Why Not Tip The Cooks?

IMG_4580I 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.

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9 responses to “Why Not Tip The Cooks?

  1. Ricardo Anglada-Diaz

    Word. You tell ’em.

  2. Claire,
    Cooks are lunatics. Plain and simple.
    Present company included.
    But asking to share the love is like asking to change all dining venues into chez panisse.
    4 day work week, plenty of bennis and a warm and fuzzy feeling about only using “greenients”
    More power to you on the march on the capitol to change the system. Until food is sold at the real price(subsidy free) and consumers find out what it really costs to produce great food and are willing to pay for it, the kitchen will not feel the trickle down. Do admit that those grats make me happy too.

  3. I think it is not far-fetched to imagine restructure the tipping system. The best servers are also good salespeople…20% tip of a bill with bare bones ordering is nothing compare to getting the table to splurge for all the courses and sides (and why not a round of cocktails before the wine?). A lot of that $$ falls on server skills, but then the server relies on everyone else (kitchen, bartender) to make the meal happen. Servers tip out bartenders for this reason, so think it’s not too much to ask to tip out the kitchen (and most reports can separate food & bev sales, too). What I always loved about restaurants is how everyone’s role is so important to make the place really work. We’re in a moment when dreaming of big changes can yield actual big changes. So bravo for the post…now what??

  4. Not to mention that culinary school costs about $25K…so try paying off those student loans based on $10/hr…AND pay NYC rent?!

    It makes total sense in a resto like ELM for the servers to be tipping out the kitchen. And the kitchen does have to deal with customers to an extent…we have to deal with all the dumb special requests…no extra salt please…can you put the sauce on the side….can you cut that in half? We don’t have to smile and pretend we don’t hate them…but we deal with them just the same.

  5. Claire,

    Love this story. Lyrica and I often find ourselves dreaming of what we can spend our cash on in the grocery isles.

    There or the plant nursery.

    Rock On.

  6. I just spent the last half hour on a soapbox explaining this very concept to my servers after a long & furiously busy night. They pulled in $275 each and when i divided the kitchen tip out amongst cooks and dishwasher, each was paid $11. How exaggerated a divide is that? It’s ludacris! I have asked them to bump the 1% of sales tip out to 1 1/2 % of sales, and they tell me flat out, that they will not do it. That would be a few dollars more out of $275. How can waitstaff be so greedy? There are so many points to consider.
    -the servers use skills to increase sales. well the cooks use skills to cook food. what is the difference? If it weren’t the way it is no, and tips were distributed evenly, no one would say, I think the servers should get more because they are dealing with the customers. Cooking on a busy line requires great skill. All of these jobs work together to bring food to the table.
    -this farm-to-table movement focusing on sustainability, using local ingredients, organic foods, farm fresh foods, natural meats, etc. should also include fair living wages. It is just part of this food revolution that is happening all over. Things must change. How are restaurants going to join this movement if the cooks aren’t paid well. A non-educated or not passionate cook that works for really low pay is not going to bring about this change. This responsiblity of changing the way we eat falls on everyone’s shoulders. The consumers must pay more for better ingredients. The servers must educate the guests on why sustainability is important. The cooks/ chefs must order the right products, use the right vendors, uphold the ideology, and educate the servers. It takes more that a dollar above minimum wage to employ the kind of person that will adhere to this movement and bring about change in the way we eat.
    -Tips have increased steadily over the last decade or two. 15% used to be normal. Now a good portion of diners tip 20%. The percentage average has gone up, that is undisputed. Why should that increase only be designated for the server? Restaurants are still not money makers, they probably never will be a business that can turn a large profit. So, restaurants can’t afford to pass extra money to cooks, they pay what they can afford in general. Minimum wage and living wage ordinances in expensive cities has gone up which benefits the servers, not the cooks. So, over the years money going to serving staff has increased in general. But it stays the same for the cooks. Why can’t this change? If tipping policy has increased from 15% to 20%, then why can’t a kitchen tip out become normal, and why can’t it be a bit more substantial?

    I want to point out that i have worked as a server/bartender for 7 years and a cook/chef for 7 years. I know what both jobs are like. The fact that a server can earn $275 while a cook earns $11 in the same busy night (plus $2/hr more in hourly pay, equaling another $16 for the night), is so distorted I am repulsed right now. Please excuse my ranting but I feel like if i could best sum this up with a metaphor, the servers are like “greedy disgusting america” while the cooks are “scraping-by third world countries”. How is this okay with everyone, how is this the norm? It must change.
    All i wanted from the servers tonight was another $5 from each of them. Walk with $270, let the cooks walk with $16, they would be so stoked! When we see $5 dollar bills in our tip out for the kitchen, we are like, “sweet!” And the servers said, $5 is so insignificant, this is stupid and just left. And that is why i am blogging fierce right now. Thank you and good night. It’s 3am. Got retarded brunch in 6 hrs.

  7. I love the last response.
    Clearly you are searching for utopia in a jaded, imperfect world. Ask a man (I mean server man or woman) to give up a few grains of rice and all of sudden there’s a crisis. It’s not that FOH peeps won’t burn that extra saw buck on half of their first cocktail after sucking down their shift drink (if that still exists). It’s the principle of the matter that it’s a system that works fine for them and you are not going to change it. You make a great case that falls on deaf ears. You would be better served to exert energy where it would make a difference like famine relief or world peace.
    In the old days the kitchen tip went to the chef to help supplement his salary so the owner would not have to pay him as much. The more you work in the BOH, the more you work. it’s that simple. You do it because you have to. Weather you are unskilled, illegal worker, an stimulus junkie and alcoholic or an over educated, suffering proletariat socialist idealist.
    I applaud your statement and agree 100% with your rant. I am just way too sarcastic and pessimistic to believe that this will ever change.
    Cheers just the same

  8. BOH, FOH, and the bartenders are ALL part of the same team. Almost nobody goes to a restaurant just for the alcohol, a special server, or just the food. It’s a mix of all 3.

    Servers/bartenders in my state make at least minimum wage (9.19/hr) plus tips and are expected to tip out 1% to BOH but they very clearly do not. We got our tipouts this week and I got $9 for 40 hours of work. My tips came in an envelope that the restaurant had used to record the tipouts of each person in the FOH for the past friday night. the 2 bartenders gave the kitchen a combined $3 to be split amongst 12 people. We did over $16,000 in sales that day, $11,000 of that just food.

    Worst part is, I have tipped those same bartenders $1 a drink whenever I get one. So you tip your bartender $0.50-$1 for spending 30-60 seconds pouring/making you a drink (and they don’t even tipout to the rest of the restaurant) but you don’t tip the cooks anything for spending 10 minutes on your dish? and when you add-in all of the prepwork and cleaning it’s probably more like 20-30 minutes spent per dish.

    I’m not saying that cooks necessarily deserve to be paid more than FOH, but the gap does need to be decreased.

    Since I work 1pm-11pm and am passionate about my career I can’t just quit it to become a server, but I am contemplating getting a job as a server at a breakfast/lunch place even though the tips won’t be nearly as good as during a dinner service.

    Being a cook is fun, at most restaurants so long as the food meets the standards you’re allowed to have fun and joke around with your colleagues. you can get away with humor that wouldn’t be accepted in any other job. My kitchen staff are my best friends and I enjoy going to work. but I really get down on myself when I’m struggling financially and the FOH comes back to the kitchen to bitch to each other about only making $240 that night..

    • John, I completely feel you. I’m planning on opening a restraint this year and a large part of the reason is because we need to start changing and pushing for new laws within out industry. Let’s try to even up the score between the back and front of house!

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