Another Column About the Restaurant Industry

Chef Preparing Cuisine In Hotel Kitchen
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I attended a happy hour event hosted by one of my favorite restaurants, Boucherie. It was a “thank you” for Chef’s Brigade and it was awful nice.

I got to talk to a number of restaurateurs who participated in the Mass Feeding Initiative and also some of their staff. I got to hang out with some of the folks who were instrumental in making the program work: Darnell Head and Jessica Lerouge of Revolution Foods; Leah Sarris, April Boudreaux and Trey Pressner of NOCHI;  and from our organization, co-founder Troy Gilbert and board member and indispensable human Melanie Talia of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation.

We could not have done what we did without any of these people, but at the end of the day we could not have done anything if it wasn’t for the people who work in the back of the house. These are not the people who get attention, but they’re the ones who do most of the work.

I remember when I first started writing about restaurants almost two decades ago. I was star-struck by the chefs I interviewed. I looked at them like rock stars and for a while they were – maybe they still are – but the scales have fallen off my eyes at this point and I can’t think of a chef I know who would object to my reconfigured sense of place.

Because chefs are ultimately people who run a kitchen. Some of them cook and some of them just expedite but all of them have to worry about the economics of the restaurant industry and the dollars and cents are not all that great at the moment.

Restaurateurs take a huge risk opening a restaurant, and they have to hire people to make their vision a reality. I have yet to meet a restaurateur who doesn’t want to pay their employees more than they can. But they can only pay what their income allows and sometimes that’s not a living wage.

The problem is that in this country we don’t pay enough for our food.

I don’t mean we pay too little at restaurants – or not just that we pay too little at restaurants, because where most restaurants are concerned, we don’t pay enough.

The truth is that we pay too little for all of our food. We don’t pay enough for produce, meat, poultry, seafood or anything else. We’ve been spoiled to the point that we take abundance for granted, but the truth is that our cheap food comes at a cost. Huge agribusinesses price small farms out of the market, and the system is set up to let them do just that. When the system is rigged, it’s not a “free market,” is it?

Our country was once a place where the majority of citizens lived on a farm. We are never going back to that for many reasons but even 20 years ago there were thousands more family farms than exist now. We have decided as a society that we value cheap food more than we value family farms, and it is very hard to argue that is not a valid decision on a purely economic basis.

But it trickles down. The increase in efficiency in farming due to mechanization and just the vast scope of the operations means fewer and fewer actual humans are involved in producing the food we eat. It trickles down to the restaurant industry too.

The high-end restaurants that serve you chicken breasts they source from local farms are charging you a fair price for it and hopefully they pay their employees accordingly. Those high-end restaurants are the exception. Most restaurants don’t have the resources or access to farmers to source their ingredients in that manner and most restaurants can’t charge the sort of money they’d need to do it in the first place.

All of this doesn’t even approach the issue of “fast food” restaurants or “fast casual” restaurants. Those chains can buy their ingredients at an even lower cost and can charge less as a result. If your goal is to purchase calories at the least cost, you’d eat at a fast food restaurant every day. They can provide calories to you at a lower cost than you could cook it yourself, taking into account the cost of storing your ingredients and the time and effort you spend cooking.

But if you’re like me, then you probably don’t want that, and you should stop eating so many figs. I suspect you like restaurants and like the idea that when you dine out, you’re supporting the people who cook and serve your food.

I don’t know what we can do to solve this problem apart from trying to buy things from local farmers and to advocate for a higher minimum wage. I am not the most liberal fellow on the block, but I have come to believe that if you have a law which says, “this is the minimum you can earn,” it should be enough that you can actually live on it. We can make exceptions where justified, but if I have to pay a dollar or two more when I dine out to make sure the people cooking and serving my food can pay their rent? I’m in with that and you can call me Leo Trotsky.

There are arguments against that position, and I can’t refute all of them now or possibly ever but at least as far as restaurant workers are concerned, I can’t look a cook or server in the eye and tell them they should work for something less than they can live on.

I will pay a dollar or two more per meal at a fast food restaurant, or a few dollars more at a small, independent place to ensure the people who work there are fairly compensated. I hope you agree, and I hope there is some sort of movement in that direction nationwide. Because the alternative is pretty grim, and I don’t like grim unless it’s a fairy tale.

I know this is a very complicated issue and I don’t pretend that I’ve covered everything involved, but before you email me with an explanation about how the market will solve everything, ask yourself whether you could pay $10 or even $20 more a month for your food?

 

 

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