Your Free-Range Chicken Had a Great Life, But the Man Who Cooked It Makes a Subsistance Wage (Barely)

In a powerful essay for The New Inquiry, Willoughby Cooke explores how the farm to table movement has done little—if anything—to improve the lives of people who work in restaurants. He writes: “I have worked as a cook in the restaurant industry for the past decade, and it has become clear to me over the years that the vision of a sustainable food system ignores one key element: working conditions. In other words, it ignores me — the grunt, the cog, the line cook making your dinner.”

Cooke has worked as “a prep cook, fry cook, pantry cook, grill cook, pastry chef, and baker. The least [he’s] made was $7.50 per hour; the most was $13.50. To be a line cook and eventually a chef you must submit to the hell that is the professional kitchen: long hours, low pay, no breaks, no respect.” This essay is a must, must read.


12 Comments / Post A Comment

EM (#1,012)

I wish there was an accountability system for worker conditions in restaurants. There isn’t really a way of knowing if you are eating at a place that treats its cooks and servers decently, even if you know whether the food is local and organic and how many five-star Yelp reviews it has.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Michelle I think it would be great to have a Yelp for employers. I would love to tell the world about my ex-boss at the only job I have ever walked out on. And just like Yelp, you can take or leave what you read.

thecoffeestain (#1,483)

I have spent most of my formative years working in restaurants like this, but on the front end (never the back). Everything he says is completely accurate; even in the North East, surrounded by college kids on their parents bankroll and executives/white collar types who make more money than should be legal. It’s insanely discouraging to see the owners of a restaurant strutting around like they’re a Food Network star, when really they more closely resemble the shark you’re serving as a special that evening for $25 a plate. Add to that pile knowing that the likelihood of your success in becoming a chef-owner one day is a fraction of a percent? It’s a wonder we lifers even stick around through the sado-masochism of the kitchen or the restaurant floor.

Props to you, Willoughby Cooke, for writing one of my favorite articles to date (and for slugging it through long hours and shitty pay in an effort to follow the path towards personal excellence).

No time to read this, I’m starting a charity to stop homeless pets from ending up in mass graves.

Also: In Denmark the negotiated minimum wage for low-paid workers is ~$20/hour, which McDonalds finally agreed to in 1989 after years of social pressure and sympathy strikes. A Big Mac in Denmark costs the equivalent of $4.65 — or $0.32 more than in the United States. I guess it can be done!

@stuffisthings Here are some interesting labor facts on full-service restaurants in the US. I seriously doubt the author’s assertion that prices would need to double in order to treat workers properly. As you can see from the data, restaurants as a whole do about $3 in sales per $1 of payroll — which, incidentally, is higher than for architects! ($2.69 in receipts per $1 of payroll). In other words, labor costs are about 1/3 of a restaurant’s total costs, including any profit.

Looking at it another way:
I don’t know how many dishes a fine dining chef is responsible for in a typical shift — smaller full-service restaurants I’ve worked in might have as few as 2 cooks on for lunch, while medium-sized ones might have 6 or 8 for dinner. So let’s say you have 5 cooks working an 8-hour dinner shift at your typical upscale urban hole-in-the-wall place, that’s 40 man(person)hours. Pay them all $10 more per hour and you’re talking $400 over the evening. Depending how spendy the restaurant is, that might be one four-top’s wine bill, or two date nights. Amortize that over every dish served to every diner and $1 per item should easily cover it. $1.25 and you could probably afford health care, too.

Weasley (#1,419)

This is one of the reasons I can never fully get behind the argument for getting rid of tips based wages for waiters and bartenders. I worked as a dishwasher and prepcook making $9/hour while the main chef was making $14/hour while the waiters complained if they made anything less than $18/hour in tips which was not very often.

@Weasley Did your waiters not tip you out? If so, they were assholes.

selenana (#673)

@stuffisthings I worked as a dishwasher for a couple of years and got tipped out only when the servers had a really really great night (maybe 2-3 times a year). Tipouts are not but are definitely not standard practice in a lot of places.

selenana (#673)

@selenana not=nice

AJ Sparkles (#150)

Recently had a discussion on this & was pointed to this great little zine:

Nick (#1,548)

It’s subsistence, not subsistance :)


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