Paying the Piper- The Culinary Brain Drain

You can feel it all around the United States. With the massive push of vaccinations and the slowly declining COVID-19 case numbers, restaurants and venues are starting to relax their requirements. People still need to wear masks, yes, and social distancing is still a thing- but you can eat inside now. You can sit with friends. You and your buddies can, within reason, go out and grab a beer just like you used to. We are starting to get back to normal after a year in a plague-ridden Hell of our own creation.

Not all industries are ready though:

Hey, I need to hire two line cooks ASAP! Anyone give me any leads?”
Guys, I’m desperate. I need a dishwasher, a busboy, and at least three cooks NOW- the restaurant is packed every night and I can’t take it anymore!”

Why can’t I find capable help anymore?! Everyone I hire either flakes out, burns out, or just quits! WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE COOKS?!”

They found greener pastures, folks. They had no other choice. We need to raise a new crop of cooks from scratch- maybe we’ll be smarter about it this time.

Moving On

No one is indispensable.
That has been the credo of hospitality management for ages. I remember being informed of it Day 1 at the casino. On one level, yeah- it makes sense. “Don’t get a big head over your position. No one is so important they can’t be replaced.” That is legitimate and for a group of folks as stereotypically egotistical as cooks, the reminder to keep our egos in check is vital. We are a team- no one does it alone.

But what happens when everyone is disposed of?

Career chefs and cooks who expected long years in the industry and have given their lives, bodies, and souls to keeping kitchens running suddenly found themselves on the sidewalk this time last year. The industry contracted. It spat out the excess weight- and those people still needed to survive. Many figured out how without the kitchen. Some went back to school, others picked up new trades, or started their own ventures. The industry they loved didn’t love them back- or was at least unable to support and save them– and so they had to move on.

They took more then excess labor costs out the door with them a year ago, though. They took the knowledge, experience, and expertise they’ve gathered from years in the industry with them too. What’s more, distance from the industry has given them perspective on their experience. All that time and training… to get tossed out the door? All the sacrifices, sweat, and suffering they endured… just to be cast off when the going got rough?

Maybe leaving the kitchen was a good thing. Maybe their new venture or industry can offer a bit more stability and security… or at least offer a bit more flexibility and faithfulness in the face of the next crisis.

Dark times don’t last forever though. Business is swinging back as COVID starts to recede. Restaurants around the country are not ready, or if they are- they can’t find a capable workforce willing to sign on for the same raw deal.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

The Second-Stringers

In other industries, this might be a sign to change. White-collar businesses around the country realized just how much of their office staff didn’t really need to be in an office- something that disability activists have been advocating for a while. Restaurants and hospitality, however, are different animals. By definition, we need to be on site and dealing with the public in person. For the duration of the pandemic, cooks and restaurant workers (the ones who were able to keep their jobs) were unsung “essential,” “frontline” heroes.

We kept cooking, kept serving, kept smiling in the face of an increasingly acrimonious public that DIDN’T want to social distance. They refused to wear masks, let alone wear them properly. They raged against diminished services, decreased menus, and slower service. They just wanted everything to be “back to normal…” without doing any of the work that would make that happen, regardless of how token or meager the requests were.

It’s what we are trained to do.

Regardless, we are beyond exhausted, beyond burned out, and 110% OVER not just the pandemic but the unpleasantness the pandemic has brought out in the public. The experienced workers have either left, or are ready to leave… and the industry will be left with trying to source a new workforce with less of the old hands to train them.

Job sites are flooded with graduates that may have had their last years of school cheated from them. They will be kids, hobbyists, or people trying out a new industry for the first time. If they have experience and skill, they are hypervigiliant– feeling out new positions to ask themselves “Can I see myself sticking around here? Will I be valued? Will they throw me under the bus?” Fair questions- and if the restaurant industry can’t bear to look at itself and make changes, if it just tries to go back to the way things were before… the answers will push even modestly-skilled prospects toward the door.

The pandemic has shown the world just who can look after their own and who can’t.

What’s To Be Done?

A reevaluation. The old ways won’t work so well anymore- in fact, they haven’t for a while. It was the love and faith of the Old Hands that kept the industry chugging along. In a way, the Culinary Industry has lost a generation of skills… and the new kids are going to be the ones that come in with their eyes open.

From customers, we will need patience. The doors are open and the tables are set, but no- restaurants are not “back” yet, and we likely won’t be for a while. There will be wait times, social distancing, and mistakes as we stagger our way through the aftermath of having our industry gutted for a solid year. If you are so happy to see us back, if you missed going out to eat so much… please give us the time and support we need to get better.

From chefs, owners, and other industry insiders- we need to learn from our mistakes. We need to figure out better, more efficient ways to train people, and create an industry that looks after its workers and supports the people that dedicate so much to keeping it running.

Stay Classy,

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