Sustainable food makes no sense when restaurants pay only sustenance wages
Portland, Oregon is at the forefront of what has been called the farm to table movement. According to the movement’s ideals, the farmers, purveyors, and chefs form a community, participating in a symbiotic relationship with one another as they support the sustainability of organic farming, celebrate the abundance of the region, and uphold the value of eating good, nourishing food. In theory, the food scene here is an approachable one. A few restaurants do molecular gastronomy, but most feature dishes on their menus that are familiar and recognizable. The city excels at putting a Pacific Northwest slant on the existing food trends — Americana, peasant Italian, regional French, Spanish tapas — and the line between patron and chef can appear blurred: Everyone who eats in this town also cooks in this town. People are excited about being involved in the many grassroots food projects, as much by trying a recently-opened neighborhood restaurant as by starting a new ice cream cart. The fact that Portland is in the heart of the agricultural region of the Willamette Valley means that there is less of a divide between what is grown and what gets eaten. Portlanders feel they’re a part of a network. At your neighborhood farmer’s market, when buying food from your favorite farm stand, you’re as likely to run into a local chef as you are a neighbor. It’s a close-knit community.
Because Portlanders feel informed about the business of food and because they are aware of the ethics of eating, they demand that their restaurants follow certain principles. Think of the Portlandia sketch, in which a server provides two anxious diners with a complete biography of “Colin,” the chicken they’re about to eat; eventually they visit the farm where Colin was raised. This scene gets closer to the truth than one might imagine in describing the mentality of the conscientious foodie.
And yet we who care so much about the fact that our chickens are free-range and our cattle aren’t raised in CAFOs don’t think about the state of the kitchen where the chicken is cooked, or who exactly grills those grass-fed steaks. I have worked as a cook in the restaurant industry for the past decade, and it has become clear to me over the years that the vision of a sustainable food system ignores one key element: working conditions. In other words, it ignores me — the grunt, the cog, the line cook making your dinner.
My culinary career started at the age of fourteen, when I began staging at a restaurant in a small town near where I grew up. Stage is a French term that means trainee or apprentice; staging or trailing means working without pay in a restaurant to learn new techniques. A stage can function as a working interview or as an internship; it is what cooks will do when interested in working at a new place, and it is their performance during the stage that is the deciding factor in determining whether they are hired or not.
I got involved in the Portland food movement when I moved to the city in 2005. I had aspirations of someday opening my own little restaurant. I also wanted to run an organic farm, where I might hold workshops in butchery, cheese making, culinary fundamentals, or wild mushroom foraging. To many people this list of classes would fall under the heading of the trendy “urban homesteading” movement. But for me, these practices are elements of a way of life I’ve always participated in. I grew up in the Coast Range of rural Oregon. My family raised chickens for eggs and meat and butchered lambs. My mother cultivated a large organic garden. In the fall we foraged for chanterelles, and in the spring in the woods behind our house we picked nettle shoots and miner's lettuce. My nearness to the land and the food it provided defined my cooking ethos and set in motion my cooking career.
That career has spanned eleven years, during which I’ve worked as a prep cook, fry cook, pantry cook, grill cook, pastry chef, and baker. The least I’ve made was $7.50 per hour; the most was $13.50. To be a line cook and eventually a chef you must submit to the hell that is the professional kitchen: long hours, low pay, no breaks, no respect. As you advance up the line, the work gets harder and the responsibility increases while the pay does not. An entry level line cook job starts at as low as $8 an hour and tops out at around $15. (In 2011, the national median wage for line cooks was $10.61, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) If you want to make more, you have to advance up to a management position such as sous chef or chef de cuisine. Even then, the pay is going to be around $16 to $18 an hour and is not likely to top $23. I never advanced to the top of the pay scale, mostly because the added hours and stress those jobs demanded never seemed quite worth the pay. The last sous chef I worked under was all-consumed by work. You could see in his leering eyes that he was in a constant state of caffeinated fatigue. I didn’t want that.
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Restaurant workers are perpetually exhausted because it’s to the advantage of the restaurant to treat the kitchen in a mechanistic fashion, to get out of its cooks the most output with the least amount of input. Trying to extract the highest return from its workers, the restaurant looks after its own best interests, not those of its employees. I learned this early on. The first position that I held at a more upscale restaurant was as a prep cook. For the first six months I seemed to mangle everything. If I wasn’t burning the parsnips I was breaking the aioli or making a mess of the soufflé. After a while I became faster and more proficient, but I was still getting ridden hard by my sous chef. One day at the end of a long shift that I thought I had done well on, he took me out back. My level of production was unacceptable, he said. I needed to “fucking step it up” or I wouldn’t have a job anymore. This stung. I was caught off guard, and so emotionally invested that I choked up. “I got most of the prep list taken care of today,” he told me. “What did you do? Soup, house dressing, ravioli? You need to get your shit together.”
Anyone can be fast, but speed must be accompanied by care. I had been pushing myself to the limit to get faster while maintaining the quality of the product. I was losing sleep over it; there was always a lump of anxiety under my sternum. After the tongue-lashing I started showing up to shifts early and writing the prep list myself before I clocked in. (The prep list is everything on the menu that needs to be made before dinner service begins.) I would get as many things possible going on the stovetop, in the oven, and on the grill, and then start in on menu items requiring the KitchenAid and the Robot Coupe, like dressings or hummus. Many different things would finish cooking at once; often they had to be dealt with immediately or they would be ruined. All day it was a juggling act. I was in a constant state of stress.
At another place, when I was still pretty green, I mixed two sauces up and in doing so ruined one of the evening specials for the night. “Pull it together kid,” the chef yelled. “If you were in another kitchen you’d get reamed in the fucking asshole for that mistake!” More recently, in a different kitchen with a different boss but the same asshole, I was bending over my station breaking it down for the night when the sous chef leaned in and started rifling through my line. I told him to fuck off because he was making a mess of my station. He went ballistic, shouting as he beat me over the head and shoulders with a handful of celery. “You don’t tell me to fuck off you fucking retard!”
Showing weakness in the kitchen is unacceptable. Instead we bro down, in interactions permeated with sexual innuendo and homophobic jokes. I know how to bro down, but it becomes tiresome. The debased language is not limited to line cook interaction; even people in positions of management lack the ability to properly communicate. In part this is because most managers and sous chefs were previously just line cooks who got promoted because they were reasonably good at cooking and wanted to get paid more. They aren’t equipped with the skills they need to be able to manage.
Of course, poor management is just one element of a broken system. Another is that kitchen schedules aren’t designed with line cooks’ well-being in mind. This means their health is unavoidably compromised. A physical therapist once told me I moved like I was seventy. My knees hurt from standing. My lower back hurts for the same reason. The ropiness in my neck and shoulders culminates under my left shoulder blade in a bundle of pain. From standing so much I have developed thick varicose veins on my left leg that snake around the inside of my knee and down my calf like a river; they end in a floodplain of bruising below my ankle, where there is a perennial scab. After being on my feet for twelve hours my legs and veins become extra swollen and begin to ache. I should mention that I’m only twenty-six. When I was twenty-two, I left work to go to the emergency room. I had an acutely swollen bump on my wrist, which produced a dull, aching pain that knifed up my forearm. The nurse told me I had a ganglion cyst. Later, I found out I also had tendonitis and a pinched nerve in my forearm. These ailments all stemmed from repetitive over-work. In 2008 I filed a worker’s compensation claim, and spent the next year and a half on disability, slowly recovering.
Working full-time for only $10 or $12 an hour puts the line cook in an awkward socioeconomic position. I hardly make enough to scrape by, but just enough so that I don’t qualify for full food stamp benefits or other Department of Human Services programs such as the Oregon Health Plan. Most independently owned restaurants don’t provide health insurance, and on $12 an hour there is no way I can afford to pay for it myself.
Some restaurant environments are better than others, but even the best ones are controlled by their profit margin. The owners of the place where I hurt myself had always been very encouraging and supportive of my growth as a cook. The kitchen culture there was somewhat unconventional, even slightly democratic. And the whole restaurant staff was close-knit, like a family. But when I made the worker’s comp claim, the owners took it personally. They thought I was trying to take advantage of the system, and refused to take responsibility for their part in my injury. I ended up having to seek the help of a lawyer to get everything taken care of. This process took over a year. As I did research about being an injured worker in Oregon, I realized that the restaurant had acted in an unfortunate but predictable way. They were simply trying to protect their bottom line: A worker’s comp claim, my boss argued, might make their insurance rates go up.
Everything always comes back to money.
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Many negative aspects of working in the kitchen are a result of poor structure. When it comes to designing the schedules and systems that govern the kitchen, there is a lack of foresight among owners, chefs and managers. This is because the restaurant is entrenched in an antiquated model of working its employees into the ground. The fancier places are often even worse: The big-name chefs know they can walk all over their cooks because everyone there is hungry to stay and build that perfect résumé. Most successful restaurants run on this model.
Restaurants assume they can take advantage of their employees. At the same place where I was beaten with a handful of celery, I was expected to show up early enough to have my station completely set up before service started at 4 p.m. There was a lot of elaborate prep for my line so this sometimes took me almost two and a half hours, but according to the rules I wasn’t allowed to clock in until 3. If I wanted to be ready on time, I had to work for an hour and a half for free. This sort of thing is common practice in many places, and most employers tend to get upset if hours extend into overtime because they don’t want to pay the added wage.
When I’m on overtime my pay is much closer to being what I think I’m worth, but even overtime falls short. Once, during a six-month review, I brought up the fact that my $12 an hour wage made me feel undervalued; they knew I was a skilled individual, I said, and the chef had always been happy with my work. But when I asked for a raise that would reflect what I was actually worth I was laughed at for even conceiving of such a notion. I was being “uppity”; I was acting entitled. To be clear: at the time I was making $12 an hour and asking for $14, when I felt I was actually worth $18 to $20.
I was given a 25 cent raise.
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Restaurants are stingy with their wages because labor costs directly affect the cost of food. When chefs price out a dish — when they decide how much to charge for it — they are accounting for the cost of the ingredients and the cost of the labor. The price of a plate of food in a fine dining restaurant — no matter how high or low it seems to the customer — depends on the people making it getting paid very little. At the same time, we have a glamorized and romanticized perception of professional cooking, perpetuated by flashy cooking shows and gushy restaurant reviews. Chefs are put on a pedestal, and being the head chef somewhere or owning your own successful restaurant is the unrealistic prize that is dangled over the head of the line cook. This pipe dream serves as the line cook’s rationalization for the hell he is subject to as he attempts to ascend toward the pinnacle of his career.
Progressing up the line is couched as a culling method to separate the weak from the strong. Kitchen culture mandates that line cooks work themselves till the breaking point, and working through pain and sickness is the norm. Chefs and line cooks alike accept this as the status quo. In this respect, line cooks are participating in their own abuse. No one wants to rock the boat. And yet the conditions of low pay and a poor working environment breed resentment, apathy, and high turnover — not to mention a penchant for drinking, drugs, smoking and coffee.
How have we been duped into working so hard for so little return? We can blame the mythology of the work ethic: You have to pay your dues to get to the top. But the top is a place where most cooks will never arrive.
To give some perspective, my brother made more money collecting unemployment as an intern architect after he was laid off than I did working full time in a restaurant. I make this comparison because we are both skilled professionals in our respective fields, but because he has a degree and uses his mind as opposed to his body to make a living our society values him more, and he makes more money. I make a subsistence wage, which is supposed to be, but is not really, a living wage. On a subsistence wage I just get by, when I should earn enough to get by and also have something left over to pay for healthcare, to save, and to indulge in something like eating out at a place like the one I work at.
If people working in the kitchen are to earn an actual living wage, fine dining restaurants will have to charge twice as much as they already do. In other words, if I am to be paid enough for me to feel valued as an employee, the cost of dinner is going to have to go way up, to the point where it is inaccessible for the average person — for me — to eat there. When you’re in the industry you get around the hurdle of high prices by knowing people: Your friends at other restaurants “hook you up” or “style you out” when you visit. But there’s no guarantee of being hooked up. I don’t know everyone at every restaurant, and I’m only in luck if Joey happens to be working the night I happen to go out. In the end, affordability and fair pay in the restaurant are mutually exclusive. The only solution to this contradiction that I can imagine is an operation where the money goes directly to the worker: for example, an owner-run food cart, or a fine dining establishment structured as a worker-owned co-op.
Right now I am working prep for a bar and restaurant as the business rebrands and reorganizes their kitchen and menu. The owner understands the complexities of designing a functional work environment. He wants to implement a schedule that won’t put anyone in the position of feeling obligated to work more than an eight-hour shift. He also wants to have clearly defined guidelines for how prep and product ordering is done, so that what daytime prep cooks do is what evening line cooks need. This restaurant is open seven days a week and can be quite busy at times, so it is imperative that things run seamlessly. I’ve found it refreshing to work with someone who understands the importance of designing a comprehensive system that avoids burning out the back of the house. But the trouble is that most of the problems remain. The place is a highbrow sports bar: It has quality beer and wine selections and sophisticated cocktails, and the food is a step above normal bar fare, with a thoughtful, produce-focused, locally sourced menu. But because it’s not a fancy restaurant, the price point can’t be very high. The owner is willing to pay people a little better than other places might, but not that much better. The consulting chef is ingrained with the usual machoness, communicates badly, and believes in the classic work ethic — admirable in the short term but unsustainable in the long run.
Of course the poor working conditions that exist in the kitchen are not unique to restaurants: Our lower-income labor force is mistreated and marginalized throughout the service industry, agriculture, and retail. Everywhere the cost of living continues to go up while wages stagnate. It goes without saying that we should support a “sustainable” food system, but this sustainability needs to be carried all the way through, from how we treat the land and the those working it to how we treat the people cooking dinner. Food culture has reminded us of the sacredness of food and the social importance of gathering together over meals. These ideals are the reason I became a cook, and I have been chasing them my whole career. But it’s become obvious the restaurant is not the place to find them.