It’s hard to imagine it now, but two years ago, I was actually proud to offer entry-level employees at my restaurants $10 an hour. We would start anyone with a good attitude on dish station, and work their way up to prep, then cook, then, with any luck, lead positions and, ultimately, management.
Then the pandemic happened, and entire cities of businesses got barred from operation in those panicked early days. After that, there was the PPP funding release, the unemployment bonuses, and millions of people quitting their jobs or dropping out of their careers altogether, not chiefly because of a transmissible pandemic disease but because they now had government-sponsored justification to stop working jobs they didn’t like.
Job ads placed for $10 an hour starting pay began to go silent. Then we tried $11 — no bites. Shortly after, we jumped to $13. And it’s not acceptable to just offer new people these raises; the only honorable thing to do for the ones who have stayed was to offer equal or better pay than what you offer the newbies. My labor costs soared through the clouds, and the prices my clientele were willing to pay for food just could not keep pace with the increased demands in pay.
We would have applicants show up for $13 an hour, just to watch them quit without notice and go somewhere else for a dollar more (then quit there, too). Then came $14 an hour, and finally (gulp) $15 an hour — not for seasoned veterans, mind you, but for anybody.
I asked for favors from people who used to work for me, to find that many have left the industry entirely. People are leaving the restaurant industry in droves, just as new restaurants were going up all over town. We are now in a bidding war with every other employer on the map — from pretty much any industry. The applicant pool is thinning from both ends.
Here represents a great schism with the past: we were hiring people no longer because they were worth the money, but simply because they would take it. And in this way, we took in completely unqualified people who have no interest in the craft of cooking. They walk out by the dozen, leaving us to wash dishes alone until 3 a.m.
Where are the people who are interested in cooking, you ask?
When I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young chef, cooks who would come introduce themselves wanted this thing so badly, you could see they were willing to do whatever it took to climb that mountain and become not just good, but great. (I can tell you that as a teacher, there is no emotional fuel in the world like this.)
Today, finding these kinds of cooks, the kind with a fire burning inside them, is (as Indeed likes to quip) like finding a needle in a haystack. I think there are a number of factors that knocked down their numbers. Perhaps cooking in pop culture is not as white-hot as it used to be, reducing the “mystique” per capita. It’s certainly not about the money.
In the absence of a job that provides knowledge of this craft, earnest students will try to do it for free. I know because I’ve let several do this at Gwendolyn — and I’ve done it myself. That’s how I learned, and I’m so glad that I spent my time and effort in that way. This requires a depth of humility that is scarce today.
I think about the cooks in my life I have looked up to, like sous chef Matt Reinhart at Il Sogno, who regularly knocked out a perfect saute for a 300-person dinner service by himself on a six-burner range, while orchestrating orders for the five stations around him with a sleepy smile on his face — for the amount of money we made — and it makes me want to cry. He was like a warrior in one of those Hollywood movies, spinning and slashing in such a delicate, practiced way that it becomes elegant, effortless — even beautiful.
Long before that, my first real cook’s job was at Marcel’s in Port Aransas, a German and seafood restaurant. I learned how to make bread by touch, taste and sight. I was not allowed to use measuring devices. There was no heating or cooling in the kitchen. In the summer it was 110 degrees, in the winter you could see your breath while you chopped onions. And all this was OK because I had committed to the master-disciple agreement with my chef, Marcel Althauser. That agreement goes something like: I don’t know anything. I will do absolutely anything. Will you take me?
Althauser grew up in the Black Forest in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I stopped by his house last week to talk to him about my struggles.
He told me about his childhood and not always having enough food to eat. “If I was hungry, and somebody offered me an apple with a bad spot on it, I would say ‘thank you,’” Althauser said. “I would pick out the bad spot, and eat the apple. I would say ‘thank you,’ and I would mean it.”
Today he walks into a brand new H-E-B and he just can’t imagine how it got to be this way. He feels people who grow up in this environment of too much of everything feel entitled to all of it. I haven’t seen what Althauser experienced, but I can say that I’ve lived out of a car and I’ve experienced hunger in the way that he did. It definitely changes your view. It makes you appreciate what you have, however little.
I just closed my European bistro not because the clientele wasn’t there (although that was, sadly, pretty true), but because we just couldn’t cut it mechanically. You just can’t build a battery of fundamentals, a carefully chosen and honed crew with a strong backbone, with the bottom continually falling out of your culture.
As I said in a recent interview, San Antonio’s hospitality industry is entering a dark age, a period in which a great body of our higher knowledge will be lost. I hope for hidden enclaves of disciplined cooks and chefs who will gather and hold onto our secrets; such people alone carry the seeds of new beginnings.