CHICAGO – New Year's Eve last year found Mary Mastricola in a bind.
She had booked 80 people for a four-course prix-fixe dinner at La Petite Folie, her French restaurant in Hyde Park. But with two employees recently resigned and others unavailable to work the holiday, there was almost no one around to cook and serve it.
So Mastricola pulled the evening off assisted only by her loyal dishwasher-turned-cook.
"It was nutcase," Mastricola recalls.
A huge boom of new restaurants in Hyde Park and throughout Chicago has left Mastricola competing not only for customers but for employees, who are quick to alight to larger restaurants that can afford to pay more.
The revolving door has led to the executive chef working 17 hours some days, taking out trash or scrubbing pots when employees don't show up for their shifts or quit without notice.
"Someone has to fill the gap and it's almost always me," Mastricola said. "There is an exhaustion that sets in that makes it hard to even be civil."
Restaurateurs for years have complained of the difficulty of finding good workers, but they say the labor crunch has intensified with a surge of new openings, a smaller pool of immigrant workers and more opportunities for cooks in non-restaurant jobs with saner hours.
The squeeze is particularly profound at small independent restaurants without the allure of big-name backing or room in their budgets to absorb higher pay.
But even famous chefs say the struggle is real.
"We overbuilt restaurants for the labor force we had," said Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Grill, Lena Brava and other celebrated eateries. "There's just not enough people."
Opportunities are so plentiful that some of Bayless' help wanted ads get zero responses. This summer 60 to 70 percent of people didn't show up for stage (pronounced "stahj"), an unpaid internship that is a training tradition at high-end restaurants, he said.
The reasons for the labor crunch go beyond the heightened competition from new restaurants.
Many culinary students opt to work in corporate kitchens or go into research and development, options that afford them easier hours and often benefits, said Bill Reynolds, former provost at Washburne Culinary Institute, which is part of Chicago's community college system. Upscale grocery stores like Whole Foods and Mariano's that highlight prepared food and in-store dining options provide additional non-restaurant opportunities.
Culinary school closures and declining enrollment also may be affecting the pipeline, as students with dreams of becoming the next celebrity chef realize that their expensive investment will actually yield years of low-paying jobs in unglamorous environments, Reynolds said.
"Many of our graduates weren't in the industry five years later because they didn't like the lifestyle or they couldn't afford to stay in it," he said.
Sam Toia, CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, blames toughened immigration policies for striking at "the backbone" of the hospitality industry, which historically has relied heavily on immigrants to staff kitchens.