With the fine dining scene in decline and little reward financially, how is this still a thing?
Two weeks ago the Vancouver Magazine awards were announced, with the Top Chef of the year award going to none other than Joel Watanabe of Kissa Tanto/Bao Bei stardom. Not much of a shock to most industry folk, since Kissa Tanto, his newest venture with partner Tanis Ling, exploded out of the gates with high praise and long lineups. Kisso Tanto also received the crowning jewel of restaurant adulation, the coveted number 1 spot on EnRoute magazine’s Best New Restaurants list. His win was pretty much guaranteed.
With his win, Joel has surpassed expectations and ascended to the highest of pole positions in Canadian Culinary dining and is now seen as one of Canada’s finest. It’s a feat many aspire to, yet fall short of. To be considered among the ranks of Canadian culinary superstars like Susur Lee, Rob Feenie and David Hawksworth, just to name a few, is what many Chefs would consider the pinnacle achievement of their careers. Yet for all the adulation and praise heaped on Joel (rightly deserved by the way) one cannot help but wonder that for all the Joel’s in Vancouver and in Canada — and there are only a handful — how many wake up each day hoping to achieve his greatness? 100? 500? Less?
In Canada, there are thousands upon thousands of restaurants, most of which are ordinary in their goals: make a living and try not to get anyone sick. This leaves then only a select few that actually set forth each day looking to establish themselves a notch above the rest. Many fail. Some succeed — Kissa Tanto. A few surprise us all. But to strive for greatness, a big ego must be involved in order to accept the challenge of such a feat. And to be a great chef, you must possess a big ego.
But with a slumping dollar, a resistance to classic white table cloth fine dining and rising prices and costs, being the best in the classic sense of say, Noma or 11 Madison, is to realize that most Canadians either don’t want such experiences or they no longer can afford them. Case in point: Vancouver. In this city, we have a finite amount of so called ‘fine dining’ establishments, most of which aren’t even fine dining. Hawksworth is probably the closest you might find in that realm, and they aren’t even looking to push the envelope as high as they could; there’s no point since it’s no longer seen as something diners crave. The Per Se’s, The French Laundry’s, and The Joe Beef’s of the world are elusive in this city, and because of that the chef-driven ideal has changed too.
When you hear stories from celebrated chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, a man who attained the ultimate, running his very own 3 Michelin starred restaurant, his lineage always hearkens back to his beginning. How he studied under Marco Pierre White and Albert Roux, two venerable and legendary chefs in their own right. Years as a commis working 16 hr days was the way it went as you slaved away, slowly rising up the ranks. But there was a method to the madness; after all was said and done, you’d one day become a Marco Pierre White of your own. All those hours had a purpose, hopefully leading you to this.
All this begs the question: if you take away the reward (fine dining or the lure of becoming one of the best), then how can we expect chefs to still be motivated and rewarded if they’re still tasked with working 14hr days? What’s the point? To what, eventually run a Flying Pig? You don’t need 14hr days to strive for that, what you need is to just show up.
In a recent article written by the polarizing Alexandra Gill for The Globe and Mail, she tapped into the idea of Chefs, more specifically one Stefan Hartmann. Hartmann’s a Michelin star chef from Germany who recently vacated his position as Executive Chef at Bauhaus to become the Corporate Executive of hipster taco empire Tacofino. Not a bad move I must say. Security, better hours, and less stress. Can’t blame him. But his choice again showcases the problem facing chefs everywhere, and it’s why there are so few of them. If you take away the glory of running something amazing like a Noma, where they can learn under someone who’s pushing them to REALLY go for it, while also telling them that running something different (Bauhaus) is really expensive to do let alone start (Vancouver), then why not take the money and run (Hartmann, Tacofino). Hell, Rob Feenie did it, and if he’s given up on the idea, what does that say about the industry as a whole?
Most who enter the culinary trade aspire to that dream, to become Joel or Gordon or a Marco. But if Vancouver has decided they no longer want that type of food, the arty fartsy kind of stuff, then how can they be asked to slave away for 14 hours? What are they getting out of it?
Near the end of her piece, Alexandra posts a few responses she’s received from various local restaurateurs. One stood out for me rather emphatically as it illustrated how problematic the issue really is.
“A lot of people say they want to work here. They say they want to learn and cook the same food that they’re cooking at Noma or 11 Madison Park, but they don’t want to work more than 10 hours a day and they want to make $18 an hour. What world do they live in?”
Annalena is no Noma or 11 Madison, they’re not even close and they’re definitely not trying to be either. But for Mike to criticize wannabe chefs for wanting to be paid a decent wage for their efforts shouldn’t be a crime, nor should they be punished or scrutinized for such a moral request. Just last week, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives came out saying that a ‘living wage’ in Vancouver is $20.62, yet, our minimum wage is currently $10.85. Most chefs in Vancouver are paid anywhere from $12–$15 per hour, just above minimum wage but way below a living wage. This also doesn’t factor in the common set wage many chefs receive, which is often around $130 per day. When you’re working 14hr days for $130, that comes out to less than minimum wage for a lot of chefs.
But again, as Mike has pointed out, “What world do they live in?”
They live in the real world, Mike. If you’re not providing the glory, then why should they want to work the hours? Shitty pay and barely making your rent while you work a full time job isn’t a life.
Again, all the blame shouldn’t go squarely on the owners or restaurants since most make peanuts because their margins are thin as thin can be. They pay what they can afford. Which brings me back to a point I’ve talked about ad nauseum: either tipping needs to go or we as a dining public need to get over ourselves and start paying a lot more for our food. But that’s a whole other topic all together, since most of us can’t even pay more even if we wanted to. But then, what can be done? Unfortunately not much.
Here’s a depiction of the sad fate many chefs face today.
Let’s say you’re 22, and you decide that you want to cook for a living. You enter a culinary school for 8 months, learn basic techniques, and get your red seal. Then you go work at Earls for 2 years where you get some real on the job training doing prep, making dishes in real time while also learning a bit of how to run a line and so forth. All-in-all you’re making $13 per hour plus a bit of tip out. You’re not broke, but you’re definitely just barely getting by. But you’re young, you love working with your friends, and hey, you go out for beers every night, which is nice. But now you’re 25 and you’ve decided that you’d like to go somewhere where you can learn something more. So you get on at L’abattoir, a kitchen putting out delicious awesome food. You’re stoked but the hours are long (14hr shifts/5 days a week) and the pay isn’t great ($130 per day – I’m guessing by the way, I have no idea what L’abattoir pays their employees), but you’re learning and that’s what counts. You do this for 2 years wherein by the end you’ve risen up the ranks to Sous Chef — but now you’re 27. You’re still broke and your girlfriend wants you to get serious with your life. So you take the head chef job up at Cin Cin. It pays decent (50k per year), and now you’re running your own crew, but you’re not really learning anything new and you’re definitely not saving a lot either.
“Fuck, Vancouver is expensive!”, you find yourself lamenting over and over.
You do this for a few years, but now you’re 31. You’re not so young anymore, and you’re finding yourself wondering, what’s next? Do you either find some investors to open up your own place, which is really hard and very expensive and a total risk that you might not be up to doing, or do you stay at Cin Cin? Not totally sure what you should do, you begin to wonder: Was this why I became a cook? To put out pasta?
The sad fate for many is that it’s a tough go and often very unrewarding. What Joel has achieved at Kissa Tanto/Bao Bei is rare and in a way, lucky. For every Joel there needs to be a Tanis next to him as well — that and a lot of money, and most don’t have one, let alone both.
In the end, a simple question must be asked: If you go to medical school for years and become a doctor you KNOW that one day you’ll be making a lot of money. It’s a fact. But if you slave away for 14hrs in a kitchen at Annalena, what are you guaranteed? Nothing!
It isn’t fair to ask chefs to work 14hr days, and it is fair of them to demand less hours and a higher rate of pay. Most of us work 8hr days and that’s enough. If you’re going to work a lot more, it better be worth it. So I say, good on them for asking. Get what you can when you can, because for most chefs that’s all you might ever get.
It’s not because people all of sudden hate to cook that there’s a shortage of chefs; it’s because they’re eyes have been opened. The dream isn’t real anymore. That’s the reality, and it’s one all of us will soon have to swallow.