The seeming lack of hirable chef talent was a hot topic of discussion at the most recent meeting of the DC chapter of the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs Association (WCR), according to RCS Hospitality Group culinary consultant Chef Mary Howley. This concern is reflected nationwide in the pages and pages of executive chef employment listings on many BOH-focused website and CMAA Careers pages. Why is this so?
A widely circulated Huffington Post article from October 2015 outlined two potential explanations for the dearth of high quality back of house talent.
The first is the suggestion that reality tv shows centering around chefs (Top Chef, for example) have fostered unrealistic expectations amongst culinary students of what life on the line is actually like. Real life does not edit the sometimes hot and harsh environment and demanding physical requirements. Working holidays, weekends, late nights, and time spent away from family is rarely glamorous, and the day-to-day sacrifices made by chefs is often glossed over by television producers.
There's also the dark underbelly of the BOH environment that many turn a blind eye to. There are harmful lifestyle choices frequently associated with the work and environment such as drug addiction, alcoholism, and abuse. Particularly in big cities, it's also not uncommon to find that unskilled BOH staff are undocumented immigrants living on the edge of poverty.
Speaking of poverty, HuffPo proposes a second possible explanation for the lack of talent: that restaurants have, for years, been resisting a pay raise for BOH staff and it's finally catching up to them. The chart below shows how BOH pay is not only low to begin with, but hasn't kept up with inflation.
While a flashy head chef might be a draw for foodies and good marketing fodder, what really makes the kitchen tick is a solid group of line cooks that can execute an ambitious menu with consistency. These worker bees (who often learn the skills required of a head chef on the line and are eventually promoted up from within) are becoming harder to find, particularly in large cities with exorbitant rents that a chef's pay simply can't keep up with.
"It’s pretty clear the solution here is to raise wages. Making life better in the kitchen might help a little, but nothing attracts people to jobs like cash. The problem is that restaurant margins are nearly always thin — so there’s not a lot of room to raise wages without raising prices. And that risks giving loyal diners sticker shock..." says the Post. And in the club industry, "loyal diners" means so much more--members are a captive audience with high expectations.
Chef Mary, however, has a different approach: "Money is a satisfier, not a motivator." In Part 2 of this series on kitchen talent (coming soon), Chef Mary will outline her suggestions for attracting and retaining high quality talent for your club food and beverage operations.
If you also find yourself in the position of seeking talented kitchen staff, contact us to see how we can help. With one of the largest networks in the industry, RCSHG has a robust Executive Search Program that can help connect your club with candidates that are just the right fit for your operation.
And if you're a talented chef looking for a fantastic opportunity, check out our Executive Position Job Board to see all our current employment listings!