Wanted in San Francisco: Cooks

san francisco cooks flying over the city

Former Nopa and Nopalito sous chef Eddie Dick decamped to Tucson: rising rents in the city forced his hand. Ditto Alex Gandelman, also a Nopa kitchen alum, who departed for Portland. Another ex-Nopa chef, Corey Nead, tired of the long commutes it takes to reach the land of affordable housing, moved to the Denver area. A trio of ex–San Francisco culinary talent now relocated around the country because of this town’s crazy cost of living.

Left in their wake? A growing labor shortage in San Francisco’s kitchens. It’s real, it’s worrisome for restaurant owners and some predict it will only get worse. Independent restaurateurs in the city constantly lament the lack of prep cooks, line cooks and sous chefs to fill slots in their busy kitchens—and they’re searching for creative ways to solve the problem.

They used to be bombarded with applicants and could pick and choose. Not anymore. While I was reporting this story, several chefs in positions to hire signed off with an “if you know somebody good, send them my way.”

They’re looking everywhere for bodies. Until a few years ago, City College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies Department posted about 20 kitchen openings a quarter on their job board. They stopped offering the service in December due to the number of inquiries from restaurants, hotels, catering companies, corporate food service and other sources.

“We could have sent out 30 a week, we were getting so many requests,” says department chair Tannis Reinhertz. “It was to the point where I almost needed a full-time person just to manage the volume of requests.”

The rumblings began a few years ago, as the restaurant industry recovered from the recession. The concern has ratcheted up more recently for several reasons, including the city’s tech-fueled economic boom, which has, in turn, fed rapid growth in new dining destinations. So there’s a supply-and-demand problem: more places are competing for a limited pool of people in a town now lauded as the best food city in the nation with the highest number of restaurants per capita of any metro area.

And there’s an affordability problem. The boom also means a lot of regular wage earners—including cooks—are priced out of the city. Even with many fine-dining restaurants paying well over minimum wage for cooks, finding accommodation that won’t break the budget is a major concern.

“The shortage of cooks has driven up wages; that’s a good thing. But housing is the root of all of it. That’s why the cooks are leaving,” says Nancy Oakes, who owns Boulevard and Prospect and has kitchen staff who commute from as far away as Antioch and Sacramento. “They can’t possibly live here when they spend 60 percent of income on rent. It’s just not feasible to live in the city on $36,000 to $42,000 a year anymore.”

Do the math: Minimum wage bumps up to $12.25 an hour May 1. It reaches $15 by July 2018. That said, cooks already routinely earn $15 to $20 an hour in the city, according to chefs contacted for this story. But the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is just shy of $3,500 a month, the highest in the nation. Even accounting for the fact that a lot of cooks eat on the job and live in share-housing situations, those numbers don’t add up.

Then there’s the region’s notoriously inadequate after-hours transit system. With increasing numbers of cooks commuting from the East Bay and points farther afield, public transportation options make it challenging for cooks who get off work in the early hours of the morning or need to be up before dawn to get to work. Bay Area Rapid Transit train service, for instance, shuts down at midnight and doesn’t start up again until 4 a.m on weekdays. That’s too early for the end-of-night-shift crew and not early enough for the up-at-the-crack-of-dawn baking set.

Beginning in December 2014, BART and the East Bay bus service AC Transit partnered to pilot an additional, limited late-night bus line only on Friday and Saturday nights between 1am and 2:30 a.m., augmenting an existing, less-frequent, all-nighter bus service offered from midnight to 5 a.m. It’s not an ideal solution. “After you’ve worked a 10-hour shift, the last thing you want to do is spend two hours on a bus,” says Oakes.

Meanwhile, Oakland’s thriving restaurant culture makes it increasingly appealing for kitchen workers who don’t want to schlep across the bridge to stay put. Truth be told, though, chefs on the east side of the bay also grumble about having a hard time finding workers.

Some cooks, like Eddie Dick and company, are leaving the Bay Area altogether for emerging food towns like Portland, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Charleston and Nashville, where the cost of living is lower.

Others are opting out of restaurant work entirely and choosing from a range of professional culinary employment options—from tech-company cafeterias and private catering to personal cheffing and corporate food start-ups—that weren’t as lucrative or abundant even a few short years ago.

Or they are simply starting their own food businesses in the form of a pop-up, food truck or farmers market stand. The restaurant route is no longer the only path to professional culinary success.

Into this void come new job recruitment services, such as Culinary Agents and Pared, calls for local government agencies to address housing and transit challenges, and an openness to recruiting from an expanded demographic pool to train kitchen staff.

“The cook shortage is a huge challenge among our membership,” says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the industry group Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA). “There’s no shortage of top chefs in town but finding and retaining talented kitchen cooks is tricky for everybody. Restaurants really need to think outside the box to recruit and keep cooks to survive and thrive.”

Chefs are in the culinary business. They’d rather talk about hand-churned water buffalo butter, house-made stinging nettle pasta or a wild fennel sformatino with fresh snails—to give a shout-out to some of Craig Stoll’s current favorites—than personnel and infrastructure stuff like the minimum wage, the line-cook shortage and the cost of doing business in the city.

Still, the co-owner of local stalwarts Delfina, Locanda and Pizzeria Delfina conceded in a March New York Times story that while he’s benefitted from the boom—plenty of cashed-up diners want to eat at his restaurants—a lot of his cooks don’t live in the city because they simply can’t afford it.

“San Francisco is definitely different these days. Cooks going out all night then coming into work reeking of whiskey is rarer,” says chef Richie Nakano, former owner of Hapa Ramen, who has been working with the Delfina group for several months. “Most of them do live in the East Bay, so they have to leave the city by midnight to get home. There’s less drinking and less camaraderie in some ways. A lot of cooks can’t afford to eat out now.”

Once Oakland was considered a commute to a San Francisco restaurant job; now it’s thought of as a New York–style borough. Cooks in professional kitchens are commuting long distances—from Hayward, Concord, San Jose, Stockton and even Sacramento—to work in the region’s food mecca.

Consider Johnny Breedlove, who recently began driving from his home in Sacramento to man the stoves at Pizzeria Delfina on California Street in Pacific Heights. Breedlove has the chops: he’s worked as a baker, line cook and sous chef—all in Sacramento—over the past nine years. He knows his way around a pizza oven. He’d like to think he was hired based on his skill set. Still, he was surprised that the restaurant would consider someone who has to travel more than 230 miles a day for the gig.

“Look, it’s a grind, after a 10-hour shift to turn around and drive home. It’s hard on your body and it’s hard mentally,” says Breedlove, who is figuring out if he can find a place to crash in San Francisco without parting with all his cash. “The first day, a rainy Saturday, took me three hours to get to work because of a bunch of wrecks. I just have to make sure I give myself plenty of time to drive and park.”

He thought the chefs at Pizzeria Delfina might hesitate to hire him. But they called the day after he applied, and after a two-hour trial, offered him a position on the spot. “They’re fine with the commute if I am,” says Breedlove, who is making $15 an hour and paying about $35 every three days for gas. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I love the pace and vibrancy, and everybody is great to work with. I keep my head down and the time just flies by.”

Others, worn out by long commutes or unable to pay skyrocketing rents, are leaving the city altogether. Take Dick, who landed a pantry cook gig at Nopa back in 2007; he worked his way up to sous chef. He recalls long hours, lots of overtime, competitive pay, a welcoming kitchen culture, community-oriented owners and a closely knit staff. He was living in Hayes Valley at the time, sharing a one-bedroom with his then-girlfriend.

As much as he loved his lifestyle, he knew it wasn’t sustainable. The neighborhood was changing rapidly. “I’d walk outside of my apartment and look at all these shops opening up that weren’t for me—or anyone else who works with their hands, for that matter,” says Dick. “It was a crappy way to live, surrounded by all this stuff you couldn’t afford.”

Dick went on to work at the Nopa spin off Nopalito, which he also recalls fondly. But by 2014, after doing some traveling and stepping back from the daily demands of restaurant life in San Francisco, he realized he couldn’t make the numbers here work for the long haul.

He landed in Tucson, in part for a romance that didn’t last. But he’s still there, and renting an old Victorian with a fireplace, front and back porch and a garden about the size of his entire former rental. Tucson, he says, is full of regular people with regular jobs who can afford to buy homes. He makes a solid salary working as a produce buyer for a specialty market/café and can afford to travel.

“In San Francisco I felt completely tied to my apartment, like I couldn’t go anywhere. I felt trapped,” he says. “I have a fun, fulfilling life here with freedom and flexibility. People get all weird about leaving San Francisco. But the truth is there are good opportunities in many other cities around the country where you can afford to actually live too.”

Nopa alum Gandelman agrees. He’s bumped into a lot of ex–San Franciscans in his travels through the culinary job market in PDX. “If someone really wants to be in San Francisco, they’ll find some way to make it work,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared to deal with all the tradeoffs in the end. You need money to eat and to be able to do things in the city on your time off. The city’s loss is Portland’s—and every other city where ex–San Francisco cooks are moving—gain.”

Ex-Nopa chef Nead spent several years doing the East Bay–SF shuffle, first from Lafayette and later from Concord. His last position, before moving to Broomfield, Colorado, north of Denver, was at The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley. But he has a young family, and the lure of living near relatives and having a better quality of life won out.

“The industry is really going to have to fight to find ways to keep cooks in the city,” Nead says. “It’s just getting too hard.”

Laurence Jossel, co-owner of the wildly popular Nopa, now in its tenth year, has toyed with the idea of teaming up with other chefs to offer affordable housing to cooks, but he realizes it’s not realistic. “I’m in the business of feeding people—and we feed a lot of people,” he says. “I didn’t get into this industry to solve societal problems like affordable housing and public transport.”

And it’s complicated. “We thought seriously about subsidized housing,” said Lazy Bear’s David Barzelay, as part of an industry panel last November hosted by GGRA and Eater SF. “We need career cooks. We want people dedicated to craft, and housing themselves in the Mission District is not feasible. So we looked at it, and it seemed great until we considered what it would be like to be the landlord of a whole bunch of cooks. They’d need a parole officer.”

Besides, counter restaurant owners, the onus shouldn’t be on them, as small-business owners, to fix a city wide problem. Jossel says his restaurant does what it can—in terms of scheduling, working with staff around transit issues, offering advance training and education opportunities—to make staying at Nopa attractive. And each of the ex-Nopa chefs interviewed for this article were quick to note just that. Their beef isn’t with one neighborhood restaurant, it’s with the whole city.

Faced with a shrinking pool of talent and a tough time hiring, few chefs are
willing to concede that what goes out on the plate to diners has been impacted by the dearth of talent available for hire. Some say they try to get more prep done on the day shift, making things simpler for their night time crew. “We don’t do the type of food that can just be reheated,” says Jossel. “So that sort of approach isn’t a solution for us. I’m constantly thinking about how I’m going to staff the kitchen these days.”

And he’s paid for his share of Uber and Lyft ride services too, for staff needing to get home after hours. The region’s public transit system—pushed beyond capacity—is geared towards 9-to-5 commuters, not people who have to get up to bake at 3 a.m. or break down a kitchen at 1 a.m. BART, for instance, wasn’t designed to operate 24 hours a day and has to shut down in the wee hours for maintenance work, explains Nicholas Josefowitz, who serves on BART’s board of directors.

“The problem is so bad that restaurants are having to shut early so their staff can get home,” says Josefowitz. “Starbucks even partnered with Lyft and started offering deep discounts so that their baristas would have a way of getting to and from work.”

The restaurant industry and its labor force are too important to the city and region to ignore, he adds. “Public transit needs to step up and meet the needs of restaurants, restaurant workers and restaurant patrons.” At the top of his list: a push for more and better late-night bus service from the city and the fast-tracking of a second BART tube, a project that’s at least 20 years away.

Restaurant owners would welcome city agencies stepping up to do more on the affordable housing front  too. After all, the city likes nothing more than to trumpet itself as a dining destination. “San Francisco is a food-lover’s mecca, where some of the world’s most accomplished gourmands and truly eclectic menus court a sophisticated, enthusiastic audience,” gushes the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development site. “Though the City is home to just 2% of California’s population, over 5% of the State’s eating and drinking establishments are here.”

Cooks have always been a notoriously transient bunch. A year or two in a kitchen and then they’re on to greener pastures or different opportunities. In San Francisco, though, there are a growing array of nontraditional opportunities, particularly in the corporate sector, to stay in the culinary field—and they often come with better pay, better hours and better benefits than restaurants, with their slim profit margins,
can offer.

It’s a good time and place to be a cook—if you can afford the rent. Companies like Google and Airbnb hire top culinary talent for their in-house cafeterias. Food-service providers like Whole Foods and Bon Appétit Management Corporation can offer cooks decent-paying gigs, typically with better conditions than most restaurant work. So can food tech start-ups such as Hampton Creek.

“The initial draw for me, although I couldn’t define it at the time was doing what I’m really good at doing on a platform where you can see your work reach thousands, millions (eventually billions) of people,” says Hampton Creek R&D chef Ben Roche, who left fine dining—albeit in Chicago—to take a gig focused on finding new ways to use plants in food production in products such as Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough. “I have learned a lot in the last two years and my eyes have been opened to a much larger professional landscape. It’s been a rare opportunity for a restaurant chef who loves “the insanity, beauty and emotion of working at a high-level, fast-paced restaurant.”

Meal delivery start-ups like Din, SunBasket and Munchery generate jobs. Everything about better hours, pay and benefits is all true, says Bridget Batson, Munchery’s culinary director, whose local restaurant credentials include a stint as sous chef at Pizza Delfina and executive chef positions at Hawthorne Lane, Gitane and Claudine. “I think the biggest plus for me is being in an environment where you are always learning” Batson says. “Often when you reach the ‘chef’ level you are the person who provides continued education and stimulation. At Munchery, you are surrounded by opportunities to learn and grow as well as teach.”

The continuing tech boom makes private catering and cheffing gigs easier to come by. And some culinary types want to keep things independent—opening their own bakeries, selling via food truck or pop-up, finding space in a community commercial kitchen to make pickles, preserves or charcuterie—rather than having to work their way up the restaurant ladder following orders from the top.

At the same time, though, traditional avenues for recruiting talent are drying up. For starters, the old-school apprenticeship system, with its strict hierarchy and command chain, doesn’t work as well in today’s more casual fine-dining environment.

The pending closure of San Francisco’s for-profit California Culinary Academy is a blow. A branch of the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, the school, owned by parent company Career Education Corp., is currently teaching its last group of students. California Culinary Academy trained many top local chefs including Michael Mina, Michelle Mah of Slanted Door and James Syhabout of Commis and Hawker Fare. The culinary school, and its parent company, have faced financial and legal challenges, including a 2011 class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates. The suit resulted in a $40 million settlement.

Meanwhile enrollment over at City College’s two-year culinary program is down by about 20 percent, for several reasons, only partly the college’s credentialing crisis. More pressingly, the hot labor market, combined with newer, non–restaurant kitchen opportunities, and even outside-the-industry, so-called sharing-economy gigs—such as ride services Uber and Lyft—mean people can work now, make money, and go to school later, says program director Reinhertz. “There are so many more nontraditional places to go within the industry where you can work 9 to 5, have weekends off and earn benefits faster,” she says. “All these things have appeal. It’s hard for old-school restaurants to compete.”

Restaurants are trying a range of strategies to make kitchen work more appealing. Increasing wages, of course, is an obvious place to start. At Petit Crenn, for instance, Dominique Crenn has done away with front-of-house wait staff altogether. Instead, cooks bring plates to patrons in the dining room, a novel approach that helps generate more money for the back of the house in what she calls a “hospitality-included dining experience.” At the more formal, upscale Atelier Crenn, she nixed tipping and service charges in favor of an all inclusive dining price in February. The move is motivated by a desire to distribute earnings more equitably among the staff.

Some restaurateurs are looking outside traditional hiring models to find employees. Over at the Mexican hot spot Cala, for example, Gabriela Cámara is staffing both the front and back of the house with former addicts and ex-cons in a concept pioneered at Delancey Street Restaurant years ago. That restaurant, under the umbrella of the nonprofit Delancey Street Foundation, serves as a training ground for those in the organization’s recovery program. Cala’s radical hiring idea comes courtesy of general manager Emma Rosenbush, who once worked at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley; she recruits from Delancey’s halfway-house program, among others.

“When we began hiring for the restaurant, it became really clear really quickly that we would need to be creative about finding staff. We got so few responses from ads it was shocking,” says Rosenbush. The GM says they’ve had more success with this demographic as wait staff than as kitchen crew. “It’s easy to focus on the ones who didn’t work out, but it’s a cooks’ market now. They can walk out and know they can get another job,” she says. “We have a diverse staff in every sense of the word and we’ve been able to work with a disenfranchised and overlooked population, give them a second chance and train them to become valuable members of our team.”

New services have sprung up to address the labor crunch in the kitchen. Culinary Agents is a LinkedIn-meets-Match.com hub for the restaurant industry. Founded in New York three years ago, it has a large and growing presence in San Francisco, and elsewhere in the country. “Competitive compensation is obviously a huge factor, but restaurants are offering other perks to recruit skilled talent through our site,” says Shawndra McCrorey, an account executive for the start-up, whose clients include fine-dining notables in the city such as the Mina Group, Mourad and Delfina. “That’s a reflection of just how tough it can be to find a good fit.”

One of Culinary Agents’ newest features is a “I want to work here” button where culinary workers can show their love for a specific restaurant with a simple click. The feature allows a restaurant to be proactive and groom candidates or find places for people when they finish their training, says McCrorey. “We’re trying to be responsive to the needs of the market and our clients and add value to the service where it makes sense and helps create community.”

Restaurant owners are willing to try anything to find the right people. They tend to prefer the old-school practice of hiring from within or finding employees through personal referrals. Job sites like Culinary Agents are “a great source to reach out to a large pool of candidates,” says restaurateur Mourad Lahlou, who owns Aziza and Mourad. “But a lot of work needs to be done to sort through them and select a qualified few.”

The Bay Area start-up Pared offers a more crisis-management approach to the problem. Cofounded by industry veteran Will Pacio, Pared promises to connect restaurant professionals with restaurants looking to fill a void in their kitchens—ASAP. Pacio has first hand experience with the problem: he is the founder of Spice Kit, a small, fast-casual Asian-street-food-inspired chain.

Pared, currently in beta testing, is a kind of temp service for the culinary set. Getting staff pronto comes at a price: the pay scale starts at $14 to $15 an hour for dishwashers and prep cooks and climbs to as much as $30 an hour for jobs like pastry, butchery or line cooks that require more advanced skills. Last-minute requests for workers can add to the tab. Pared charges restaurants a percentage fee, depending on the type of job and the amount of lead time given. Demand factors into it: a request for a cook on New Year’s Eve, for example, comes at a premium.

Workers can pick and choose the number of shifts they accept, and in that way operate as independent contractors. Restaurants such as Lazy Bear, Souvla, Petit Crenn and Little Gem have used the service. “There’s a cook shortage but it’s a visibility issue: There are bodies willing to do these jobs,” says Pacio. “Before Uber you used to have to wave your hand in the air and hope that a taxi would pick you up. Same with traditional job boards. Pared takes the guesswork out of the equation and finds a worker to meet the employer’s needs.”

“So far, so good. We’ve really hit a nerve. We’re solving a real problem—a staffing shortage that can be very stressful.” Adds Lazy Bear’s Barzelay: “We’ve used Pared for dishwashers to fill in if people call out or if we’re understaffed. If they’re good, we hire them, and it’s pretty great to be able to fill in gaps with it.”

Meanwhile, restaurateurs say they’d like to see more action from the city to help address key underlying issues.

Government officials are paying attention. Todd Rufo heads up the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “We want everyone to share in
the city’s prosperity and ensure a creative environment where all types of people can live, including restaurant workers,” says Rufo. “And we also want to keep
jobs in the city for city residents. We hear the challenges and we’re listening and actively working to address them.” But there’s no silver bullet, he says, to solve affordable housing or public transit issues overnight.

This magazine issue closed on the eve of a GGRA conference where Rufo was slated to speak on a panel on the current state of play in the restaurant industry and public policy matters. He says his agency is in discussions with industry representatives to roll out initiatives designed to help tackle some of the underlying problems fueling this cook crunch. He couldn’t discuss details at press time; it was too soon to unveil any concrete plans, he said.

Restaurateurs are impatient people. They make stuff happen every night. They’re hoping the city moves with a sense of urgency too.

“I truly believe that sooner or later the system as a whole is going to collapse and there will be some major ramifications for the restaurant industry that will be hard to recover from,” says owner-chef Lahlou. “The model is not sustainable and something has to give. We just can’t expect cooks to work in a city where they can’t afford to survive, let alone live, eat, enjoy and feel part of it.”

Wanted in San Francisco: Cooks was published in the Spring 2016 issue. © 2016 Edible San Francisco. Illustrations © 2016 Dan Bransfield