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Restaurants running low on key ingredient: cooks

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-05 12:21:38-05

For many Tri-State diners, Cincinnati’s restaurant golden age conjures a 40-year memory of five-star greatness.

Today, not only are the legendary Gourmet Room, Maisonette and Pigall’s gone, so is the Mobil Travel Guide that gave Cincinnati more top-rated places to eat than New York. Bad news for the foodie set? Hardly. Greater Cincinnati is in the midst of a restaurant renaissance that offers diners a wider variety of quality food from more of the world’s culinary traditions than at any time in its history.

Skeptics should take the word of Jean-Robert de Cavel. With 22 years’ experience in the city’s kitchens, including nearly a decade at the helm at Maisonette, de Cavel has had a prime seat to the changing food landscape.

“It’s amazing to see Cincinnati turn around,” he said during a mid-afternoon break at Jean-Robert’s Table, the flagship of his restaurant group.

Keith Pandolfi, former senior editor of the gourmet magazine Saveur, thinks so, too. The Cincinnati native wrote an impassioned column for the magazine in which he defended the Queen City’s culinary heritage and dubbed it “the next food city.”

RELATED: Chef David Falk’s “love letter” to Cincinnati

The new vibrancy in the local restaurant scene comes at a price, though. By his count, de Cavel said, 10,000 new restaurant seats have been created in the city since he left Maisonette in 2002. While there are a few exceptions, most of those are in relatively small, independent establishments — think the Gateway Quarter in Over-the-Rhine or MainStrasse in Covington. Even Table, at 713 Vine St., Downtown, is relatively small.

Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. The neighborhood's renaissance is due largely to a boom in independent restaurants. "It feels very European," says Jean-Robert de Cavel, whose Lavomatic Cafe was a pioneer there. Finding enough cooks to staff restaurants is becoming a challenge. Photo by Thomas Consolo.

 

While the head chefs at these places are often well known — like de Cavel (who also runs Le Bar a Boeuf and French Crust Café), Jose Salazar (Mita’s, Salazar) or David Falk (Boca, Nada and Sotto) — they can’t do it alone. And they’re finding it progressively more difficult to find the help they need, particularly good and reliable cooks.

It’s a problem that’s hardly unique to Greater Cincinnati. Like many trends, this one is spreading from larger U.S. cities, particularly on the East Coast. Last fall, the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune reported that the growing shortage of restaurant kitchen help was becoming a “crippling problem.” While New York and Washington were obvious focal points, the Post reported the problem was growing in such cities as Seattle and San Francisco, too.

“If good cooks come along,” Chicago chef Paul Kahan told the Tribune, “we’ll hire them even if we don’t have a position. Because we will have a position.”

Three-course challenge

It’s not that bad here, but it’s sounding more familiar to chefs at some of Cincinnati’s top restaurants. De Cavel cited three recurring themes he sees behind the change in kitchen culture.

Supply and demand: The most basic reason cooks are more difficult to find is the industry’s success. Workers are spread among more and more restaurants so that, instead of competing for jobs at prestigious eateries, cooks with good skills have the eateries competing for them.

In a sense, that’s a good problem to have, but the pendulum for now has swung far to the supply side of the equation. It has created a greener pastures syndrome that encourages cooks to jump ship without care if they see what they think is a better opportunity.

“Loyalty is definitely a problem compared to 20 years ago,” said Scott Holubetz, co-op coordinator for the culinary arts program at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. “Typically a student stays at a place less than 18 months. And that's better than industry average, which is six to eight months.”

De Cavel is fairly easygoing about people’s career choices. Still, he was not amused when a beginning cook, after a busy Friday night, texted him early the next day that he wouldn’t be back that night.

“Look, if they don’t want to cook, I don’t want to make them,” he said. Leaving with no notice, though, showed “a lack of respect” to his colleagues, not to mention his boss. The employee soon called to get his paycheck for the time he had worked. De Cavel made sure he handed the check to the former worker personally — along with some advice about burning bridges.

Celebrity chefs: A half-century ago, few Americans knew the name of a chef unless they were personally acquainted. That changed in the 1960s with television and Julia Child’s landmark program “The French Chef.” In demystifying French cooking, she became America's first celebrity chef.

The dynamic of televised cooking was revolutionized again in November 1993, when the Food Network debuted. Created by partners including Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. (parent of WCPO.com) and now majority owned by Scripps Networks Interactive (spun off from E.W. Scripps in 2008), the pioneering cable channel built its audience by turning cooking into celebrity entertainment. That made stars of its chefs, including Mario Batali, Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, Emeril LaGasse, Giada de Laurentiis and Jacques Pépin.

To the generation now entering professional kitchens, the apparent overnight success of these stars became the model for a cooking career. “The cooking business is media-thick,” de Cavel said.

That leads too many to expect TV-style success.

“The Food Network has done a lot to elevate the status of chefs,” said Jeff Sheldon, program chairman at Midwest Culinary Institute, “but it’s created an artificial impression of the industry.”

Many are disheartened, he said, when TV expectations meet the reality of kitchen life, its repetitive tasks and long learning curves in particular.

As Holubetz put it, “Cooking is 90 percent cleaning. I don't think the message is getting through.”

That’s costly to restaurants, which must swallow the expense of training new employees for weeks. (Even those with strong skills must be made familiar with a particular restaurant’s flow, much like an NFL player learning a new offense with a new team.) If someone walks out without warning after that kind of investment, de Cavel said, it costs a head chef not just money, but critical time. Besides being out the financial investment, he’ll have to start over to fill the position.

In the meantime, daily service has to continue without missing a beat.

Expectations: Though it may sound like every generation bemoaning the one following, chefs today say they see different standards of behavior among the up-and-coming generation.

During a busy weekend dinner service at Table, a line of six chefs prepares the meals, assigned to stations turning out appetizers, garnishes, entrees and desserts. De Cavel is still in the kitchen most nights, too, usually serving as expediter, the linchpin role that coordinates the production of meals and assures orders are correct. He also steps in as needed to help when a station is vacant.

“Eighty percent of the job is hard work,” de Cavel said.

An Old World work ethic is becoming a rarer commodity, though. In a generation raised with the Internet and smartphones, Holubetz said, millennials expect the learning process to be unreasonably fast. “I think we're dealing with a culture that thinks we can turn peeling potatoes into a YouTube search.

“Most people don't understand the repetition that's involved,” Holubetz said, adding that developing muscle memory is key to mastering skills, and that doesn’t happen quickly. “It’s the rule of 10,000 hours.”

“It’s not that the food is different,” de Cavel said, “but the learning experience has become shorter.”

He recalled a recent experience: He asked his line cooks one busy night if anyone knew how to make tartar sauce. “I knew, of course, but I didn’t have time myself.”

One cook immediately piped up, “Yes, chef!” A few minutes later, de Cavel had to fetch food from the walk-in freezer. He found the cook inside, searching online for a tartar-sauce tutorial (perhaps it was this one).

He’s open to new methods of learning, but he, too, said it’s rare now to find someone who understands the value of putting enough time into learning. For a person like that, he’s ready to teach.

“If someone knocks on the back door and says, ‘Chef, I’ve heard of you and want to learn from you. I’ll do any work. Can I have a job?’ I say yes, of course I’ll teach you.”

The personal touch

Despite encroaching technology, few industries these days rely as much on personal connections as food service.

Nathan Whittington is executive chef at the Moerlein Lager House, the most successful of the many restaurants in the Banks development and one of the largest in the city. With 800 seats in the restaurant, Whittington’s kitchens — there are three in the complex across Joe Nuxhall Way from Great American Ball Park — turn out more than 1,200 meals on a Saturday night. The undertaking requires up to 15 cooks, five prepping food and 10 on the line.

Freedom Way, looking west from Great American Ball Park, is lined with restaurants. Despite turnover — like the closures of Mahogany's, Johnny Rockets, WG Kitchen & Bar and Toby Keith's I Love This Bar — the district remains a hotbead of new downtown restaurant activity. Taste of Belgium has signed on to open in the newest block, seen under construction in the distance at right, which includes the General Electric Co.'s world operations center. The 800-seat Moerlein Lager House is a half block to the left on Joe Nuxhall Way. Photo by Thomas Consolo.

 

Many of Whittington’s key staff moved downtown with him from his previous jobs at Maggiano’s Little Italy and the Cheesecake Factory. “They’re the loyal core,” he said. “The ones who can handle the pressure stay.”

He has an advantage over many independent restaurants. Restaurant operations at the Lager House are managed by Cunningham Restaurant Group. He can fill vacancies internally from other company-run restaurants — they also operate Stone Creek Dining Company outlets in Montgomery and West Chester Township, for example — and he knows they already meet high standards.

Whittington shows loyalty as much as he appreciates it and praised his colleagues, noting “four or five of my former sous-chefs are now executive chefs” with Cunningham.

Nathan Whittington is executive chef at Moerlein Lager House. Many of Whittington’s key staffers moved downtown with him from his previous jobs. "They’re the loyal core,” he said. “The ones who can handle the pressure stay.”

 

He values personal connections when he’s interviewing, too.

“We do know each other,” he said of the fraternity of chefs in the city. A long stint under one of them speaks well of a prospective employee. And if someone has left a chef high and dry? “I’ll find out about it.”

Whittington said the interview process is critical in hiring. “It tells you their mindset,” he said. He knows after just a minute or two, he said, if an applicant has the passion for food that can translate into success in the kitchen. The rest he can teach, he said, just as he learned hands-on from an experienced chef.

Recipes for solutions

What head chefs need, said the culinary institute’s Holubetz, is pretty simple: employees who have realistic expectations, show up for work and learn their jobs. That’s what Cincinnati State hopes to offer through its culinary graduates.

The Midwest Culinary Institute offers four degree tracks: culinary arts technology, pastry arts, dietetic technology and hospitality management. The culinary arts program is unusual among similar programs across the U.S., said Sheldon, the MCI program chairman, because it’s actually a business degree. It’s designed to equip graduates with the skills needed to eventually run their own restaurants.

RELATED: Casual dining chains look to technology

It takes six semesters to complete the program, two of them co-op work. There are about 350 active MCI students, said Holubetz.

Graduates are almost guaranteed jobs, he said, most of them in the Tri-State. “I wish I had more students to offer (employers),” he said. “I don’t foresee that changing in the near future.”

While pay in the restaurant industry has never been high, finances are a far smaller problem in Cincinnati than in larger cities. There’s ample affordable housing with easy access to the city's new hospitality hubs, and a culinary education is far more affordable. Sheldon said the total current cost for the culinary arts technology program (which earns graduates an associate’s degree) is about $18,000. That includes tuition, lab fees, uniforms, knife kit and textbooks.

Holubetz said culinary-arts graduates can expect to earn from $12 to $14 per hour. Assuming a standard 40-hour week (and restaurant work often requires longer hours), that translates to $24,000 to $28,000 yearly income. For a couple both working in the industry, Holubetz said, that’s around $50,000 a year — plenty to live comfortably in Greater Cincinnati.

That payoff makes the Cincinnati State program a good investment, he said. “Dollar for dollar,” Holubetz said, “students can’t get a better deal.”

Follow Thomas Consolo on Twitter @tconsolo_news

Is cooking calling you?

Go to the Midwest Culinary Institute’s website to read frequently asked questions about the institute, details about the programs it offers, and admissions and financial aid information.