I sat in the van, squished in the back between two other cooks, at 1:30 am on a Friday night. I was returning to New York from a party I catered in Connecticut. I was beaming. My smile probably looked like the Cheshire Cat, all grin and teeth, while my eyes were trying their damn’dest to roll to the back of my head. I worked fourteen hours at an ultra luxe wedding and the ride to and from the event was an added three hours. That doesn’t include time to or from my house. So I’m just going to call it an eighteen hour day. But I was happy. “Why?” you may ask. Because I received a whopping $50 tip.
My mind was already racing to the grocery store, where I could buy several different flavors of yogurt, maybe a quart of milk, an indulgent snack of ice cream sandwiches, and maybe a few ears of corn from the farmer’s market. Fifty dollars meant that I wouldn’t have to eat only family meal from work every day. I could buy cereal!!! My eyes, at this point, had no interest in staying open. So I began to dream dreams of rice pudding and fudge sundaes. Until the cook next to me started expressing her anger…
I feel like I’ve had a lot of these talks lately. I keep catching up with cook friends, either in the early morning hours over a cup of coffee before work, or at night over a pint of coffee stout in the late hours after work. So many conversations come back to the topic of money. Because as a cook, we don’t make a whole lot of it. And to be quite frank, I usually could care less about money. I work for free too much; I offer my time and minimal skills whenever I think there’s an opportunity where I could learn from someone, sample new foods, see new techniques–pretty much anything that is going on within the food industry that seems appealing/entertaining/thought provoking, I am there. Gratis.
But money, unfortunateley, is how life works. And I’ve realized that if I’d like to continue traveling like I do, I must make more of this green stuff. I don’t like the idea of working to make money, but I’m trying to be practical. But as of late, I’ve gotten a bit frustrated over the pay scale within the restaurant industry.
My friend is the pastry sous chef over at Eleven Madison Park. You know, the restaurant that just received four stars from the New York Times food critic. She makes less than double a week than what I used to make working there as a cook. She lives her life in that kitchen. She’s in a land where ordering, scheduling cooks’ work weeks, coming up with dessert ideas and constantly churning out thousands of macaroons a week take up every moment, every thought, every bit of her life. Shouldn’t this kind of work merit wages that reflect it?
Some friends have been working a six day, roughly 80+ hour work week for the past year. Most of my friends who I work with now make $10 an hour. And one of the chefs I work with just divulged that only two years ago, he was making $7/ hr as a sous chef. I don’t much care about the money, but I’m starting to look at this job with one squinty eye. How the hell can we work at some of the best restaurants in New York, and struggle to make ends meet?
The cook in the van laid it out for me. She hated three things about our job. First- male ego in the kitchen. Okay, I agree. It can be a bit ridiculous, but I think I can usually handle this (I may be lying through my teeth right now..). Two- the hours. Yes, we work long hours. And they’re not easy hours. But that is our job, so this statement kinda rolled off my back. Three- the pay. At first I thought, “Well, this is what we signed up for. We happen to be emotionally invested in something that is minimally lucrative..” Until she threw in the resounding retort “We’re the ones in the kitchen, busting our asses [excuse my French, but it is a quote] for long hours to create delicious food, while the servers bank roll on our hard work and passion!!” I never quite looked at it that way. I know there are inequalities in this world. Like teachers. And basketball players. The pay scale doesn’t really work for me there. And I’ve always just looked at front of the house and back of the house as two different players. But when this cook threw in the word passion, I paid attention. We do this job because we love it. And if you don’t love being a cook, I can’t understand why you would ever choose it. It’s hard, it’s tiring; you could be making better money filling up a trucker’s tank with fuel. But a server… We all know that most of them serve just to make money. Most are actors, models, or in some other struggling field. Most aren’t pursuing serving with a passion (yes, Danny Meyer’s restaurants may be the exception). Their mindless pursuits for cash are earned off the kitchen’s sweaty brows.
After the four star review, reservations at EMP have obviously gone up, and so have the servers’ wages. I’m told that it’s not uncommon for them to pull in roughly $2000 a week. Compare that to the cook that’s sweating over the meat roast station for eight hours at a time, coming in to work 3 hours early (and not getting paid for those hours), scrubbing the kitchen from top to bottom after service, not leaving til 1 or 2 in the morning…and doing that 5 or 6 times a week. Net result? Roughly $400 dollars. Not to mention, your social circle basically reduces down to whoever you’re friends with in the kitchen. Good luck on keeping up that relationship, or attending that baby shower. Or buying a sweet gift for your baby bro’s birthday. See my point?
Why hasn’t someone figured out how to level the playing field a little? I know, I know. Being in the kitchen means we “don’t have to deal with the customers.” All servers will say this and roll their eyes. Like they’re going into combat every night and barely surviving the ordeal. With how they explain it, you’d expect them to come back with war wounds: torn clothes, ratted hair and a missing tooth or two. Yes, we don’t have to deal with picky customers. But does that mean we shouldn’t be rewarded a bit for our hard work? For our creativity?
When a food critic sits down in a restaurant, the decor is noted. Service is critiqued. Could the lighting be dimmer yet still appropriate? Is the music too loud or considerately ambient? Why thank you for not dripping that red wine on the white table cloth! But really, the grade comes down to the food. No restaurant is going to receive four stars if the food isn’t on the wow factor. Eleven Madison didn’t only get bumped up to four star because of the dining room and the service. The food elevated it there. The food at Jean-Georges keeps it at four stars. So why not pay a little love to the ones producing?
All I’m saying is isn’t it time we reconsider how the industry operates and stop coming up with excuses to not share the wealth? Show the cooks a little love please.