Dine: Is there a cook shortage?

As restaurants open at a rapid rate, local chefs are scrambling to find line cooks

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Being a line cook is a grueling gig. From early mornings through late nights, standing and sweating are part of the job. Good cooks must develop the strength of a mover and the grace of a dancer to work their stations. They have to embrace repetitive tasks and take orders without lip. They're often adrenaline junkies. Most of all, they must love to cook.

Considering the requirements, it comes as no surprise there's a line-cook shortage in Pittsburgh. With more restaurants opening, there's more of a need for experienced, adaptive line cooks.

In early 2012, the Allegheny County Health Department reported an average of 10 food establishments opening a month until May's uptick of 13; that grew to an average of 20 monthly openings through 2013.

"Take a look at the sheer number of restaurants opening on all fronts, whether they're independently owned restaurants or chains," said Kevin Sousa, owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield, as well as Union Pig & Chicken and Station Street in East Liberty. "Of course there's a cook shortage."

This summer, more than 50 places have opened in Allegheny County, many of them moderately priced, ambitious restaurants.

Cooks are different from chefs in that they're hourly workers who answer to the executive chef, chef de cuisine and/or sous chef. They start at minimum wage and can make up to $16 an hour. Pittsburgh's mean salary for cooks is $26,020, compared to Philadelphia at $29,050; Austin, Texas, at $23,210; and Charleston, S.C., at $21,810, according to May 2012 statistics from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most start with a 40-hour-a-week schedule, but many are putting in 60 hours, particularly those who want to learn.

"You try to limit this from a financial standpoint," said Mr. Sousa, "but this is what you do when you're passionate about your career." Long hours are standard in bigger cities with a competitive restaurant culture.

Some attribute the cook shortage here to the closing of Downtown's Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in 2011. They cite the opening of the American Academy of Culinary Arts in Oakdale as a positive development, even though it's new, it's small and it's in the outskirts.

But new restaurants aren't looking for recent grads. "Every chef wants a cook with a couple years experience in a really solid restaurant. Those kinds of cooks are always hard to come by," said Trevett Hooper, chef/owner of Legume and Butterjoint in Oakland. This year, the James Beard Foundation named him a semifinalist for "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic" for the regional American fare at Legume.

He said the closing of the culinary school did not affect him because his former Regent Square location was "too far" for its graduates.

Pittsburgh isn't the only city with a cook shortage. Last month, National Public Radio reported the same phenomenon in New York for different reasons. Cooks are leaving the culinary mecca because "local ingredients are making smaller communities a lot more appealing." Low pay, a high cost of living and long commutes also are pushing cooks out.

New York Magazine spoke to other reasons for the shortage that ring true beyond New York. There are more restaurants than there were five years ago. The traditional apprentice model is taxed, as creativity and improvisation are embraced by cooks and diners. And more people are opening their own businesses sooner, which shortens the length a cook stays to learn.

Chefs agree that they are seeing applicants for jobs who are "all over the place," said Brian Pekarcik, chef/owner of Spoon and BRGR in East Liberty. But no matter where they say on their resumes that they worked or staged, it's how they perform that important. "It doesn't matter what the resume reads," he said. "Once you get someone in the kitchen, I can see what I need to know."

"Some don't know skills like blanching or shocking vegetables," said Mr. Sousa. "Cooks need to know these basics before progressing to more modern technique."

The shortage raises questions regarding training and pay. "When you look at all the great restaurants that have opened in the past few years, for only so much talent to begin with, they really have the luxury of being choosy on where to work," said Mr. Pekarcik.

Mr. Hooper said his shift in perception has made a cook shortage less of a problem. Rather than become frustrated by the lack of experienced cooks, he accepts he will have to train them from the start.

"We've had a lot of luck training people from scratch," he said. "We make line cooks out of people who haven't been, who have started off in other careers. That's kind of our strategy."

Mr. Pekarcik did the same in the case of line cook John Nickerson. Mr. Nickerson started at BRGR more than two years ago as a dishwasher and has since moved up the line, then on to Spoon next door, where he now works the fish and saute station.

Even though he said that chefs have approached him to work in other restaurants, he has chosen to stay put because of what he has been learning. "So many people know more than I do and they're so willing to teach me here," he said. "I feel like I got an education for free."

Alas, Mr. Pekarcik will lose Mr. Nickerson at the end of the month when he moves to San Francisco to be closer to his family.

At Salt, Mr. Sousa reaches beyond locals for hiring. "A lot of my kitchen staff right now is made up of cooks not from Pittsburgh," he said. "They came here because it's an affordable place to live and work."

The cook shortage has had some interesting side effects. It has opened communication among an already tight group of chef/owners.

"If there's someone who has interest working for Rick DeShantz [of Meat and Potatoes, Downtown] or Justin Severino [of Cure in Lawrenceville], we give them the courtesy of letting them know," said Mr. Pekarcik. "We work out time frames for last days at one restaurant and start dates at another. Everyone wants to lock in the best people."

As competition tightens, this also can translate to chefs sharing strong line cooks, as they double up by splitting hours.

"When it comes to line cooks, chefs want access to their best guys whenever we need them," said Mr. Pekarcik. "In the past, a line cook has had to pick a place. Now it's feasible good cooks can split time between two strong restaurants, especially those who have expressed they want to learn from different chefs."

These kinds of gestures are new. "Restaurants did not always collaborate like this," he said.

The power tipping to cooks can also make climbing the ranks less arduous, especially as some embrace social media.

Chefs who trained in traditional ways note that tweeting to customers, posting dishes on Instagram and recording technique on Vine may be intriguing but they're not the same as putting in time.

"Just because you're savvy on Twitter does not mean you've developed the skills to be a chef," said Mr. Sousa.

"It's easy plating for a dinner party for eight people as opposed to serving 150 diners a night."


Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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