The Great Chef Crisis



"Psst … what's 'al dente' mean again?"Photo: Rene Sheret/Stone Collection


Recently, apropos nothing much, a prominent young chef we were chatting with launched into a tirade about the restaurant world’s “labor problem.” “None of us can get enough good cooks!” he exclaimed, by way of explanation. Between 2000 and 2006, only a handful of high-end restaurants — Lespinasse, Meigas, Quilty’s — have closed, and there has been an avalanche of major openings: Robuchon, Ramsay, Per Se, Masa, Craft, Del Posto, Morimoto, A Voce, the Modern, Lever House, Buddakan, Cafe Gray, Alto — the list goes on and on. “And it’s not just the massive boom of restaurants,” Adam Platt tells us. “They also have to be either bigger, or chefs have to open multiple places, so that they can enjoy the economies of scale they need to compete.”

There simply aren’t enough outstanding new cooks to staff all these ventures. Yes, the cooking schools have all upped their enrollments, and the phenomenon of the celebrity chef has supposedly made cooking glamorous. The Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of gastronomy, added nearly a thousand students to its California and New York enrollments between 2001 and 2006. Meanwhile, the Institute of Culinary Education and the French Culinary Institute, the main New York–based schools, have added about three or four hundred students combined, according to their estimates. “Labor shortages are always an issue,” Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony tells us, “especially in a kitchen, which has a pretty high attrition rate.” Still, it has gotten much harder to replace the kids who can’t hack it. “I put up with a lot of shit that ten years ago would have had somebody out on the street,” Hearth’s Marco Canora laments. “But you can’t do that anymore. You have to coddle and teach and hope and pray that they come around.” Working in a kitchen has never been easy, and it never will be (or won’t, at least, until we’ve got robots advance prepping soylent green). But it seems the youngsters are getting a taste of that celeb-chef shine.