Article and photo by Radka Horackova | February 9, 2022
As a group of cooks headed back to New York City after an event in upstate New York, they looked at the checks they had just received for the gig.
“I wish everyone would pay like you. I make $19 an hour at my day job,” Gayl Williams said to the chef. Her colleagues nodded in agreement.
Restaurants across the city—and many parts of the country—are struggling to hire line cooks. The promise of long hours, hard labor, and low wages don’t appear to be tempting cooks back to work after pandemic unemployment benefits paid them more to stay home than sweat in the kitchen. The situation has ignited a debate across the hospitality world about fair pay, back-of-house tipping, and pricing in an industry that famously operates on razor-thin margins.
According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2020 the mean hourly wage for restaurant cooks in New York was $16.59 an hour.
Andrew Rigie, Executive Director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, described the industry as a low-profit margin business that is also labor intensive.
”Wages are an issue but also the lifestyle, long hours, weekends,” he said.
Being a line cook involves both skill and endurance: keeping orders straight and making several dishes at once while being on one’s feet all day, hauling supplies and sweating by the grill or stove. Most chefs have a culinary degree and/or professional training, and many restaurant cooks, whether they have a diploma or not, have years of experience working in commercial kitchens. But the industry relies heavily on immigrant labor and pay tends not to be commensurate with experience.
Erica Groshen, a labor economist at Cornell University, suggested that one reason for the low pay is a lack of higher education. “It’s part of what’s happening to workers without a college degree in general,” she said.
There is also a significant gap between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house wages, as The Washington Post reported in 2015. Unlike front-of-the-house staff like servers and bartenders, cooks do not get tips from customers. While cooks often make close to minimum wage, servers earn a lower “tipped minimum wage” with tips expected to make up the difference. In reality, tips tend to far outstrip the difference, leaving the back of the house feeling left behind.
“It’s really sad that people don’t recognize that the BOH is so undercompensated,” said Williams, who worked as a grill cook at Collective Retreats on Governors Island last summer. At the peak of the season, she would sometimes work six or seven days a week. “If something goes wrong with the food, the kitchen is to blame. And vice versa, if the food is great, servers get rewarded by getting a tip from the happy customer, not the cook.”
Williams, who recently left the restaurant industry to become a private chef, thinks that either higher pay or a gratuity should be given to kitchen staff, whether a dishwasher, porter or chef.
One seemingly simple solution—sharing front-of-the-house tips with kitchen staff—is illegal in New York.
“New York is one of a few states where restaurants are prohibited from sharing tips with kitchen staff,” Rigie said. He added, however, that back-of-the-house wages are showing signs of increasing as the staff has more negotiating power than before the pandemic. “It needs to be a combination of policies, like sharing tips and restaurants to charging more and increasing wages, especially since food prices are sky-rocketing,” he said.
Many experts in the industry agree that increasing menu prices and raising cooks’ wages is a crucial step toward keeping them from leaving for other jobs. If that means moving away from tipping, it might benefit all staff. Some restaurants have already introduced new compensation models, such as adding a service fee and eliminating tipping altogether.
Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse’s owner Willie Degel said he can’t keep raising prices so he is considering adding a line on checks for customers to tip the cooks. David Pirozzi, the executive chef of La Fin in Montauk, noted that it is common in some states, such as California, to add extra gratuity for kitchen staff.
“When I entered the business you didn’t go to school to be rich and famous,” Pirozzi said. “It was a trade, a craft. You knew what you were getting into, you’ll work every holiday possible and your pay will suck.”
He bemoaned the dearth of hirable cooks but said there’s no easy solution.
“With the food cost, rent and wages, there is a thin line you have to dance around to make a profit,” he said. “It’s a sticky topic and there is no black and white answer.”