No One Works For Free Anymore

“If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” Jascha Heifetz

Staffing is a nightmare.

We’ve always struggled to find restaurant talent here. It just seems like in the past three years or so, things have gotten far worse. Applicants routinely don’t show up for job interviews. I find myself putting up with things that I never would have tolerated two or three years ago. This past month the Legume kitchen has lost a butcher, a sous chef, and a strong line cook. Pie For Breakfast has been shorthanded since the grill cook stopped showing up one day in July. Instead of working on fall menu items, I find myself deeply involved with the day-to-day operations. Instead of managing the kitchen, my chefs and kitchen managers are doing prep all day and working stations at night.

I’m tired.

There is talk that there is a restaurant bubble that will inevitably burst. I don’t know if this is true or not, but if there is a bubble that bursts, I don’t have much hope that the staffing situation will improve that much, because the issues run deeper than that. I think the restaurant business in general has less to offer young chefs-in-training in terms of a delayed economic incentive than it did for my generation. Almost every chef-owner my age I know who has met with some kind of success came up working for free at some point in their career. We either showed up early to work off the clock, or came in for free on our days off, staged at restaurants for weeks before being hired, or worked ridiculous hours as sous chefs without making overtime. There was an urgency to our education. Our willingness to do this, I think, was based on a subconscious sense that there was a market for the kinds of things we were learning. The economics of fine dining restaurants had, for several generations, depended on the passion of young, hungry professionals doing the leg work of the day-to-day for a shitty wage. (The most I ever made was $10 an hour, after a decade of kitchen experience.) Now, this system, which I and other chefs of my generation paid into for a decade working for other people, has been drying up for years. No one comes to work early anymore. Nor can I blame them, because I just don’t think the economic carrot in the far off future is the same for today’s young chefs as it was for my generation. Fifteen years ago, there were opportunities for a young chef with modest talents (like myself) to be a big fish in a little pond in cities like PIttsburgh. Now it’s not so easy or guaranteed.

I see signs for hope. For reasons which I doubt I will ever understand completely, some people will always be called to the kitchen, and I see in the cooks who remain at Legume and Pie For Breakfast a passion for cooking which, in turn, inspires me to keep our place the kind of place that will keep this kind of strange, beautiful bird happy. With a butcher, a sous chef, and a strong line cook all leaving, and that open AM grill cook position we just can’t seem to fill, it would be tempting to dumb things down to the point where things are easy-peasy. There are so, so many corners we could cut at Legume that would probably not result in much loss of business. But then I wouldn’t have these wonderful cooks who find themselves in this kitchen for all the right reasons. It’s a genuine catch 22: do you dumb things down to deal with the labor shortage and become a less attractive place for the kind of cook you actually want, or do you hold out and maintain standards in hopes that the cooks you actually want will show up. Since I haven’t lost all hope yet, we continue on, with a skeleton crew, hoping that the right cooks come along and we will move beyond treading water.

I’d be lying if I told you we aren’t changing some aspects of our kitchen in the face of staffing challenges. I’d told myself a long time ago that when Jason, our fabulous butcher for the past year or so, left that I wouldn’t be hiring another butcher. (Legume has had a full time butcher since we moved to our current location in 2011, but in the past few years it has been more of a luxury than a necessity. In 2011, if you were a restaurant that wanted to work with highest quality pork or beef in Western PA (and by “high quality” I mean an animal that had a good diet which resulted in meat imbued with character), you needed to purchase whole animals directly from the farmer who raised it. A butcher was necessary. However, the two farms we purchase most of our pork and beef from, Jubilee Hilltop Ranch and Burn’s Heritage Farm, have, in the past year, developed the capacity to butcher their own meat to our specifications, which frees Legume up from having to do that labor ourselves. In other words, having a butcher on staff is no longer an operational necessity for us to work with high quality meat. We still purchase the same meat from the same farms, they just do more of the processing for us.)

Another thing that is different this year is that instead of working on new dishes this fall, as we are wont to do this time of year, we’re reaching back into our previous years’ repertoire and going for the “greatest hits.” From a customer perspective, that’s probably not so bad. Some things that will come around soon are Pumpkin and Mussels Soup (better than it sounds), Warm Gingerbread with Whipped Cream, Chicken Under a Skillet, Duck Confit, Pork and Sauerkraut Goulash with Spaetzle, and our famous Chicken Paprikash with Hand Cut Noodles. I’m super-excited about the availability of pork from Burn’s Heritage farm, which was once hit or miss, but is now a regular thing. The pork is just so freaking good. Burn’s pork is some of the best I’ve ever tasted, right up their with Dave Heilman’s.

Though we got a good amount of tomatoes (the most important) and a few other things put away, preservation season wasn’t the same this year. No one has time to make jalapeño jelly now, so we won’t have goat cheese and pepper jelly this year. I almost gave up on the idea of making kimchi, but when I ran the idea past Chris, he told me that it was a bad idea. He reminded me of the beef and kimchi soup, and pierogies with kimchi. I suppose I have a few batches in me.  I don’t know how or when I’m going to make it, but I do know it won’t  be the usual 750# quantity this year.

I doubt many would notice that this fall is likely to be a repeat of last fall, or that we didn’t preserve as much stuff as we would have liked.  Nor do I think the troubles we are experiencing in the kitchen is being felt in the dining room yet. But I notice. I’ve come to accept a certain level of chaos and clutter I wouldn’t have tolerated three years ago. My philosophy has always been that the easiest way to run a kitchen in the long run is to go about things the hard way. By that I mean it’s easier to be exceedingly clean and organized than not to be. But the other day I needed a tasting spoon and couldn’t get one because the dishwasher hadn’t shown up, and Jess, who should have been expediting, was stuck under a mountain of dishes. I was also cooking mushrooms in a pan too tiny, and expediting from behind the line to cover Jess. It sucked. Chances are, the one order of soup that went out without me tasting the seasoning on it because I didn’t have a spoon was fine, because I’d already seasoned six by that point in the night and had a pretty good idea of what it needed. But that’s not a thing I would have let happen before.

The only reason I’m so open about it, is because I know every restaurant is going through the same shit right now. I actually feel quite lucky–as short-handed and green as our staff is, the people we do have really care, and I’m thankful for that. I’m happy to see these people every day.

I’m just really curious to see where things are headed. At the root of it all, is the fact that restaurant workers don’t get paid enough. As the owner, there is only so much I can do to remedy this–in twelve years, our investors have not seen a penny, and I’m in a mountain of personal debt keeping this place afloat. Bottom line is, there is no profit. Sometimes I dream about raising prices and reducing the size of my menu in order to go about things with a leaner, better-paid kitchen staff in order to attract and retain talented professionals. But, the two biggest complaints we hear is that our menu is too small, and that our food is too expensive, and so raising prices and making our menu even smaller seems like a bad idea.

Yet, something like this must happen if restaurants are going to maintain basic standards. The public can’t expect high quality and lots of choice forever. Restaurants can go in one of two directions: continue to offer watered down and cheapened choices that rely on processed foods made somewhere else assembled by low-skilled workers, or smaller menus where food is actually cooked in the premise, with quality-sourced ingredients, by skilled professionals. Legume is, obviously, in the latter camp. However, there is a general expectation of the dining public that we offer choice and pricing of the former camp. We’ve muddled through this for the past twelve years just fine. But with this staffing situation as it is, hope alone won’t be enough. Something with the model will have to change.