10.29.2014 | Issue #3
Over the past few months, we've been talking to chefs all over the country about their frustration with finding the right talent to fill their ranks.
It's a slippery issue, one that varies from city to city, chef to chef. Are culinary schools the root of the problem? Is the media setting expectations too high? Here are a few choice entries from our field research.
The debate continues.
“The schools don’t really get them where we need them. It’s all about the interns and externs, which help, but they’re not ready for the battle of a kitchen. There’s a lot of chefs who believe it’s better if you just go work for a chef instead of going to culinary school, because they’ll teach you more. When you go to school, they teach you a dish one day, but then you move on. You get better at cooking a dish from repetition, making it over and over again. Even though you might get bored, that’s how you start understanding it.
I love that graduation speech they always give, like, ‘Now you’re chefs!’ That’s not the case. You gotta get in there and learn. The school system is too fast, and even though we need it to be to keep producing cooks, in some sense it’s not working. It’s not getting you ready for those hard knocks of cooking. I don’t think there’s a lack of interest. The lack of cooks is just a lack of bodies, and I don’t know what the problem is there and why. There are so many good people, but a lot of those people work together, so you wind up separating them over and over.
Now, I talk to chefs, and they’re like, ‘I hired the guy because I had to. I hope I can mold him, because if I can’t, in a couple of months I’m going to have to repost.’ And that sucks. We’re constantly rotating through people who believe they’re great cooks because the schools told them so, and we have to start them from scratch. That’s where we struggle a lot—the basics—and that’s what makes us wonder what the schools are doing. I think they’re trying to teach too much.
When I went through culinary school, I had some good teachers. I also had a few that you could see had been out of the loop for a long time and were just going through the curriculum. For the demands, and the hours, and the lack of pay that you’re getting, you’d better hope that those teachers who you are paying at that time are giving you every ounce of information they’ve got, so you at least have a good foundation.
When I say the teachers aren’t teaching them enough in school, I’m also saying that we’re the teachers too. You hope someone will work for you forever, but they want to see what other chefs are doing too, so at some point, you become just a teacher for them. If I ever have a cook that I don’t have room for, I’m going to send him to someone I know is going to teach them properly.”
“A lot of the people my age, who went into culinary school and became the cooks that people counted on, are now 30 and like, ‘Shit, I can’t do this the rest of my life. I can’t be a line cook. I want to be a sous or a chef.’ To be a cook in a legit restaurant is one of the hardest jobs. Especially living in the city…you’re sacrificing your life, your personal time, and then you don’t have a lot of money. You’re in a physically and mentally demanding job, and you really have to love it. It really weeds out the people who can do it and the people who want to do it.
Before it exploded in the 1990s, this industry was built on eccentric people who did not fit into normal society. The evolution of the restaurant has been amazing, but at the same time it’s like, we don’t need so many kids coming out of culinary school thinking they’re going to make 80 Gs a year. The thing that I’ve noticed is that the kids coming out of school, with all the awesome restaurants there are in the United States now, go to the super high-end places. The ones that you want go to Eleven Madison Park, the Laundry, they go to work for Sean Brock, they go to work for all the cool places that we all admire. They go there, and then all the regular restaurants like us who aren’t reinventing the wheel, per se…I don’t know. There’s so many options for cooks these days. If you’re adaptable, and you can find a place to live and slum it for a little, you can work anywhere you want in this country.
I started washing dishes when I was 14 and getting paid $5 an hour. But not everybody starts up like that. People don’t always understand the concept of apprenticeship. You need to come in and you need to be a sponge. Back in the days of Bocuse and shit in France, you paid them to let you work for free.
The thing about the restaurant industry is that you can see the quality of a person like that. Just from how they hold their knife or walk with something. The restaurant industry is totally transparent, and if you’re not carrying your weight, people will notice. It’s not the best environment to work in. Some of the best cooks that I know are total assholes.
There’s definitely a masochistic side to being a chef. You want to work more than anybody else, you want to do things harder and better and faster. And it’s terrible how this industry can make you ignore your family sometimes. But you gain this other family. But how do you tell a kid that? They don’t tell you that in culinary school, and if you have student loans out the ass, it’s going to affect what you’re able to do when you get out.
You have to have the intuition, the gut instincts. The best cooks and chefs I’ve ever met are super visceral people who are super aware of their surroundings. It’s a combination of so many things, and you just can’t teach that. At the same time, you don’t want everybody to be able to do this job, because then it becomes just like any other profession. No matter what kind of food you’re doing, as long as you’re honest and genuine and treating the products right and working hard, I don’t personally care whether you’re making a crazy intricate one-bite course or a roasted chicken. It’s all food, we’re all here on the planet together. But kids gravitate toward the flashy."