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Getting Paid Fairly as a Chef Is Near-Impossible

There are a lot of weird situations in the service industry where you’re taken advantage of.

by Anonymous
Dec 30 2016, 8:00pm

Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. This time, we spoke with the chef de cuisine from a popular Brooklyn restaurant who recently switched over from an hourly wage to a salary and isn't seeing the benefits—monetarily or literally.

I've never really understood why being a cook or a chef is such a chronically underpaid position. I understand that it's, at times, arguably fairly paid. There's always somebody else who could be doing it instead of you. It could be a flooded market—that's one way to look at it. But more importantly, it's the norm. People in the industry are used to get paid that much (or that little). It's the low bar.

It's exactly like the finance industry, where even in the low-level positions, you know you're going to make a ton of money, but the exact opposite. It's expected. It's essentially a caste system, and there's not really any way to come out of it because of all the factors that come into running a restaurant.

I started at my current restaurant on an hourly wage. I'm on salary now, and I stopped clocking in because it was depressing. I was going way overtime every single week, and it's pretty obvious to me—and I think to the people I work with—that I'm there constantly. Every single day. I'm not even sure about the legality of all of that—it's depressing, because I am doing something that I like, but if I were to start asking about it or causing waves, I could be replaced easily.

READ: I Lied My Way Into the Upper Echelons of the Restaurant Industry

I really like my job. But at any restaurant, there's always one chef or cook who's there all the fucking time. Usually a sous chef. I don't know what the way out of it is without feeling like I've given up. Even if I stop dipping into the restaurant as much and they put someone else in charge, I'll lose control of what I'm doing there. In any situation I've been in, once the executive or head chef is gone, it's really up to the sous chef. Strangely, head chef status has gotten glamorized, but there's little acknowledgement of anyone else, from the sous chef to the dishwashers.

I've seen chefs pin people against each other, make people cover their shift so that they can prevent their vacation, obvious favoritism.

There are a lot of weird situations in the service industry where you're taken advantage of. Made to come in before your shift and then clock in after an hour or two of doing prep or other work, or being told to clock out and then having to stay for hours to clean the kitchen or do preparations. It's a power struggle, and your superiors assert dominance in that way.

When you transition from an hourly wage to salary, it's presumed additional responsibility, and you assume that because you're on salary you'll be taken care of—that things are going to be OK. But the thing I like least about working in kitchens is what it takes to get ahead. The things I've seen people do to each other, to their fellow coworkers, and the attitudes people take on. I've seen chefs pin people against each other, make people cover their shift so that they can prevent their vacation, obvious favoritism.

There's a real mean aspect at a lot of places. It's extremely competitive, and a lot of times, when you get into those higher positions, everyone below you is kind of at your whim and you're manipulating them to keep your status. Once you have it, you can't really have it taken away from you because you can always go somewhere else. You have it on your resume, or someone will trust you when you're throwing names at them of restaurants where you've worked.

A lot of people come in to sous chef positions, complain about everything that's been done wrong in the restaurant, and never have to really do any groundwork, mostly just delegating problems to other people to solve. Point these things out, and then leave and go to another job. These weird six-month career chefs. You'll have a dishwasher for three years and a new sous chef every three months. Shortcutters.

I don't think it's necessarily employers taking advantage of workers. The bracket isn't set up like that. When you start working in a kitchen, you think it's going to take you somewhere and it's good experience, and there are so many places that underpay that you tend to go along with it. I don't think a lot of people realize that there's even the option of drawing a line or saying no.

It's cheap labor. You don't get facilitated health care options unless you count the care you receive when you cut yourself at work, because most restaurants are smaller businesses. They don't have the infrastructure, the unions, to set up something like that, like the hotels would or national chains.

The back-of-house is working as hard as the front-of-house, if not more. But it doesn't equal out, even with the higher hourly rate, and you're always making less even if you work way more hours.

But those are the businesses—the smaller ones—where you want to work the most, or do the most for. I don't think a lot of places could afford to provide higher wages or health care because it would cut into staffing, for instance. A lot of servers are basically paid through their tips. The paychecks that they collect at the end of the week are only a small percentage compared to their tips. So it adds a completely different wage aspect when you have to pay for benefits for these people, or have a buy-in system.

The back-of-house is working as hard as the front-of-house, if not more. Sometimes their hourly wage is more than front-of-house, and working in the kitchen, sometimes you want that reliable paycheck more than the fluctuating tip wage that servers get. But it doesn't equal out, even with the higher hourly rate, and you're always making less even if you work way more hours.

I've worked in pooled tip kitchens before. The only place I've really seen it work was at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco that did family-style tipping. They added gratuity automatically and made a note at the bottom of your check. You could decline to pay it, or pay more. Most people paid more because they weren't paying any fucking attention. And everybody on staff got tipped out the same amount based on hours. The server, the hostess—everyone got the same hourly wage and the same tip-out. It was cool because it resolved that weird friction between customers and staff. The tip system is fundamentally flawed, undoubtedly. For everyone.

What and when is the buy-a-house wage for a chef, when you know you've made it? I was thinking about that today. I'm not sure how that exists. Maybe you always continue working the same amount, but you send your focuses in other places. That's, I guess, when you start writing menus, developing restaurants, gaining investors, finding people who want to make money based on your talents and concepts. But I don't know where that glass ceiling is.

It's like writing. There's so much press, there's so much journalism out there; there are so many restaurants, there's so much food out there. I guess maybe the secret is to become the one original aspect in the sea of shit you work in. You've got to not just be the best trombone player, but make the best trombone.

I like being a chef, though. I like just having several completable tasks that I do in a day. And I like taking care of people.

As told to Hilary Pollack