The romance of the restaurant kitchen is dead: if owners want skilled chefs they’re going to have to pay for them.

by | Mar 21, 2024 | Opinion

A new report from AUT (a summary of which can be read here) has found that chefs working in New Zealand and Australia suffer “significant financial hardship and mental health issues” with many considering leaving the profession in the near future. This doesn’t include the large number of professionals who have already left the industry since COVID.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment found that New Zealand hospitality venues were in the midst of an ongoing staffing crisis. A survey published on the Ministry’s website reveals that:

  • 82% of respondents say they are not fully staffed.
  • 78% have been recruiting for high level roles over the past 2 months.
  • 88% of employers are saying it is difficult or extremely difficult to recruit for senior roles.

If you have any connection to the hospitality industry in this country then all this is not really news. Chefs have been leaving the industry in their droves since the pandemic and no one is taking their place. Has your local cafe stopped opening Mondays and Tuesday? Has a favourite restaurant given up on mid-week lunch services? Staff. They can’t get the staff.

The AUT report shows that chefs are generally badly paid and poorly treated. They work long, unsociable hours that isolate them from friends and family, the work is stressful and backbreaking, and the culture in many kitchens is toxic to the point of violence and beyond.

What small improvements the last governement put in place to mitigate these problem – namely the hospitality fair pay agreement – has been scrapped by the new coalition government, a move that has been applauded by Hospitality NZ and the Restaurant Association with a short-sightedness that is nothing shy of dazzling. These lobbying bodies, and many individual owner/operators are hoping they can get back to business as usual. But business isn’t going back to usual.

The death of the (decent) chef and (brilliant) writer Anthony Bordain in 2018 felt like the end of something for many of us in the restaurant industry. Bordain and his book Kitchen Confidential had come to define a certain kind of attitude and glamour that attached itself to restaurant kitchens in the 90s and early 00s. Bourdain looked like a fifth member of the Velvet Underground; gaunt, rockstar-handsome, slightly menacing; like a lower east side neighbourhood thug who happened to be able to whip up a pretty servicable Poulet Basquaise. Kitchen Confidential’s tales of drug-addled line cooks, ex-con dishwashers, pirate-ship comraderie, sides of beef, leaping flames, boiling oil, and tempered carbon steel lured many a romantic young man (and the odd woman) into the kitchen.

When I started working in London kitchens in the late 90s, Kitchen Confidential was passed from hand to greasy hand like a bible in a Soviet gulag. It didn’t make the pay any better or the hours any easier but it instilled a flash of glamour into what was, when it came down to it, a very unglamourous job.

While the front of house were almost always actors, dancers or writers, the kitchen staff were mostly musicians – some on the way up, others on the way down. One of my head chefs was a former punk whose band had been on the verge of mainstream success before one of his bandmates punched a journalist and derailed their career. The soundtrack to service was AC/DC, The Clash, The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, and Devo. Arrangements were made with bar staff to keep the drinks coming, fights broke out mid-service, dishwashers were sent out to the bin area to wrangle hungover commi chefs back onto the line. It wasn’t always pretty but it was never boring.

After not too long the heat got a bit too much for me and I moved to the other side of the pass. I saw plenty of former colleagues crash out of the industry: drink or drug habits got out of control, mental health issues bubbled to the surface, marriages collapsed. My former head chef was arrested and later institutionalised after trying to scale the walls of Buckingham Palace armed with a very large chef’s knife. There was a limit to how far you could take the sex, drugs, and filet of sole lifestyle.

As I’ve got older I’ve seen the romance of the restaurant kitchen that so infected me gradaully dissipate. The kitchen playlist these days is more likely to be Disney songs than punk rock. The drugs and the alcohol are still a part of the profession but they aren’t glamourised and normalised as they were in the 90s. The terrible working hours and the bad pay are still there but nobody is getting fooled into thinking it’s all part of the fun.

Restaurant owners can no longer rely on the all-for-one-one-for-all siege mentality of the old-school kitchen. If they want a happy crew churning out burgers, benedicts, and big profits all weekend long then they’re going to have to treat them well and pay them better.


About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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