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30 chefs dish on tipping, Gen Z cooks, customers

ELIZABETH LIPPMAN/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                The chef David Chang in Los Angeles, on Feb. 15. “Some of these high-end restaurants are going to be able to charge $2,500, $3,000 per person. That’s what two people are paying to go see Taylor Swift,” said Chang.
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ELIZABETH LIPPMAN/ THE NEW YORK TIMES

The chef David Chang in Los Angeles, on Feb. 15. “Some of these high-end restaurants are going to be able to charge $2,500, $3,000 per person. That’s what two people are paying to go see Taylor Swift,” said Chang.

STAR-ADVERTISER
                                Chef Robyn Maii of Fete in Oahu’s Chinatown. “I always sing the praises of culinary school, but in community colleges only. All the for-profit schools need to go away,” said Maii.
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STAR-ADVERTISER

Chef Robyn Maii of Fete in Oahu’s Chinatown. “I always sing the praises of culinary school, but in community colleges only. All the for-profit schools need to go away,” said Maii.

ELIZABETH LIPPMAN/ THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                The chef David Chang in Los Angeles, on Feb. 15. “Some of these high-end restaurants are going to be able to charge $2,500, $3,000 per person. That’s what two people are paying to go see Taylor Swift,” said Chang.
STAR-ADVERTISER
                                Chef Robyn Maii of Fete in Oahu’s Chinatown. “I always sing the praises of culinary school, but in community colleges only. All the for-profit schools need to go away,” said Maii.

What do chefs actually think about what it’s like to run a restaurant today? What do they say when they’re being absolutely candid about the job?

Restaurant chefs, who run businesses all over the country serving millions of people, have weathered some dramatic years. Through the pandemic, and the sea changes of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, they have kept their kitchens going while balancing the needs of demanding diners and staffs that are often overworked and underpaid. The culture and economics of their businesses have changed, in some cases drastically.

In January, I went looking for 30 tough, flexible and devoted professionals who are still making delicious food and serving guests at a high standard. I interviewed them separately, edited their responses for clarity and put together a current picture of the profession.

Their responses show some marked shifts and some hot takes. They all hate tipping, but it seems unlikely to change. Culinary school? Usually a waste of money. Gen Z cooks are better at speaking up for themselves, but worse at sticking with a kitchen job — even though pay is now up to $25 an hour for a line cook. The customer is not always right — especially on Yelp.

Most importantly, these chefs are seeing (and making) real progress, reshaping an industry that has historically struggled to provide the basics of work-life balance, respect in the workplace and a living wage.

Cheetie Kumar (Ajja, Raleigh, North Carolina): As an owner, there’s an awareness of the fragility of everything. So you kind of don’t take anything for granted anymore.

Eric Huang (Pecking House, New York City): Once upon a time, I was an essential worker, right? And everyone was tipping so graciously and saying the restaurant is the backbone of our economy. And now, just 3 1/2, four years later, we’re back to everyone complaining about a dollar tip on a touch-screen.

David Chang (Momofuku, various cities): During the pandemic, the first year we were just trying to figure out the rescue money and talking to a bunch of people in Congress and senators. Really, no one really cared about a lot of these independent restaurants that get a lot of press coverage, because they don’t feed a lot of people.

Eric Huang: You can’t be a one-restaurant chef anymore. You have to have a brand, you have to keep feeding the beast and keep your employees and keep the trains running. Cooking is the last thing I get to do every day. It’s handing out W-2s and paying bills and figuring out how to store the garbage over the holiday weekend.

Mashama Bailey (The Grey, Savannah, Georgia): COVID did not help. I think people went a lot of different ways. Some people went really sort of dark and negative. Some people petered out, some people excelled, you know, and you didn’t really know what you were going to get at the end.

DOING THE MATH

Jeff Chanchaleune (Ma Der Lao, Oklahoma City): We usually don’t make any profit until Saturday night. If we’re lucky, we’ll profit all day Saturday. But if we have a terrible snowstorm on Saturday, we’re screwed.

Geoff Davis (Burdell, Oakland, California): You need to make a certain amount of money per seat. So if you have $40 or $50 entrees and you have a $19 burger, and a third of the people get the burger, you’re losing a huge amount of money. New people will come try you out if they know that there’s a burger. But if 50 people a night are making that choice, you’re cannibalizing yourself.

Kris Komori (Kin, Boise, Idaho): We have a burger. You can’t be in Boise without having a burger. From a business perspective it doesn’t make money. It does help push our cocktail program and our beverage program.

Eli Sussman (Gertrude’s, New York City): No one cares about paying $18 for a cocktail, and no one ever scoffs at an expensive wine list. There’s a split personality when it comes to the food menu and the drink. You see expensive food on the menu and you feel personally offended that someone would choose to mark an item at this point. You see a beverage menu, and you’re like, “Oh, well, they have a $190 bottle of wine on the menu. I just won’t order it, that’s not for me.”

Geoff Davis: People who say food is overpriced, sometimes I want to say back, “You have Nikes on your feet, and they’re charging a 1,000% markup.”

Mashama Bailey: We have a whole sweet potato on the menu, and people complain how much it costs. There are 13 people in this kitchen. Every single one of them cooked this sweet potato, or they cleaned the Swiss chard, or they diced the apples, or they washed out the sink. I need to charge you for this. I’m sorry.

Hajime Sato (Sozai, Clawson, Michigan): People don’t understand how much work it takes to make something from scratch. Like miso soup. They come in and say, “Miso soup is miso soup. Why does it cost $5?” Oh my God, people bitch. But we save all the bones from cutting the fish for the sushi bar, all the vegetable bits that we would throw away, and we use them to make stock. It takes five hours for just that one dish, and then people bitch about spending $5 when that’s how much they pay for coffee? Come on.

Geoff Davis: Nobody says that a pair of Jordans are overpriced or an Hermès bag is overpriced when it costs them pennies on the dollar to produce. And that does nothing to keep you alive or have jobs in your community and a place to celebrate your birthday or anniversary.

Eric Huang: You can save a lot by reducing the level of service, like we did. But luxury is still an aspect of dining out that people enjoy. So per usual, the middle class here is going to get hammered. Because your average, middle-of-the-road restaurant is still full service, but that price point is not quite high enough to pay for everything.

David Chang: Some of these high-end restaurants are going to be able to charge $2,500, $3,000 per person. That’s what two people are paying to go see Taylor Swift.

CULTURE SHIFT

Kwasi Kwaa (Comfort Kitchen, Boston): We are in a society where with certain things, we’re very eager to pay for quality, but with other things we’re hesitant. Especially with Black and brown food, they expect quality for very little money. The same folks that will pay over $200 for a pasta dinner, when it comes to Caribbean food, African food, South Asian and Southeast Asian food, they expect to get more for so much less. And why is that?

Geoff Davis: At an Italian restaurant, you can charge $25 for a side of polenta, but if I charge $14 for grits, people just get incensed. We joke: what’s the difference between a bowl of congee and a bowl of risotto? $20.

Efrén Hernández (Casa Susanna, Hudson Valley, New York): I think people are realizing that Mexican food is not just important culturally, but that it’s very good. There’s a lot of different types of it, and that it does have a place in the upper echelon of the culinary world, with the French and the Italian.

Jeff Chanchaleune: If you know you’re introducing a new cuisine like Lao food to the city, you can’t just throw it out there and expect them to come. You’ve got to educate on the history, the culture, how to eat it, where it came from.

Aaron Verzosa (Archipelago, Seattle): It’s not that we don’t use truffles or things like that or caviar, but we try to place a little bit more emphasis on the value of the cultural items. How can we make a carrot as valuable as, like, a piece of foie gras?

THE COOKING CAREER

Ana Castro (Lengua Madre, New Orleans): The mentality was either you’re going to play ball or you’re going to get chewed up. I endured the abuse, and after a couple months, I started dispensing it.

Geoff Davis: In San Francisco, I worked my way up from Aqua to Fifth Floor to Cyrus. A lot of screaming, a lot of butter. The kind of restaurants that could not exist in 2024. That really broke me on ultra-fine dining. It stood out to me that I was the only Black person working in any of these kitchens. It stood out to me that there was rarely someone that looked like me in the dining room.

Robynne Maii (Fête, Honolulu): In 1999, I was working part time at Union Pacific, which meant 50 hours a week. I was groped on a daily basis by people who would just be waiting for you to go in the walk-in. It was brutal. And that was a high-end restaurant. The Times loved it, everybody loved it.

Ouita Michel (Holly Hill Inn, Midway, Kentucky): When I was the only woman on the line in New York in the 1980s, I didn’t feel in danger. It was worse when I came back to Kentucky as a sous-chef, because male line cooks did not want to report to a woman. There was a lot of implied threat. I had to be the one breaking up fights and locking people in the walk-in. I knew I wasn’t going to leave the industry, but I also knew I wanted a work environment that wasn’t so fraught and volatile.

Renee Touponce (Port of Call, Mystic, Connecticut): Queer people have always been in the industry. There weren’t many safe spaces where we could be open and out. It’s changed a lot in the last 10 years. We started the first drag shows in Mystic, where there wasn’t the gay bar, the queer restaurant for the community. It sells out every time, and it helps us create profit on Sundays, which is our slow night outside tourist season.

Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat, Los Angeles and Chicago): I think there’s still a lot less females that are running kitchens because it’s still a hard juggle.

Kelly Whitaker (THE Wolf’s tailor and others, Denver): I knew I had to work and never take a day off. This is a game of survival.

Hajime Sato: Are they breathing? That’s all it takes for me to hire someone right now.

Tim Hollingsworth (Otium, Los Angeles): At French Laundry I was excelling to the point where I was training people on garde-manger. And they were failing. I pulled Thomas Keller aside and I said: “Chef, first of all, I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining or anything like that. I love what I’m doing. I love the responsibility. But I just want you to know that I’m barely able to keep up.” That was a pivotal moment in my career, actually talking about it.

Jeffery Harris (Nolia, Cincinnati): I try to hear what my sous-chef has to say. I want to know what’s going on. I know you had a rough day. That is new. That makes them feel safe in a place that employs them.

Justin Pioche (Pioche Food Group, Fruitland, New Mexico): I’ve been taught by some of the best chefs. First day on the job, they told me, “Don’t ever disrespect my dishwasher. I’ll fire you before I even go and talk to him.”

Diana Dávila (Mi Tocaya, Chicago): I don’t think health insurance should be something as an operator that we need to do. That is such a larger issue that this country should offer. But what am I going to do, not offer it and not care about my employees? So we offer health insurance. We put a line on the check — 3% comes from the customer, so that counts as income and we have to pay tax on it. And you know who that’s a win for? The health insurance companies.

David Utterback (Yoshitomo, Omaha): Guests ask me about my children, if they’re going to be cooks and chefs. And I tell them that if my children end up in the restaurant industry, I’ve failed as a parent. This is the hardest way to make a living.

Yun Fuentes (Bolo, Philadelphia): It is a challenge to keep it going when everything is more expensive. But I think it would be silly for me to complain about having to do the job I signed up for. I just have to run faster. I have to make the experience better.

David Utterback: With all of the price increases, we still can’t claw back enough to provide me a retirement. I can’t stand on the line 12 hours a day when I’m 65. I already own a back brace, arm brace, foot brace. I feel like the broken Iron Man, just trying to hold it all together. At my age — I’m 42 — you need to get into management. You need to be off the line. Stop cooking. If you haven’t developed an escape plan, you’re going to be stuck doing this forever.

David Chang: I think we just need to have an honest assessment about the industry as a whole, about how much money you’re actually going to make. I would say that there’s a 90% attrition rate out of the industry after five years. If that happened out of any other trade school or any kind of MBA, we’d ask: What kind of industry is that?

Justin Pioche: People ask me, what’s a good culinary school to go to? And I always tell them: Don’t go.

Robynne Maii: I always sing the praises of culinary school, but in community colleges only. All the for-profit schools need to go away. They’re completely unnecessary and they’re predatory.

Ryan Ratino (Jont, Washington, D.C.): You should work in the industry for a couple of years before you make that commitment, that $60,000 or $70,000 or $80,000 commitment. When you come out, it isn’t like you’re getting paid like a doctor or a lawyer.

Justin Pioche: Go find a pretty good restaurant, one that’s usually pretty busy. Go there, work for a year, get your butt kicked.

Eric Huang: It requires an immense amount of privilege to stage around Europe. And you work for free in Copenhagen or go to San Sebastián on a culinary pilgrimage, that was what everybody told us we should do. Working at Eleven Madison Park, working 80 hours a week for minimum wage, that requires support. There’s a reason those kitchens are full of athletic, good-looking white men who have families that support them.

Robynne Maii: I’m not trying to bash technology, but these young cooks are unable to pay attention and to just focus. Everyone’s super-distracted, everyone’s impatient about the learning. They’re all depressed. They’re all on antidepressants. They’re very open about it. If I give them a correction, they think I’m yelling at them.

Mashama Bailey: I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. And that was the fear, because people were straight up not showing up for stages and straight up walking out of kitchens. I couldn’t crack the whip because I didn’t want to lose people.

GUEST RELATIONS

Eric Huang: Nobody likes tipping. It sucks. It’s a stupid practice.

Geoff Davis: You want to control someone’s pay because you didn’t feel like your water got filled fast enough, or your food took a long time to come out? It should be just like anything else: The price is the price.

Michael Rafidi (Albi, Washington, D.C.): The job of a cook has always been really low-paying. A server could be making double the amount of a cook and working the same hours. I just wish that would change, but it’s very, very complicated. How would that happen? How do we not take from one to give to the other? How do we please everyone in the business, including the guests?

Hajime Sato: People talk about how being wait staff is so hard, it’s so degrading. Don’t get me wrong, kissing people’s ass and getting that money from customers, there’s a ton of a skill to it. But at the same time, why is that more work than being in the kitchen?

Tandy Wilson (City House, Nashville, Tennessee): Tipping we can’t really change. It’s an established business. If we stopped and went to pooling, we would open ourselves up to litigation.

Kris Komori: We went to our front-of-house staff and said, we have a strange proposal for you, which is that we’re going to put you on salary. You’re not dependent on how much business we have coming in. Basically, don’t worry about paying your rent. We worry about paying our rent, but we will figure that out. And we really got pay equality from front to back locked in. Nobody works more than 45 to 47 hours a week.

Shenarri Freeman (Ubuntu, Los Angeles): I thought people would be a bit more understanding, but it seems like we’re just right back to where we were before. They just want their food. They want their drinks. They want their vibes.

Reyna Duong (Sandwich Hag, Dallas): Hate is a strong word, but I hate Yelp. I despise the entitlement. If your feedback is bad, let us make it right. Give us an opportunity, have the conversation.

Jeff Chanchaleune: I hate reading Yelp. I despise it. Because there’s not that much else online here if people go looking for reviews. It will say, “I went to Ma Der Lao and I had some dish I never had before, but it’s not like the Thai food I’ve had in the past, so I didn’t really like it. One star.” But you don’t know anything about the food. How can you review the food, the culture? That’s what hurts the most.

Shenarri Freeman: I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really care. It doesn’t really matter to me, because at the end of the day, I know that everyone on my team did everything in their power, what they were supposed to do.

Ana Castro: I actually have a little bit of a bad rap for being a little mean to customers sometimes. Someone compared the duck that they thought was undercooked to a Jeffrey Dahmer experience. And I schooled this woman like I’ve never schooled anyone. I got a note from Resy, because I think she emailed about it. But I don’t care, honestly.

Geoff Davis: I think guests have become a lot less kind and understanding of the inevitable mistakes. People are very entitled and upset when things aren’t going their way. I want to say: “Do you remember 2019? This is normal. A small group of human beings is trying to provide service to everybody, not just you.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Mashama Bailey: You can’t leave the industry and expect the industry to change. You have to be here. And I think that now finally people are coming back to it because they love it.

Cheetie Kumar: Together we employ millions and millions of people. You love unemployment being low? Well, we’re the ones who are breaking our backs to keep people hired.

Reyna Duong: You know how they say, the kitchen is the heart of the home? That’s where everybody migrates to. Well, that’s what it is with independently owned restaurants for our country. Let’s be honest: When your friends and family come to town, you’re not going to be like: “Oh, I know this restaurant nearby. It’s a huge chain.” You’re like, “I know this gem, and it’s a little bit of a wait, they make everything from scratch.”

Mary Attea (The Musket Room, New York City): There used to be a path for cooks: You come in, you work all the stations and you move on to somewhere else. But the money is pretty good now and we have the Michelin star and nobody’s leaving. The age-old story is that the chefs get all the glory, the awards and the accolades, but we are nothing without our teams. Now I think they know that. And with that shift, I feel like finally the work of nurturing careers and helping people excel and grow is paying off.

David Chang: We’re about to discover a lot in the next 10 years. Because this is such a new industry, even though it’s an extremely old business.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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