In my latest feature for The Staff Canteen, I speak to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about the chef shortage facing the US hospitality industry.
The topic of the skills shortage is hotting up both sides of the Atlantic. Even the USA’s finest restaurants complain that hiring has become incredibly difficult and there’s no solution in sight. It’s not just one single problem that’s to blame but a mélange of issues that are conspiring to put the industry at a crisis. Too many restaurants are opening and there aren’t enough people to work in them; pay is poor and the wage discrepancy between front- and back-of-house staff is putting people off working in kitchens. And then there’s the generation of those entitled millenials, who demand instant success and refuse to work their way up from the bottom. I spoke to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about how the chef shortage is affecting their businesses, why they think they’re having to face this crisis in the first place and what they’re doing to overcome it.
Timothy Hollingsworth is the chef proprietor of Otium, a new restaurant in Downtown that is redefining Los Angeles’ dining scene. The former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry, James Beard Award winner and erstwhile Bocuse d’Or competitor says laws and attitudes need to change for the industry to overcome the chef shortage.
Josiah Citrin, chef patron of the two-Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, meanwhile, says the skills shortage is nothing new. But the constant flow of information that is available on the internet coupled with a new generation lacking the determination to go through the ranks is making it worse.
Why do you think there is a chef shortage and skills crisis facing the hospitality industry?
Timothy Hollingsworth: I think it’s mainly because there is a change in people, with the millennials, who are very conscious of how they spend their time and how much they want to work. The old school mentality of working your way up for years, putting in extra hours and staging for free is gone now. I think I was the last of that generation. I was so passionate about what I do and so determined to succeed that I wanted to learn as much as possible and that meant that I was prepared to work as hard as I could even for free. That mind-set is gone now.
Josiah Citrin: I wouldn’t say there’s a chef shortage but rather a cook shortage. A cook and a chef are two very different things and there aren’t enough cooks for all the restaurants that are opening. Businesses are expanding so fast and there are more restaurants opening than people want to become cooks. This generation of people doesn’t want to work their way up from the bottom – they’re not interested in putting the time in and learning the trade, they want to go straight to being a chef and get to the top. People are more interested in promoting themselves online than they are in working They’re obsessed with celebrity but not the craft of cooking.
How have things changed from an industry point of view?
TH: Now there are a lot of labour restrictions that the industry has to deal with. Restaurants get in trouble for people working too many hours, minimum wage keeps going up and it’s much harder to maintain that same kind of work ethic. Even for the people who do want to work hard and perfect their skills, it’s more difficult because of all these laws and regulations. And then there’s the whole idea of the celebrity chef. People have this perception that being a chef is this amazing, creative, inspirational job when the reality is that – in addition to all those things – it is also an awful lot of hard work and a craft and art that you have to spend years to learn. You don’t just wake up one day and know how to make a dish. It takes a long time to develop those skills. What is lacking in cooks in the USA today is that foundation.
JC: Everything is online and available all the time. Recipes are there for anyone to see and pictures of dishes are all over Instagram with way more emphasis on looks than flavour. You can see anything you want online, it’s all there – you don’t have to work with anyone, you don’t have to travel, you can do it all sitting behind your computer. People used to have to work with chefs at different restaurants, come up the ranks and learn their craft, now they just look online and think they can figure it all out that way.
How is it affecting things at your business?
TH: It’s difficult to train staff. We have to look at things in a very different way –it’s a different time and we have to adapt to it. I am responsible for the people who work for me, I’m responsible not just for their livelihood but also for their development. When they leave my restaurant they have my name on them and that has to mean something. It’s my job to teach them a certain level of standards, a certain set of skills, respect for their stations and understanding of how things work in different positions. They won’t learn as much because the system is not as good as it was before. But we are making it work.
JC: It’s really hard to find good people and inspire them to stay with you. People are always coming and going and it makes things difficult. The only way around it is by investing in a system that really works so people can come in and out of it. That’s how I run my restaurants. You have a few key people who stay and the system operates by turning people in and out.
What needs to be done to address this issue?
TH: It’s not just the industry that needs to change it’s the laws. We open at 5pm for dinner and close at 11pm – that is six hours. Chefs work for eight hours so with cleaning down your station and a 30-minute break, there literally is no time to learn the fundamentals of cooking. They are learning; they’re learning how to cook and do certain things but they’re not learning how to operate in a full circle.
JC: I really don’t know what can be done. It’s very complex. But it’s nothing new. When I started Mélisse 17 years it was tough to get cooks. It hasn’t changed and it hasn’t improved and because food is so hot right now, more and more restaurants are opening effectively making the situation worse.