dedicated chefs? What better way to do it than to recruit culinary enthusiasts while they are young and teach them so they will be primed for your establishment. 

Chef Edward Lee is just one of the many chefs doing this. In conjunction with YouthBuild Louisville, his upcoming non-profit restaurant will provide vocational training to a series of young passionate cooks.

Chef Cathy Whims of Nostrana also offers an externship program where she can directly recruit new staff.

An externship program eliminates the need for young cooks to go to culinary school, saving them money on loans and providing restaurants with a pool of potential employees that can succeed in your establishment.


Offer Incentives 

study by Genesis Associates, a UK-based recruiting firm, showed that 85% of workers surveyed felt more motivated to do their best when an incentive was offered, while 73% described the office atmosphere as "good" or "very good" during an incentive period, and a whopping 98% of employees felt that incentives are good for team building and their company.

Giving your staff added value for working at your establishment is not only smart for retaining employees, but it also earns you a reputation to attract more talent.

Offering free online training courses, or workshops on topics such as bread making, wine tasting or cupping are just a few of the many ways you could incentivize your staff. Your suppliers and vendors should be happy to provide workshops to teach staff about their products, and this extra knowledge will make them better chefs. Equip your employees with information that clarifies the value of staying in the kitchen. They will understand that at your establishment they have the opportunity to learn and grow as chefs.

“Since in this industry, cooks aren’t in it for the money, learning is part of the salary. If we come to a point where we don’t have much left to teach cooks, it seems like the right thing to encourage them to find a new job where they can grow and learn.” 

– Mikey Wiley, Portland Herald Press

Think Outside the Box

In an effort to offer long-term solutions for this kitchen crisis, Food Republic encouraged restaurants to hire employees through social enterprise programs that are designed to give at risk youth, veterans, the homeless, and the formerly incarcerated the skill sets to work in the hospitality industry. From service to kitchen skills, these programs include St. Joseph's Culinary Training Program (CTP), the Golden Gate Restaurant Association in San Francisco, and the Hospitality Project in New York.

Oftentimes these organizations are full of dedicated, motivated and hardworking individuals that would fit perfectly in a fast-paced, adrenaline inducing kitchen environment. This out of the box solution is not only a great way to find talented and devoted staff, but also a way to give back to the community.

I am not going to sit and complain about the staffing crisis; I am going to solve it. These programs are a huge benefit to the growing market and to chefs looking for skilled and motivated talent. My feeling is, don’t just be a taker. It’s hospitality. We are givers. And we can teach anybody anything.”

– Chef Marcus Samuelson


Acknowledge Your Staff

There is nearly no chef in the world that does the job for money. They do it because they are passionate about food, love the kitchen environment, and feel fulfilled by their work. Therefore recognizing and rewarding your staff's efforts is a great way to keep them motivated and loyal.

Take note from Chef Tom Colicchio, who implemented a Sous Chef Supper Series, which gives rising chefs in his kitchens the opportunity to showcase their original dishes.

Ryan Cole, owner of Hi Neighbor Restaurant Group, creates “fun” days and non-monetary benefits such as trips and culinary stipends. Another way to reward hard work is through monthly "best employee" awards.

“We want an atmosphere where you can talk and share ideas and respect each other. It has to come from the top down.”
– Chris Sanderson, The Toronto Star


Be Nice!

In an industry that has a reputation for abuse, name-calling, and arduous hours, it's been a part of kitchen culture to bully, frighten and boot camp cooks into doing their jobs impeccably.

However, as other culinary opportunities unfold and chefs begin to find respect for a work/life balance, this type of hazing in the kitchen is coming to a halt.

It's true that discipline will always be important in an environment that calls for order, organization and cleanliness, but discipline doesn't mean abuse. There is a constructive and wise way to train your staff. In your own kitchen, find ways to speak to your staff with respect, discipline fairly, and use kindness to guide your cooks into being precise. It will make you a better leader and it will make your staff better pupils. It's a win/win situation for your establishment.

“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.”

– Rene Redzepi, Lucky Peach


Tell us: How do you think restaurants can help improve their chefs' working conditions? Let us know in the comments. 


SimpleOrder is the world’s leading restaurant inventory management system, designed to optimize and streamline back of house operations, reduce food waste and improve profit margins.  


Judith Goldstein.png Whether working front of house in fine dining or running a rustic kitchen, food has always been a life anchor for Judith Goldstein. After graduating from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, Judith joined SimpleOrder to combine her two greatest passions; food and writing.


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Topics: Hospitality managers, Restaurants