Why One NYC Sous-Chef Will Be Happy When Tipping Is Eliminated Forever

“Before I became a sous-chef here, I was making $13, okay? That’s $1 more than I was making when I started cooking in college.” Photo: Mariana Bazo/Reuters/Corbis

One of the main reasons Danny Meyer says he wants to do away with tipping at his restaurants: to correct the often-large pay discrepancy between tipped front-of-the-house employees and kitchen staffers who work for an hourly rate, often taking home much less money. Once Meyer’s system is implemented, though, his cooks will see their starting wage rise to $14 per hour. To get a better sense of what that system is like for people in the kitchen, Grub asked Tom Coughlan, a sous-chef who has cooked in some of the most popular restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn, what he thought. Here’s what he had to say:

Tipping creates this system where the task and the job don’t dictate income. When people I know have become managers [who by law can’t share in a restaurant’s tip pool], they take a pay cut. People in higher roles make less money. I can’t confirm this, but I believe that most of the front of the house is making more money than I am — as a sous-chef — doing part-time work. And bartenders, it’s a $1 tip no matter what they do. It can be mixing a drink, but it can also be opening a beer. It doesn’t matter. There’s a disconnect between the service staff and the people in the kitchen. We have a higher base salary, yeah, but the paychecks are less. There is no prize, no bonus at the end of the week.

Look, I don’t get a dollar for every task that I do. Whether it’s making a sauce or whatnot, it doesn’t matter what it is. Say there’s a complex, expensive dish. The cook gets nothing for executing it properly, and the chef gets nothing for creating that dish. The reward system is flawed. The food could be the best part of the meal and the customers will tip heavily for it, but the kitchen never sees that money. And when I fuck up, when the kitchen fucks up, the server makes less money because they get punished for it. Tipping becomes a reward system, and a job shouldn’t be that. It’s not actually commission — that’s the theory — but that’s not really how it works. It’s not based on a true percentage of sales, but the opinions of the customer. The server up-sells a table on a $300 bottle of wine, it should mean they make $60 more based on the standard. But, again, it’s about feelings and opinions.

I see the Fight for $15 and I laugh because I’ve never made that much money as a line cook. I don’t know any line cook who makes that much. Before I became a sous-chef, I was making $13 an hour, okay? That’s $1 more than I was making when I started cooking in college. Even though I was in a higher position as the senior line cook, it was just $1 more. It’s tough, and honestly these days the only people that survive in New York are the ones with a safety net. Like, if you slip and break a bone, but you have no health insurance, what are you going to do?

It’s a broken system. I’m working my ass off for only so much, and after five years and still being in the same spot I’m tired of looking like a torture victim. I agree, we’ve almost accepted that this is what it is — cooks busting their asses, making no money. I don’t know how to fix it or make it fair. It’s always been unfair. You have to rewrite the whole business, the culture, what we expect when we go out. People expect their food to be amazing and reasonably priced. That can’t exist. But if this means cooks are making more money, I’m happy. I would be happy to see tipping go as a restaurant employee and consumer. But I understand that such a radical change in the system will come at a price, and I’m worried and intrigued to see what that is.

I feel like, coming from a business point of view, you will see lower check averages because the American public is accustomed to tipping, and they’re not used to other systems. I think people will spend less money because we’re still preconditioned that we’ll have to pay an additional 15 or 20 percent at the end of the meal. It’s going to take a cultural shift to make something like this work on a broader level. You know, if I’m going to a place like Union Square Cafe and I’m spending $200 or $300 for this meal, I don’t care. You do whatever. But when I’m just going out to dinner with my girlfriend, getting lunch — those are the kinds of experiences where I think it will be a little more difficult to implement.

Of course I would like to make more money for doing the exact same job. I don’t think anyone would argue against that. This $14-per-hour figure — that would put the hourly wage at more than I have ever made as a line cook. That’s a huge, huge change. Cooks are drawn to a name like Danny Meyer regardless of the wage, because working for him is a résumé builder, and they’d take a pay cut to work at one of his places. It is just refreshing to see that someone as big as Danny Meyer is trying to lead a revolution, however futile, and change this while everyone else is cutting costs left and right trying to just stay afloat.

Why One NYC Sous-Chef Will Be Happy When Tipping Is Eliminated Forever