Where have all the good cooks gone?

May 15, 2018

By Chef Adam Busby
chef@nafem.org 

Ana heads out early to beat the traffic on her way to her foodservice job at corporate headquarters where she will serve lunch to several hundred employees. Sharing the congested road are semi-trailers laden with ingredients she will use today; her thoughts drift to how long it will take her to get home tonight. Although there’s not much she can do about it right now Ana keeps an eye out for a new job, in hopes something better will come up closer to home. The parking has gone up again, that’s twice this year, and gas continues to be more expensive than in previous years. Despite the inconvenience of it all, Ana heads in each day for a modest hourly wage and corporate benefits, returning home 11 hours later to prepare dinner and take care of her family’s needs.

The enormous kitchen where Ana works is noisy at the best of times and heat seems to radiate from everywhere, as an old HVAC system struggles to keep the heat in check. The large prep area backs onto a dining room fitted with several action stations; Ana likes to serve, but many in her team feel uncomfortable working out front. Because of the shortage in skilled labor, her company is paying a premium to attract new hires, but they’re still falling short of where they need to be—18 kitchen employees and two managers. Ana has clocked 27 hours of O/T this month alone.  Yesterday her HR friend asked “where have all the good cooks gone?” as if she knew the answer.

Mark is also in foodservice and was recently hired by a forward-thinking company with large corporate offices downtown and on-campus dining facilities, but Mark doesn’t have to commute. By taking a look at zip codes with the highest density of kitchen workers, his company constructed a commissary kitchen built in a light-industrial area very close to where they can afford to live and work. His peers no longer commute.  They enjoy shorter days, contribute less to air pollution and spend more time with their families; morale is at an all-time high and they’re no longer short-staffed. His company has reduced rent expense by more than 50%, the utilities are less-expensive and call-offs are nearly nonexistent. The commissary kitchen is purpose-specific, using NAFEM equipment with only the most exacting energy efficient equipment necessary and includes a test kitchen where everyone is encouraged to try new ideas. At the end of his productive shift using on-demand burner technology in the bright climate-controlled commissary kitchen, Mark and his team load the components for tomorrow’s lunch into mobile refrigeration/rethermalization cubes and dock them at the back of the kitchen inside the exterior pickup bay for the night.

It’s just after midnight when the autonomous electric vehicle glides effortlessly into the commissary and automatically retrieves its payload. Quickly slipping through the now-deserted streets, it reaches its downtown target in less than 20 minutes, docks with corporate and deposits its goods through the autonomous receiving bay. Returning to the commissary for the final load, the entire transfer of 1,200+ meals has taken just under two hours and was delivered with nothing more than the collected energy of the sun.

Valued for their knowledgeable and entertaining interactions with customers, the six highly trained and well-compensated group of “cheftainers” needed to run lunch service skip the rush hour, arriving at corporate 90 minutes prior to service to unload the day’s meals and stock the action stations; rethermalization began automatically some hours ago. The tight back of house is customized to accept, refrigerate and re-therm but nothing more; the dollars have been spent on making inspiring action stations with simple but effective finishing equipment to delight the diners they will serve. The tickets are sold, the curtain is raised and the show begins again.

Comparing these two scenarios, we come to but one conclusion:  the former is likely to be unsustainable over the long-term. The kitchen systems we have built and the equipment that’s in them are a by-product of demand, driven largely by years of organic corporate growth and big-picture plans framed by this year’s budget rather than a long-term look over the event-horizon. Far from being perfect and without sign of relief, a systemic change in the basic volume-service kitchen model will likely be required to attract skilled foodservice workers and keep abreast of corporate growth in American foodservice.

As a chef, I can only hope that common sense will prevail and that sooner or later our inherently inefficient system of moving large quantities of cooks and raw ingredients to and from the jobsite will cease to exist. Companies will never stop looking for ways to be efficient; amortizing large up-front capital costs for a solidly positive ROI is delicious in its own way and makes the corporate executives salivate. Tomorrow’s large kitchens will likely be split into two distinct elements, some but not many have gone this way already. Our forward-thinking equipment manufacturers and suppliers will lead the way, partnering with autonomous delivery system companies and outside-the-box technologies.

Where have all the good cooks gone, and where will they continue to go?  The answer, for me, is that our culinary school graduates—tomorrow’s cooks, chefs and service personnel—will go where they can afford to live, where they can enjoy a prosperous lifestyle and raise a family – importantly – tomorrow’s cooks will go where the facilities, location and equipment have been thoughtfully designed and adapted to create comfortable work environments in locations where people thrive and companies realize the efficiencies in which they have invested.

Categorized in: Foodservice Trends