Three months after Tory Miller’s highly anticipated pan-Asian restaurant, Sujeo, opened in the Constellation building, dumpling devotees are still waiting for their dim sum fix.
Miller, a James Beard Award-winner with two other restaurants — L’Etoile and Graze — as well as a fourth on the way next summer, simply doesn’t have enough people to work dim sum brunch service.
“We’re four cooks short, just at Sujeo,” Miller said. “I can’t do late night (service) because I don’t have the staff. I can’t do brunch at Sujeo. It affects us as a business.
“It’s starting to affect what I feel I can do in Madison.”
Madison is a foodie town. Everyone says so, from Fox News to Mic, an online magazine for Millennials.
But the local appetite for steakhouses, Italian bistros and cozy farm-to-table hot spots has begun to outpace the number of trained, willing people available to work in them.
Outside the kitchen, diners start to notice the squeeze in the delay of new projects, like Underground Food Collective’s Middlewest, or Heritage Tavern going dark on Monday nights to give staff a break.
“It’s a constant battle in our industry,” said Susan Quam, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. As restaurants multiply, “the demand for more employees keeps going up.”
It’s a big enough problem that the city of Madison, local colleges and restaurants themselves have simultaneously mobilized to do something about it.
Madison College will be doubling its culinary school with a new building, set to break ground in summer 2015. The city is working on a three-week training program for cooks. Restaurants are bumping up wages and highlighting benefit packages, hoping to keep the staff they have.
Because, ultimately, a lack of cooks means Madison’s reputation as a food-lovers’ hub could suffer.
“How many people have we lost in Madison that go to Portland, or go to Austin, or go to Nashville?” Miller said. “Why are these places the draw, versus being in Madison and making a name for yourself here?
“The only way to have great restaurants is to have great cooks,” he said. “If you don’t have any cooks to draw from ... you’re not going to have a great restaurant scene.”
When the halibut is perfectly seared, the cauliflower tender and the sauce seasoned perfectly, credit goes to the chef.
But more often than not, the person who actually prepped and cooked the food works on “the line,” also called the back of the house, earning $8 to $13 an hour.
Being a line cook can be a thankless job. Cooks work nights, weekends and holidays. They’re on their feet for hours at a time, doing a repetitive task.
It can, and often does, take years of low-paying labor to move up to sous chef, chef de cuisine and eventually, executive chef.
Many restaurants in Madison say they pay about $10-15 an hour, more with experience. Nationally, line cooks’ median pay in 2012 was $20,550 a year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $14,000 less than the median wage for all workers.
For the past few years, staffing woes have echoed around the country, from Boston (“a bone fide crisis”) and Washington, D.C., (“restaurants are getting desperate”) to San Francisco, where the high cost of living results in “restaurants starved for help.”
Closer to home, a glance at the Madison-area Craigslist board for jobs in food, beverage and hospitality shows dozens of posts each day, including many for cooks.
The Madison Area Chefs Network (MACN) job page has a new post almost every day, seeking folks to work in the newly opened Salvatore’s Tomato Pies on Johnson Street or the Patisserie from Madison Sourdough Company, coming in mid-January.
And the search can be frustrating.
“A couple years ago, we’d put out an ad saying we were hiring and I’d get 15-20 responses,” said Sourdough chef Molly Maciejewski. “Now I might get three or four responses, two or three that are experienced enough for an interview.
“Probably 30-40 percent of interviews don’t show up,” she added. “Six months ago we hired a cook and he worked his first day and never came back.”
The Statehouse, Edgewater Hotel’s new fine dining restaurant, opened this fall with 30 people, including dishwashers, in the back of the house.
“I believe we did make an impact in that dearth of qualified team members when we opened,” said executive chef Thomas Welther.
Edgewater will soon be hiring a handful of additional cooks for its Boathouse and Icehouse restaurants. The Statehouse has been serving for just two months.
“We’ve probably kept about half of them,” Welther said of his staff. “We’ve had to hire a few people since then.”
Even a larger restaurant group like Food Fight, with its 17 restaurants, isn’t immune. Among Food Fight’s members, Avenue Bar executive chef Christian Behr has replaced “six to eight” cooks this year, out of 19 people total in the back of the house.
At another Food Fight spot, The Coopers Tavern, executive chef Tim Larsen went through 15 line cooks in 11 months.
“The market is saturated with restaurants, and so finding that good help has been difficult,” Larsen said. “We went through a fairly difficult year of staff turnover.”
Dan Fox, chef/owner of Heritage Tavern, replaced half of his kitchen team this year. During July and August when there were a slew of restaurant openings, he spent “almost 90 percent” of his time and effort in staffing and training.
The rise of no call/ no show among line cooks and dishwashers, Fox said, is “an amazing trend.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like it before in my professional career,” he said. “It comes from the fact that there’s no competition. A kid can walk into any kitchen he wants and probably get hired.”
Earlier this year, Fox was considering opening a sister restaurant to Heritage. Now he’s decided that, if he does, it will be significantly smaller, with “limited hours and limited overhead.”
“There’s a labor competition right now for sure,” Fox said. “I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”
For a sense of how a Madison cook might find his or her way onto a line, take the case of Andrew Carrillo.
Carrillo is in his late 20s, with a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in history and political science.
After he realized he wanted to work as a cook, Carrillo went from being a shift manager at a coffee shop to working for a food cart (Banzo), Gotham Bagels and now, as a line cook for Heritage Tavern. It took less than a year.
“I love it,” said Carrillo, who is also taking culinary classes at Madison College. “I’m surrounded by people who know a lot more about food than I do. They help me get better at smaller details of cooking ... (and) execute correctly even when there’s a lot of other things going on.”
That’s the kind of job mobility that everyone, from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the City of Madison to Madison College and Blackhawk Technical College, wants to promote.
“Our mission is to encourage people to enter a career path in the restaurant industry,” said Quam at the restaurant association, which provides thousands of dollars in scholarships for students.
It also sponsors a two-year program for high schoolers called ProStart, which tries to “pull in students from all walks of life, all economic backgrounds, rural schools, urban schools,” Quam said.
At Madison College, attrition among culinary students is high. After hovering around 25 percent in 2011 and 2012, graduation rates spiked to 46 percent in 2013. The current rate is 33 percent, with 141 people enrolled.
“The demographics of our students are not what a UW student is,” said Paul Short, head of the Madison College culinary program. “They’re employed out in the industry, raising families and holding down a job and going to school.
“Are they going to get done in two years? Maybe not.”
The college is addressing this several ways. The big news is a $15.6 million building on the Truax campus, set to break ground in summer 2015. That would allow the culinary program, now pressed for space, to more than double in size.
Madison College also hopes to “step out” the culinary program starting in fall 2015. If someone can only study for a semester, he or she will get basic training, “cut and dry fundamentals” like knife skills, baking, sanitation and food theory, Short said.
If students take a second semester, they’ll get more advanced skills and a technical diploma. A second year would offer classes in restaurant management, among other things, and end with an associate’s degree.
Another new push is at the high school level. With a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Madison College plans to partner with the Madison Metropolitan School District to offer students the first semester of culinary school, starting in their junior year.
This “dual credit” program would cut the length of post-high school culinary training to a year-and-a-half.
This spring, Short is planning a career fair, geared toward “restaurants, restaurant work and larger institutions,” Short said. He has also started meeting with the Madison Area Chefs Network.
“Within the downtown restaurant scene, we’re working to create a better network with those chefs to be able to access our graduates and even our current students,” Short said.
Meanwhile, chefs Tory Miller and Jonny Hunter of Forequarter are looking to set up something even shorter than what Madison College would offer.
Hunter has already met with the Urban League of Greater Madison and the Latino Academy of Workforce Development to discuss plans for a short-term program for kitchen staff — less than a month — that would give participants “more than just the basic skills,” but also help them “understand how to be successful in that environment.”
“If there was job training specifically focused around kitchen work, we could employ more people, right?” Hunter said. “The city spends a lot of money on job training and there are these job training programs.
“We volunteered to create a three-week program for them that would get them a job in any kitchen.”
Hunter has never done job training before. He and Miller turned to the city for guidance and structural support. They may also seek funding from an Emerging Opportunities Grant ($5,000-23,000) or a smaller, short-term SEED grant.
Plans are still in the discussion phase, but the next grant cycle is coming in spring.
“There isn’t so much a lack of people interested in being line cooks so much as there really isn’t the expertise,” said Mark Woulf, the city’s food policy coordinator. “Chefs here are constantly looking for the right people to step into those types of jobs that pay pretty good wages.
“The specific training for what they need is lacking.”
Where the city could help is identifying barriers to training, like transportation and affordable child care.
“We have an increase in restaurants and we’re probably going to see that continue,” Woulf said. “They have a lack of available workers they can plug in right away.
“The potential there to have folks start there and work their way up is huge.”
While schools hustle to keep up with demand, in kitchens all over the city, restaurants want to keep the people they have.
For employees, then, the shortage hasn’t been all bad. For one thing, wages are going up.
“There’s a lot of people right now making more than they would’ve several years ago and it’s because there are so many places out there,” said Joe Learned, executive chef at Rare and overseer of all of Noble Hospitality Group’s kitchens, including Buck and Badger and Capital Tap Haus.
“Nobody wants to be a line cook forever,” Learned said. “If you create the culture, they can grow into something new, and retention isn’t as big of an issue.”
The Italian franchise Benvenuto’s offers line cooks a $100 hiring bonus; so does the burger chain Red Robin.
Epic Systems in Verona is looking to hire 17 cooks for its new facility opening in May. All will be Epic employees, and thus receive “competitive wages with full benefits.” (See sidebar on pg. 22.)
“The tight labor market has helped increase the average wage, not just in our restaurants but overall in the city,” said Greg Frank, Food Fight Restaurant Group managing partner. “I think that’s a good thing.
“It’s made us make sure that we are providing opportunities for our people to grow.”
Cooks at Food Fight restaurants, which include Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, Fresco, Eldorado Grill and Luigi’s pizzeria, may receive informal mentorships and tuition reimbursement for classes, including English as a Second Language.
According to Amy Carrick, head of human resources for Food Fight, more formal training is in the works for 2015.
“If you want to grow, we’ll give you those chances,” Frank said. “Any skills we can help provide are fantastic. There’s a ton of opportunities for people that are motivated and ambitious and want that opportunity.”
At Edgewater, Welther knows that it’s “an added stressor” to be asked to work Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The restaurant sweetens the package with benefits.
“We have a good benefit package here — better than most restaurants,” Welther said.
Other, smaller restaurants have had to be more creative. Heritage has set up a poker night for the kitchen and taken staff on a field trip to Lonely Oak Farm in Rio, where chef Dan Fox raises pigs.
Sean Fogarty, a sous chef at Heritage who has been in the business since he was 14, tries to keep the back of the house engaged and learning.
“Teach,” he said. “That’s really all we can do. That’s why a lot of cooks are in this, especially in fine dining — to learn new techniques, be pushed a little bit.”
Chefs who’ve advanced themselves from dishwasher to line cook to sous chef know how important it is to keep offering those opportunities.
“It can be a very intense job, and sometimes the compensation isn’t always enough to keep people,” said Larsen at Coopers. “I’ve always found that people who work in the kitchen have ... something from their heart. It’s not necessarily for the money but it’s something they love.”
“If you’re in it for a paycheck you’re in the wrong industry,” Miller agreed. “It is a high-stress job, especially if it’s a busy restaurant.
“We’re misfits and artists and rejects in a lot of ways. That’s (how) our business started and that’s what the mentality used to be.”
Despite the focus on training, everyone in the business agrees that the key to being successful in the restaurant industry when you’re starting from scratch is not only skill. It’s attitude.
“A couple of years ago, I hired a dishwasher named Jake,” said Maciejewski at Madison Sourdough. “He had a fantastic work ethic. He did such a good job and he worked really hard, so we promoted him to a cook and then to front of house. Now he just took the promotion to front of house manager.
“It really is all about work ethic and attitude. If you’re willing to learn and you’re willing to work hard and you have a positive attitude, that’s what employers are looking for in advancement.”
Though the lack of line cooks is a real issue, for better or worse, the restaurant scene here continues to grow.
For Miller’s new tapas restaurant on East Johnson Street, planned for summer 2015, the well-known chef figures he’ll have to recruit out of town.
“For the new place I’m going to be hiring a chef de cuisine and sous chefs, a full staff,” Miller said. “I’m basically going to have to go out of the region I think. There just isn’t the wealth of those individuals.” ￼