Where Have All the Line Cooks Gone?

In the rush to become the next Jamie Oliver, young line cooks are focusing less on fundamentals and jumping ship with more frequency. It’s enough to make a head chef cry for help.

No! Donkey! You have to cook wild boar the same as pork! It is pork! Why do you think it is different? I can tell you are thinking it is different, but you must think of it the same way as pork! Do another.”

I thought that first boar chop looked great, but Jean-Robert de Cavel disagreed. He didn’t even touch it. He could tell just by looking at it that it wasn’t right. Not everyone who works in a restaurant has that kind of eye for detail, but even I could see that when the second boar chop went out into the dining room, it was ever so slightly plumper and the caramelized color was that much more robust.

Illustration by Brett Ryder

Anyone who has spent time in a professional kitchen helmed by de Cavel is familiar with this scenario, as well as the decibels involved. My second week as sommelier at the now-defunct Jean-Robert at Pigall’s marked the first time I heard the Frenchman raise his voice; it certainly wasn’t the last, though it didn’t happen often. In fact, I imagine that the only other people who remember this little episode are the cook and maybe de Cavel. Which is as it should be, because this sort of exchange is nothing if not standard operating procedure for passing on rigorous discipline and in-depth knowledge to the next generation of would-be chefs.

Despite the American public’s ever-flourishing fascination with food television and celebrity chef culture, the number of actual cooks who are willing to invest the time necessary to access the narrow window of excellence required to manage a pro kitchen is not growing in proportion. Indeed, finding motivated, not to mention qualified, cooks is increasingly difficult. Daniel Wright, chef-owner of Senate, Abigail Street, and Pontiac BBQ, estimates this deficit “has been going on for at least three years.” And yet, in those three years, the number of restaurants in Cincinnati has mushroomed. “I think there’s more people now in culinary than there were 10 years ago when I first opened—there are more people with skills in the business,” notes Julie Francis, chef-owner of Nectar in Mt. Lookout. “But I think that here in Cincinnati, there aren’t enough of them to support the number of restaurants.”

Cincinnati has been packing on the restaurants lately and Over-the-Rhine is ground zero. In early 2007, only two restaurants served dinner in the neighborhood, Nicola’s and Venice on Vine (which closes relatively early). Lavomatic (which has since closed) and Senate were early Gateway Quarter pioneers in 2008, but it took two more years for things to really heat up. There are now more than 30 restaurants, not counting fast-food chains, in OTR. Assuming five cooks can staff an average kitchen five days a week, that’s around 150 new positions in the last six years, and that staffing pressure trickles down to restaurants old and new throughout the region.

One important benefit of this growth is that, across many different sizes and styles of restaurant, food quality continues to improve. De Cavel, Wright, Francis, and Jeremy Lieb, culinary director for the Boca Restaurant Group, all patronize local farms for seasonal produce and seek out the highest grades of proteins, from heritage breed Red Wattle hogs to locally-raised paddlefish caviar, to serve to guests. And they’re not the only ones. But with improvement comes a new standard across the board, and it’s begun to raise staffing concerns among the chefs running these high-performance kitchens. Bhumin Desai, executive chef of Maplewood Kitchen, sees it as a problem of quality, not quantity. “Line cooks in general are a dime a dozen,” he says, “but those who have the attention to detail are harder to find.”

De Cavel goes one step further in clarifying the distinction. “There is a huge difference between being a culinarian and being a cook,” he says. “The culinarian understands the season of the menu, the season of the produce, the difference between certain cuts of vegetables, and a certain way to make sauces. A cook doesn’t have that [broad range of] knowledge.”

Anyone who has ever watched the kitchen staff at a Waffle House knows that cooks can be first-rate. Having what it takes—self-discipline and mental toughness—to cross the bridge from good to great, however, is rare. And right now, in the Queen City, too many cooks who could make that leap are getting off at the last exit before the bridge.

A generation or more ago (in the pre-nouvelle cuisine era), Cincinnati was a fine dining mecca—we had more Mobil Travel Guide five-star restaurants (three) than New York City (two). It is said that if you were a server at Maisonette, The Gourmet Room, or the original Pigall’s, you could move to Chicago or New York and get hired at a top restaurant without an interview. The service was impeccable, but it had to be, because the food was extraordinary. What set these restaurants apart mostly boiled down to preparation and technique. How precise was the brunoise of shallot? Did the bordelaise sauce possess the perfect viscosity? Skilled line cooks reproduced the same dish created by the head chef over and over again, with a maniacal attention to detail. Dressed in white, hair tucked under 16-inch toques, with not a tattoo or earring in sight, the (mostly male) cooks toiled for years in anonymity.

These days, de Cavel is the first name in Cincinnati fine dining, having stewarded the legendary Maisonette through much of the 1990s before leaving to open Jean-Robert at Pigall’s in 2002. Since then he’s opened (and closed) a slew of places, the most recent being Restaurant L, which debuted last fall. (It’s also worth noting that he has personally mentored every chef mentioned here, save Francis.) He’s been in the business long enough to have an astute view of a variety of trends, notably the rise in the last decade of, as he puts it, “hip, urban restaurants which have some cooking technique, but don’t have that much.”

The problem, as de Cavel sees it, comes down to cooks who want to move on to chef-manager-owner roles before they’ve mastered their craft. “They don’t want to learn anymore, they want to act and take responsibility in the kitchen,” he says. “At Maisonette, most cooks were there for a year to two years, there to really learn. Then they could move on with that on their résumé, and we would have younger cooks coming in. That pattern doesn’t really exist today.”

America’s increased appetite for fast-casual food, a legacy of the economic downturn a decade ago, has opened the doors for less qualified cooks to open narrow-scope restaurants. The chance to mine the kaleidoscopic varieties of international street food, BBQ, tacquerias, and sandwich shops can potentially turn a quick profit, and it seems like everyone’s trying it.

In terms of economic advancement this trajectory can be great—except perhaps for more sophisticated restaurants where training is not only appreciated but required. “Culinary schools didn’t see the evolution of restaurants and were slow in responding,” notes de Cavel. “Young people wonder why they need to spend $5,000 to $10,000 for school, when they could get a full-time job and try to get their education where they work. Young people don’t think they need to be well-educated [as cooks] to get better positions. It didn’t used to be like that, but now, there’s always a job available.”

But for how long? It’s always possible to move up, but if cooks don’t spend time cultivating their skills and nurturing a sense of discipline, they will not find a career trajectory that gives them more control. If a young cook doesn’t sow the seeds for a sustainable future in her early years, it’s hard to ensure even a steady job in later years. Roy Silcott, who manages Frenchie Fresh, de Cavel’s fast-casual Gallic-inspired burger joint, often encounters a different, though related, challenge. “Problems come when you get cooks who only want to do things their way,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how you teach them, or what you want them to do, they will be stubborn and want to do it their way.”

So where does all this leave finer dining establishments? If the new generation of line cooks are impatient to make an impact, they may not be aware that they are already doing just that, even in their entry-level role. Although a line cook’s job can be exciting and rewarding, it is intense, exhausting work, and it can be hard to stick with for five to seven years. It’s no surprise that cooks burn out as they move through the system, but according to Jeremy Lieb, the opt-out rate before reaching full mastery has reached epic proportions.

“We have a lot of people who come through to stage,” the French term for a two-week stint to try each other out. “And listen, I’m a nice guy, and we have a great team, great equipment, great products to use. [But] 80 percent of them don’t come back. We get them for a week, and then they’re gone.” Most of the chefs I spoke with were not fully convinced as to why this is happening, but they were familiar with the pattern. They all shared one common issue, a variation on I had to ask the cook to correct his work. This is normal, by the way, until a cook understands the expectations of the chef. Cooks who thought their skill set was solid suddenly discover they aren’t bringing what Boca needs. Depending on their deficiencies, some cooks choose to move on rather than swallow their pride and meet the new expectations. “I get people that apply for a job with business cards that say that they are sous chefs,” says Lieb. “It’s like there’s a different breed of people out there.”

Daniel Wright is a bit more blunt. “When I was coming up, if I messed something up, the chef would hit me in the head with a baguette,” he says. “I was told what I was doing wrong, and told how to do it better. With this softer generation, they don’t want to be told they’re doing something wrong, they only want to play off their strengths. But the fact is, until you start working on your weaknesses, you won’t become stronger.”

That said, chefs are sympathetic to the economic realities their staffs face. “I had a guy early on at Abigail Street, one of my sous chefs,” Wright explains. “I had big aspirations for him and a year into it, he’s like, ‘I got a job as a sous chef for a [corporate restaurant group] and they’re going to pay me $25,000 more.’ I realized that he was staring down $800 a month in loan payments and it was a really big thing. That’s incredibly hard [for me] to compete with as an independent restaurant.”

Put another way: Young cooks might hang in there longer if the money was better, but often it is not. Most of the restaurants that garner critical acclaim are independently owned, or part of a smaller, regional restaurant group. They have a corps of cooks, some of whom can’t sustain life at the bottom for long. “As an independent restaurant owner, you have to be a little bit intimidated by the hotels that have popped up around the area that can pay $14 to $15 an hour, offer full benefits, and a 401(k),” says Silcott. “That’s a real challenge for an independent restaurateur.”

Individual celebrity is seductive stuff, but fame without skill is a hollow legacy. The skills have to come from somewhere, and most chefs agree, it’s best to hire early and cultivate talent in-house. It is not uncommon for a cook to skip culinary school if they can work for a chef who can nurture their skills. “I look for people who want to cook and want to learn. We have a kitchen full of guys who were [initially] green, and I just changed the way I trained people. I taught them how to cook, and that’s kind of what’s happening all over,” says Lieb.

The situation also benefits from a pay-it-forward flavor. “Willingness to learn is something you can’t teach,” says Desai. “Somebody took the time to teach me, and get me to where I’m at today. If I can help somebody improve [his or her] career, that’s absolutely something I’m willing to do. I’m grateful to have worked with some great people in my career, so it’s my obligation to teach the up-and-coming cooks of Cincinnati, too.”

With Frenchie Fresh, Silcott and de Cavel have the germ of a farm system for the Jean-Robert restaurant group. If they are able to expand the concept to multiple locations, the training ground grows. “Behind the scenes, Frenchie Fresh is kind of our own little culinary school,” Silcott says. “Right now, I teach four students from Midwest Culinary Institute and their intentions are to become chefs. When they outgrow Frenchie Fresh—and they’re growing exponentially every day—we’ll be able to move them up to Jean-Robert’s Table or French Crust. They can see that growth potential.”

Professional growth is the key to a culinary career, and it doesn’t stop when your name is on the door. Lieb summed up the common attitude of all the chefs I interviewed: “I want to attract great people, and I’ll do my best to do that, but that’s all I can do. We need to figure out new ways to get staff, to teach them, [but also] to keep them excited—growing, learning, and challenged.”

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