Tin Chefs

The disconnect between a culinary student's white-collar dreams and the restaurant world's blue-collar reality

The J&W alumni office paints an even rosier scenario for students who have spent some time in the industry: "It is common to see executive chef and food and beverage director postings from employers seeking J&W alumni to run between an average of $70,000 and $80,000, with some offering compensation as high as the six-figure range." What it fails to mention is the length of time fortuitous grads must wait to board this gravy train. Susser estimates that workers "can move up to twelve to fourteen dollars an hour in about one to four more years, again depending upon talent," but adds that "until you're in the role of sous chef or chef de cuisine, you're an hourly employee."

Not that achieving sous chef standing is reason to uncork champagne: The Bureau of Labor lists the average salary for this position at $25,000 to $35,000 per year, a figure seconded by Michael Schwartz, chef/owner of Afterglo, who pays his sous chefs "in the low thirties." And reaching even this modest plateau can be time-consuming, as Jeffrey Brana, executive chef at Norman's, attests: "It took seven years before I earned $30,000."

Sous status also opens the door to finally receiving health insurance and basic benefits — the latter of which, in the food service industry, basically means a week or two of paid vacation. Overtime? Don't be silly. Holiday pay? Yes, but you'll have to work the holidays to receive it — and you will always, without choice, work the holidays. Sick days? There's an old restaurant adage: Call in sick only if you're dead.

The Mix
Jacqueline Carini
The Mix
Juliana Gonzalez is Mosaico's new executive chef
Jacqueline Carini
Juliana Gonzalez is Mosaico's new executive chef

When asked about such perks, Juliana Gonzalez, newly minted executive chef at Mosaico, laughs as she replies, "Not in here." Dewey LoSasso, chef/owner of North One 10, likewise chuckles at the notion. How long has it been since he's had Thanksgiving Day off? "Let's see, I've worked in restaurants since I was 13, now I'm 42...." But LoSasso draws the line come Christmastime: "In my job interviews I'd explain that I was from a large Italian family, and how it was a big thing. Because I was the sort of worker who'd come in when he wasn't on schedule and be fanatical about his work, I was given the day off — when I was a dishwasher, prep cook, always. Truth is, I like playing with my toys."

LoSasso still likes working in a kitchen, too, and does so six days a week. "That doesn't include all the computer work you do at home when you can't sleep — financial data, budgets, menu ideas. But for me it's always been fun, never about the work. It's always been Disney World," he says. According to Susser, that's the only attitude which will get you through: "The restaurant world looks romantic and sexy, but there are only a handful of star chefs out there. You'd better love to cook before you enter the business."


Of Iron Chefs and Tin Cooks
"How many of you want to be a chef?" asked an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. Most of those in the class raised their hands (the few who didn't no doubt aiming for other positions in the ever-expanding food and beverage business). "Too bad," tsked-tsked the teacher, "because I'm here to make you cooks." Jonathan Eismann, chef/owner of Pacific Time restaurant, relates this story to illustrate the importance of learning to walk before you run, and the impatience of students to do so.

"Nobody wants to put time in to really learn the trade," says Schwartz. "Now they go to school two years, come out, and they're öa chef.'"

Relates Sindaco: "It's a joke. Take a look at the help-wanted pages; you'll see ads for line chefs and salad chefs. Nobody wants to be a cook anymore." Michelle Bernstein, Johnson & Wales's most accomplished North Miami alumnus, wishes that students "would be taught a little more humility. They shouldn't put it into these kids' heads that they're going to graduate and instantly become chefs, or even really good line cooks. The school should give them a glimpse into the workloads they can look forward to, and let them know they have to be open to working many hours without pay, and to be sponges, to absorb what people teach them rather than show off what they've learned in their two or four years."

In this age of the seven-minute chicken, maybe it shouldn't shock that students are eager to leapfrog into the elite strata of professional chefdom. Yet arriving at that level doesn't necessarily mean an end to the drearier aspects of the job. Brana notes how "there have been many days when a dishwasher doesn't show up, and the recent grads in my kitchen are taken aback to see me and my sous chef in the back washing pots. They are even more surprised when, being the low men on the totem pole, they are asked to peel potatoes or mop floors with the dishwasher at the end of the night."

They'd likely be stunned to witness the trials endured by those toiling in an Old World apprenticeship. Only in recent decades, and most prominently in America, has a culinary diploma been deemed de rigueur. Most who eyed careers in the kitchen trade worked their way into the field via a system of indenture that dates back to medieval times (when, in order to avoid forgeries, apprenticeship certificates were torn in half and the ripped edge of the student's copy then matched with the master's for verification of proper training).

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