How Can Restaurants Fix The Kitchen Staffing Crisis?

Next time you run into a chef, don't ask how they're doing. Chances are, the answer will not be a smile and a "Fine, thanks, how are you?" More likely it will be some sort of frustration-fueled rant about staffing: "I can't find line cooks, I don't have a sous, I need a chef de cuisine. No one sticks around — my kitchen is a revolving door!" The staffing crisis across the country has reached a boiling point; there are not enough cooks in the kitchen.

"I feel like this is easily the worst I have seen in terms of a shortage of cooks," says Rick Smilow, president and CEO of the Institute of Culinary Education, who has been in the business of sending people to culinary school for the past 21 years. "It's tough out there."

Chefs agree. "I used to place an ad and have 15 to 20 people apply right away. Now I am lucky if I get three to five responses," says executive chef John Griffiths of Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco. "Not only are we getting less people apply, but the caliber of talent is far lower."

Some operators even say Uber is taking its toll.

Griffiths is not alone. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more new full-service restaurants opened from 2004 to 2014 than in any other segment of the industry, including fast food. The bureau's Employment Projections program anticipates about 15 percent growth through 2025 in the number of Americans working in those restaurant kitchens; nearly 200,000 more line cooks and chefs will be needed. And yet the supply of cooks is dwindling.

That's because of a perfect storm of factors: the high cost of culinary school ($40K to $50K per year); the rising cost of living; exceedingly low wages associated with kitchen work (an average starting salary for a beginning cook is $21,720 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics); the millennial aversion to jobs that require long, grueling hours for many years; and the monumental demand for cooks, fueled by a nearly hyperactive food economy that includes food trucks, high-end fast-casual operators, hotels, pop-ups, country clubs, tech companies, corporate dining, gourmet grocers with prepared food lines and meal delivery services.

Some operators even say Uber is taking its toll. "We have seen a number of our line cooks leave and say that they can make more money driving for Uber," says Stacy Jed, co-owner of San Francisco's Bluestem Brasserie. "And if you think about it, the barrier to entry for Uber is much lower. All you have to do is know how to drive a car. And they can make more money and work less."

All this adds up to a staffing crisis that's at its worst in decades, with chefs and operators in a state of panic trying to figure out how to fix it. One relatively simple solution, says Michael Hewitt, principal of the culinary headhunting firm One Haus, is to value your team. "Operators have to start looking at value-driven relationships as opposed to one-offs," says Hewitt. "I would suggest that they develop talent from within and spend more time nurturing their lower ranks with continuing education." Hewitt also says kitchens need an attitude adjustment. "Try not being a douche," he says bluntly. "If an employer is taking advantage, the cook is going to bounce. The staffing crisis puts more pressure on [the] employer to deliver what they promise and find a path for growth. Employers have to do the right thing by their people."

That all sounds great, but here's the rub. Let's say you're the perfect employer — you hire well; you don't throw pots; you nurture talent, promote from within and even offer benefits. You still may not be able to find people to work the line. But what if there were a pool of entry-level cooks available now, all across the country, eager and willing to work for you? No, this is not some rainbow unicorn fantasy. It is what may be the most compelling piece of this entire staffing puzzle: a pioneering social enterprise movement developed by nonprofits to train those living on the fringes — those formerly incarcerated or homeless, recovering drug abusers and alcoholics, or otherwise unemployed — as cooks. The result? The staffing crisis gets solved, or at least seriously mitigated, and people just barely hanging on to the margins of society are given a skill, a job, and a chance at a future.

It's a solution that's truly tailor-made for the hospitality industry. A willingness to teach on the job and develop talent is a hallmark of the restaurant business and one that makes it an ideal industry for second-chancers. "We are always willing to train people who have a desire to learn," says Tony Maws, executive chef of Craigie on Main and the Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Boston, who has hired staff through Boston-area charities such as Community Servings and the Salvation Army. "There is a bias if you got a résumé with Daniel on it, but that doesn't happen all that often. So we need to look differently at the labor pool and recruit nontraditionally."

Looking beyond the obvious talent might lead you to St. Joseph's Center's Culinary Training Program in Los Angeles, a six-week course in classic French cooking techniques geared toward those facing multiple barriers to employment — veterans, those formerly incarcerated or homeless, those with disabilities or high-functioning autistic people, kids transitioning out of foster care and people coming out of rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, for instance. The CTP, which is offered free of charge, includes practical cooking experience at the Bread & Roses Café, a fine dining café in Los Angeles that serves 750 complimentary fine-dining meals to the homeless on a weekly basis, an 80-hour externship, as well as post-graduate job placement at acclaimed restaurants such as Spago.

"The staffing crisis puts more pressure on employers to deliver what they promise and find a path for growth." —Michael Hewitt, principal of the culinary headhunting firm One Haus.

"You should not overlook a community that is striving to change their lives through food when looking to address the staffing crisis," says chef D. Brandon Walker, who has been the head instructor of the CTP since 2006. "Providing dignity and self-sufficiency are the key to fostering positive impact on the greater culinary landscape."

The program goes beyond basic cooking skills and also includes workshops in job search strategy and life skills on topics such as résumé preparation, interview techniques, effective communication, time management and culinary theory. "It was our goal to make it quick and free," says Walker, "but it was not enough to say, 'Here you go, you can hold a knife, you can make a mother sauce, go and cook.' We take into account where they live and their skill level, and we place them." CTP's track record is impressive. It has an 80 percent hire rate for graduates and a 70 percent employment rate one year out.

Similar programs are thriving across the country (see below for list), turning a staffing crisis into an opportunity to provide vital employment to communities on the margins. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) runs both front- and back-of-the-house boot camp programs free of charge in partnership with the Office of Economic & Workforce Development and City College of San Francisco. "These programs are great solutions to the staffing crisis," says Donnalyn Murphy, associate director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. "You can't just address this problem from one angle — you have to partner with nonprofits. People in the community are finding jobs, and restaurants are finding solutions."

Richard Grausman, a cookbook author and culinary instructor who runs the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), agrees. "No matter where you go in the country, there is a shortage of cooks," he says. "But in everyone's community there are people who can and who want be trained." C-CAP works with over 17,000 high school students, teaching them the culinary arts, placing them in jobs and awarding them scholarships to culinary school (over $50 million in scholarships have been awarded to date).

Grausman emphasizes that it's not just knife skills he's teaching. "We teach people how to be inquisitive, we work on attitude, and we teach humility," he says. "So once they are done with our program, I am confident that they will show up on time, have basic safety, sanitation and knife skills, and not be afraid to use a mop if asked to clean up. That is the essence of our success."

The program has been quite successful. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who might otherwise be unemployed or heading for trouble are now working at acclaimed restaurants across the country. Aaron Bludorn, executive chef at Café Boulud in New York City, has mentored many C-CAP students and sees the model as incredibly valuable. "My experience with C-CAP has been extremely positive, and I have multiple success stories where students have interned with me over the summer and then gone on to work with me or elsewhere in Daniel Boulud's restaurant group, Dinex."

To be sure, not every second chance story is a success — many of these individuals have a variety of social issues that are not conducive to the high-stress environment of a restaurant kitchen. Stacy Jed, co-owner of San Francisco's Bluestem Brasserie, has hired from similar programs provided by the GGRA. "While we encourage the idea behind these programs and have hired individuals for kitchen positions, it's important to recognize the additional support structure needed that goes beyond the job to create a successful experience in a high-stress environment."

Despite the challenges, both Jed and Murphy are committed to the model and emphasize that the opportunity for employment is critical. "For graduates of this program, these jobs are the difference between being able to afford to have a place to live or not," says Murphy. "It's a first step in helping them turn their lives around."

Other chefs say these sorts of unconventional hires are preferable to staff found through more traditional channels. "I would absolutely recommend chefs to use C-CAP because you find raw talent there," says Bludorn. "The C-CAP students just want it more, and they are very professional as well. When we hire C-CAP students, we know that they have been mentored already by Richard and his entire team at C-CAP. The students don't want to let anyone down in the program, which in turn means that they don't want to let the chef or restaurant down as well."

While the staffing crisis has mostly affected the back of the house, there is also a front-of-house shortage. Beatrice Stein, a restaurant and hospitality consultant with 40-plus years of experience in the industry, recently started the Hospitality Project in New York City to address that FOH crisis. The idea to create a FOH training program occurred to her in 2013 when she was opening the Cecil and Minton's, two Harlem restaurants that were committed to hiring from the community. Stein reached out to a Workforce One, a community-based nonprofit working to provide employment counseling and job placement services. When they sent her 100 people to interview, she found that none of them had the skills necessary for restaurant work, let alone fine dining. But she did find two dozen or so who had the right mindset. "I hired strictly on personality and willingness to learn, and then I trained them," she said. The results were excellent. Stein says most of her hires at the Cecil and Minton's are still employed there.

The experience made a big impression on her. "I was almost haunted by the notion that there are so many people looking for jobs in the industry who just can't break in," she said. "I thought, I have the skills to teach them and give them the basic experience they would need to find and get a job. I can do this."

Stein spent a year raising money and applying for grants and in November 2015 held a four-week, 80-hour pilot class teaching students the art of hospitality — from host to server, runner and busser. In addition to wine and cocktail service, she also taught skills like professionalism, timeliness and respect. "They had to show up clean and neat in a pressed uniform as if they were going to work," she said. Each student was also HIP certified and certified in CPR. Of the 12 students in her pilot, all 12 remained with the program and graduated. Stein helped with job placement, and today six are still successfully working in the industry; some with Danny Meyer, others at Carmine's, French Roast and the Cecil.

Stein is now fundraising again and hopes to continue to run the program, which she sees as a gateway to valuable employment for so many people struggling to make ends meet in communities across New York City. "I am trying to make a difference and change people's lives," she said.

Marcus Samuelsson, the chef and owner of Red Rooster and Streetbird restaurants in Harlem and co-chair of the C-CAP board, sees social enterprise programs as essential not only to solving the staffing crisis but to the mission of the hospitality industry. "I am not going to sit and complain about the staffing crisis; I am going to solve it," he says. "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."

Culinary Training Programs Across the Country

  • Conquering Homelessness Through Employment and Food Service, New York City
  • DC Central Kitchen

  • Chrysalis, Los Angeles

  • Fare Start, Seattle

  • Project Renewal, New York City

  • Delancey Street Foundation, National

  • Haley House, Roxbury, Massachusetts

  • Rubicon Bakery, San Francisco

  • Café Reconcile, New Orleans

  • Homeboys and Homegirls, Los Angeles

  • Greyston Bakery, New York City

  • The King's Kitchen and Bakery, Charlotte North Carolina

  • Future Chefs, Boston