Cooking was never a good job. That’s why we have a kitchen labor shortage.

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How not to peel a carrot, and other cautionary tales about the culinary industry. Jim Gehrz/ Star Tribune

The culinary tides seem to be changing all at once lately.

Chefs are shuffling kitchens. Beloved institutions are closing and new ones are opening. And while there's still fine dining to be had if you want it, one thing is certain: We are living in the era of fast-casual food.

But while counter servers can take the place of wait staff, and the iPad may even take the place of servers altogether, we still haven’t figured out how to do away with the trained cook.

No robot yet knows what the proper sear on a scallop is or how much salt is too much. Those are two maneuvers, by the way, that might take a human cook years, and maybe even decades to master. 

We already know cooking in a restaurant is difficult and we know that the financial rewards are paltry, the hours long. We know that there are few incentives to go into cooking unless you really love it -- which can be a very good reason and perhaps the best reason to do anything.

But for a brief moment in culinary history, a life behind the burners looked like a glamorous endeavor. The celebrity chef, a concept which probably dawned around the time Emeril Lagasse first went on T.V., brought lights, cameras, action to what formerly happened behind closed doors. It was the kind of fast-paced, ego-driven industry that made for great television.

Now the young culinarians who came of age during the celebrity chef era are rounding the bend on middle age. If they've spent a long time in the industry, they might also be looking in the rearview mirror at alcohol or other chemical dependencies the industry is notorious for breeding. 

They may have woken up at that middle age to discover a hard truth: There’s little reward in this business except the work itself. That's good if you’re 22 and rebellious, bad if you’re 40 and responsible for a family and maybe a mortgage.

George Orwell published Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. Anthony Bourdain claims it as inspiration for Kitchen Confidential, published 67 years later in 2000. What's striking is how little the portrayals of the industry changed in nearly seven decades. Bourdain’s kitchen may just as well have been Orwell’s kitchen, with perhaps more sex and better drugs.

In Down and Out, Orwell describes working in Parisian kitchens under chefs who ruled via sadistic rages, with long hours that bordered on torture. Having so little money to show for his hard work, he could scarcely buy food.

Orwell wrote the book as a piece of gonzo journalism, himself working in the restaurants and hotels in order to live the life for the sake of literature. The resulting book was described as “a vivid picture of an apparently mad world.”

Fast forward to Bourdain’s first kitchen in 1973, where the cooks were "ex-hippies, half-mad, drinkers, surfers, ex cons, methedrine dealers, pirates, and master criminals.”

In other words, the kinds of people who would rather be flayed alive than walk into an office every day wearing khakis and sipping a cardboard cup of coffee. Of course the “otherness" of it is what drew in Bourdain and the rest of us. The subversive charms represented their own form of glamour, even if we never expected to make it onto T.V. Clocking out when the rest of the world was fast asleep, having bars and restaurants all to ourselves on Monday nights -- the very labor was its own sort of strange reward.

But none of those things pay the rent or the doctor bill, or feed the retirement fund. 

Bourdain’s kitchen the year he wrote Kitchen Confidential was scarcely different from the one in 1933, and his relief of narrowly escaping at young middle age for the much cushier world of celebrity chefdom is well documented. He spoke of having dental issues that he couldn’t afford to have fixed, among other very common circumstances of the business. This is an excerpt from a 2016 interview in Thrillist:

“I never had health insurance for almost all of my career... And you know, two weeks' vacation was pretty much unthinkable -- there wouldn't be a job waiting for me when I came back. Holidays off, nuh-uh. Maternity leave, all of those things...The restaurant business is, generally speaking, not a good living, particularly for cooks. And it's not a healthy workplace for your mental health. I mean, there aren't a lot of 50-year-old chefs still working the line. Where do they go? They're like pigeons. Old pigeons. Where do old pigeons go? Suddenly, they're gone.”

If they're lucky, they can parlay their cooking experience into another job. I personally know a beekeper, a woodworker, a technology trainer, a Sysco rep, and, well, a food blogger. They were all lucky enough, before they turned 40, to look around and find that the industry they loved didn’t have a future for them. They found that they were, in many cases, making the same dollar amount that they had been a decade earlier, and knew they were probably never going to be able to retire. Their spouses and kids were tired of never seeing them.

They loved cooking all right, but cooking didn’t love them back.

As we go deeper into the holiday season, and then into spring, we’re going to hear the phrase “cook shortage” an awful lot. Fewer people entering the business and more people getting out creates a losing proposition for restaurateurs. Who can conjure warm bodies out of thin air? 

Landon Schoenefeld’s announcement that he’d be leaving his own restaurants ought to serve as a big wakeup call to our industry. With three big-name restaurants to his credit, Schoenefeld has said he doesn’t feel successful. He's said he’s a 35-year-old man who works 80 hours a week, lives paycheck-to-paycheck, and he’s depressed all the time.

Of course, Schoenefeld doesn’t speak for the entire industry, and there are the lucky exceptions who carve out workable niches that succeed quite well. You might know who they are, and if you do, you’ll probably run out of names before you run out of fingers and toes to count them upon.

Now that the age of the celebrity chef is on the decline, the Big Secret is slowly leaking out of the bag. Cooking was never a very good job in the first place.

Since we can’t conjure warm bodies out of thin air, or shove the secret back in the bag, what are we going to do to erase “down and out” from the narrative of the kitchen in 2017?  


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