A scan of the restaurant help-wanted ads online reveals a remarkable number of places crying out for kitchen staff. The list includes everything from chains such as Cactus Club Cafe to higher-end establishments like Miku, Pied-à-Terre, and Shaughnessy Restaurant.
There’s a pervasive labour shortage in the restaurant industry, as the Straight confirmed through conversations with chefs, restaurateurs, and other industry experts, and the issue is complex, with few immediate solutions. On the plus side, however, landing a position as a cook, whether or not you’ve been through culinary school, has never been easier.
Labour-shortage projections by the tourism and hospitality organization go2HR back up what those in the restaurant industry are already feeling. In a phone interview, go2HR’s CEO, Arlene Keis, explains that by 2020, they predict, the Vancouver Coast and Mountains area (the southwest part of mainland B.C.) will see roughly 7,600 new job openings for cooks and chefs—and 500 fewer job-seekers to fill them. Food-counter attendants and kitchen helpers will see a shortage of nearly 2,000 people. These numbers don’t even include health-care and other institutional demands for kitchen staff.
There are many reasons for the growth and shortfalls. On the supply side, Keis says the declining population means that the number of youths entering the marketplace can’t compensate for older workers exiting. Those youths are also being wooed by other industries, like the film industry, and by work in other provinces and countries. Vancouver’s high cost of living (don’t we know it) also causes people to flee elsewhere.
Working in a kitchen can be a tough sell.
“The type of work is not for everybody. You have to work evenings and weekends. Some people find that appealing, and others don’t,” she says. Plus, wages are far from lucrative, with third cooks making $12 to $18 an hour, and even executive chefs averaging only $22 to $34 an hour. The outcome of such conditions is early burnout and high turnover (100 percent over a five-year period).
Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, says that since 2010 the industry has seen a sharp rise in restaurant openings, which has contributed to the excess of job vacancies. Over the phone, he cites the federal government’s decision last year to impose a moratorium on restaurants hiring temporary foreign workers as another source of the problem.
“The demographics aren’t working in our favour. We are in a terrible situation. A lot of our restaurants, particularly independent restaurants, are having a tough time. They’re working crazy-long hours, and there doesn’t appear to be a quick fix,” he says. He adds that rising food costs, higher rents, and low menu prices make it difficult to raise wages to entice workers.
In the trenches, chefs and restaurateurs are feeling the strain of operating short-staffed and not being able to hire qualified help. “We find the quality of the résumés through Craigslist is almost a joke. We’re having trouble finding staff,” explains chef Ryan Reed from Nomad restaurant, during a phone interview. The restaurant’s last Craigslist ad yielded just one résumé, from a cook in Argentina who wanted to be sponsored. “My standards are as low as they can be. I’m not picky anymore, since there’s no one to be picky about. I’m looking for anyone who is trainable,” he says.
Kevin Lin, owner of Argan Bistro, says that it’s really tough for small, independent restaurants to compete against big chain restaurants and hotels that can afford to pay more. He recently turned to personal networking through friends, since his own Craigslist ad turned up absolutely nothing. In addition, because he’s found that in such a hot labour market kitchen staff will jump ship quickly if not kept completely satisfied, he gives them complete creative control over the menu, and works to build camaraderie. “I find chefs tend to quit when they’re not happy. They know they can go anywhere. Someone is going to hire them,” he says over the phone.
With such a desperate need, is it worth putting time and money toward a culinary education? Tuition ranges from $2,642 for Vancouver Community College’s 32-week program to $8,950 for Northwest Culinary Academy’s 15-week diploma, to $24,840 for the Art Institute’s 12-month diploma.
During a phone chat, Julian Bond, executive chef and program director of Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, says he believes the investment is worth it. “Chefs are so busy that they can’t train in-house,” he explains. “They need someone they can throw onto the line and who will get things done in a reasonable amount of time.” And even if they did have time to train you on the job, he says, you wouldn’t acquire the breadth of well-rounded skills you’ll need for a culinary career.
PICA offers an intensive six-month culinary diploma ($18,975), which is 90 percent hands-on and includes a stint in the school’s restaurant, Bistro 101. “We get them industry-ready, and that’s one of our goals,” says Bond. “We don’t sugarcoat it. No egos. No preconceptions.” His aim is to produce committed, career-oriented cooks in a relatively short period of time who will find jobs in a hungry industry. A federal program that grants work permits to foreign students who graduate with at least eight months of school (they must take PICA’s pastry diploma as well) is also helping to fill the gap.
As Bond notes, it’s not difficult now for his students to land coveted jobs. For example, Josh Blumenthal, who graduated from PICA in 2009, has hired two students straight out of school since March, when he started as chef de cuisine at Bishop’s restaurant. “Culinary school gives people a base level of knowledge. If you say brunoise, they know what you’re talking about,” Blumenthal explains over the phone. He says that a culinary education is great for networking, and that, unlike some university degrees, it equips you with marketable skills for a specific job.
Over at West restaurant, executive chef Quang Dang, who began his culinary career 19 years ago at JOEY Restaurants, has succeeded without formal training, through sheer talent and hard work. During a phone interview, he says that high demand for workers means it’s a lot easier to ascend the ranks these days. For instance, Dang is a 35-year-old executive chef, which would have been unheard-of in the past, when chefs had to stay on the bottom rungs much longer. While some of his kitchen staff have completed culinary school, he’s also hired a couple of cooks from JOEY because “they can handle volume and they know how to work clean. That’s a good start.” He has managed to find solid workers whose talents he can develop, but he has noticed a definite overall decline in applicants’ depth of skill.
West has held on to staff fairly well because of its high-profile name, and Dang has been careful to foster a supportive environment. “Chefs can’t act like Gordon Ramsay and yell at the staff,” he says. “This shortage is good for creating a more positive work environment for kitchens.”
Go2HR’s Keis also advises employers to cultivate a positive workplace to retain staff. “Look at the culture that you create. Make yourself a competitive employer. There are a lot of things that you can do that don’t involve money.” She says that restaurants should find more innovative ways to recruit, even outside the province or at both the high-school and culinary-school levels. Restaurants can help pay for their staff to go to school or provide more training themselves, and the schools can offer more flexible options so students are able to work concurrently with their studies.
Both Keis and Tostenson say untapped demographics, like older or disadvantaged workers, can also help alleviate the shortage. HAVE Culinary Training Society, for example, offers free eight-week food-service training to those who are experiencing barriers to employment, such as learning disabilities. Their 100 graduates a year have gone on to work at restaurants like Havana and Cuchillo. “We’re filling that huge gap with people who are willing, who have the essential skills and training, and want to break the cycle of poverty. I really don’t think the industry is taking advantage of that enough,” says Glen Lamont, HAVE’s student counsellor, over the phone.
It remains to be seen how restaurants will adapt to the current labour crisis. Part of the problem falls on the industry’s shoulders, but as all those interviewed mentioned, consumers also play a role. They have to be willing to pay more for their meals so that wages can be more competitive. Or they may just have to face the reality of decreased food quality as short-staffed restaurants scramble to prepare their dinners.