Seven days a week, Bethany Wells puts her dream through a rigorous test.
For $11 an hour at two Twin Cities restaurants, she’ll cut vegetables, trim peas and peel hundreds of cloves of garlic. Twelve hours later, the line cook at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis and Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar in St. Paul will walk out exhausted, drenched in sweat and covered with food.
For Wells, a 2015 graduate of St. Paul College’s culinary program, the long hours, gritty conditions and tedious tasks represent the bedrock for some lofty goals: to become an executive chef and then an instructor.
“I couldn’t sit at a desk. I couldn’t stare at a screen,” Wells said. “For me, cooking is an art form you get to experience with all your senses.”
But individuals like Wells — educated but novice workers who are willing to take on grinding, often thankless cooking jobs — are becoming increasingly rare. Kitchen vacancies have been climbing for years due to low wages and tremendous restaurant growth.
At the same time, culinary schools — one of the restaurant industry’s major tributaries — have struggled. Since 2014, three of Minnesota’s five major culinary schools have announced they would shutter their programs, pointing to insufficient postgraduate wages and the industry’s unwillingness to reward a degree.
As the Twin Cities restaurant boom continues to drive the need for skilled workers, however, the closings only exacerbate a weak labor pool that chefs and restaurateurs say was already failing to keep up.
“It’s crippling to our industry, especially when we’re at a point of growth like we are right now,” said Sameh Wadi, chef/owner of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge and World Street Kitchen in Minneapolis. “There is no new blood coming in.”
At 5 p.m. on a Thursday, young cooks in white coats and black caps scurry around the kitchen in St. Paul College’s culinary school wing, chopping Brussels sprouts, stirring pots of risotto and slicing beets. They’re preparing for that night’s dinner service at City View Grille, the school’s 40-seat restaurant staffed almost entirely by students.
Tonight, the menu includes cold-poached lobster, apple-brandy pork roast, wild mushroom bread pudding, and more.
“Next week we’re doing rustic Italian,” said Sara Johannes, the head chef and instructor at City View. “We want these guys to be as malleable as possible. We put them through the wringer. It’s my job to make sure they get their [butts] kicked on a daily basis.”
The program, in comparison with its peers, is thriving. St. Paul College, which charges $14,000 for the three-semester degree, enrolls 100 students in its culinary school each year, and there is often a waiting list to get in. And while just 60 percent of students who initially enroll graduate, default rates on student loans are 21 percent, significantly lower than some of the culinary programs elsewhere.
“We feel like we’re helping out individuals on their path to learning,” said Nathan Sartain, the college’s culinary arts program director. “And we’re professionalizing the industry as well.”
Other schools have had a different experience. In October 2014, four years after building a $2 million state-of-the-art facility, Minneapolis Community Technical College’s popular program announced it would close.
Le Cordon Bleu stopped accepting new students at its Mendota Heights campus in January (the company is in the process of closing all 15 other campuses in the U.S., as well).
And in June, Arts Institutes International revealed it will cease new enrollment for all its programs at its Minneapolis campus, as well as a handful of others across the nation, depending on regional demand.
Gail O’Kane, MCTC’s vice president of academic affairs, said interest in the school’s culinary program was still high, but students weren’t benefiting in the long run.
Kane said MCTC offers other programs geared to industries with low starting wages, but that those programs also yielded realistic opportunity for advancement. In the restaurant industry, though, there are many cooks, but few chefs. MCTC’s research showed, on average, limited gains over the career of a cook.
“If there was more of a career ladder, then we would be happy to offer a program,” O’Kane said. “But it’s really our job to get students a path to a higher wage.”
MCTC’s culinary program also had a 42 percent student loan default rate — a sign that graduates either wouldn’t or couldn’t pay their bills.
The latter theory is supported in a snapshot of the restaurant industry’s changes over the past six years.
From 2010 to 2015 — the latest data available from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development — the rate of vacancies for cooks and prep workers has risen from 1.4 to 6.7 percent, a change of 378 percent. Meanwhile, wage increases have gone from a median of $8.39 per hour in 2010 to $10.59 in 2015 — a change of 26 percent.
“Typically, when demand goes up you expect the wages to follow,” said Steve Hine, a labor market analyst for the state. “It’s one area that is going to experience increasingly difficult times in terms of finding and retaining workers.”
Isaac Becker, chef/owner of Burch, 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis, prefers a simple solution. The über-successful restaurateur starts line cooks at around $13 or $14 an hour, well over the state median, and gives significant raises if a cook proves his or her worth.
“The restaurant business plan, I think for years, has been based on getting cooks to work for almost nothing,” Becker said. “And somehow they were willing to do that. But I think that’s changing.”
No demand for degree
A lack of interest in the industry is compounded by the 3.5 percent unemployment rate in the Twin Cities metro area, second lowest among major cities nationally. Most chefs and restaurateurs say they simply can’t find the bodies they need for the work.
Thomas Boemer, chef/owner of Corner Table and Revival in Minneapolis, had to search out of state for his last two kitchen hires. Wadi has simplified some menu items to allow for a smaller kitchen staff.
Kim Bartmann, owner of Red Stag Supperclub and Barbette in Minneapolis, among other restaurants, believes the shortage of cooks has begun to affect the industry’s growth.
Two weeks ago, a fellow restaurateur called her to bemoan a delay in opening a new restaurant because only 15 of the 50-some staffers had been hired.
“It’s so extreme that you can’t open a restaurant,” Bartmann said. “People are reluctant to take on new projects because there is such a shortage of people to work.”
Some in the industry use culinary schools as a resource. Boemer said he often calls Sartain when he’s looking for a new hire.
But partly because of the extremely high demand and partly because of the modest skills necessary for entry-level jobs, many chefs and restaurateurs say a culinary degree has very little bearing on their hiring decision.
Wells, who has also worked at Butcher & the Boar, Restaurant Alma and 4Bells in her short career, said she hasn’t been asked for her résumé in years. Becker estimated that less than 15 percent of his employees had culinary degrees.
And Kane said MCTC’s research showed the industry offered only a slim financial benefit for individuals with a degree — with educated cooks often making the same wage as their uneducated counterparts.
“It’s just not a major consideration,” Wadi said. “The education is nice, but it doesn’t mean they can execute.”
For her part, Wells has no regrets.
The value of her education, she said, comes in her comfort level with kitchen terminology and technique, the networking opportunities that have put her in the same room with some of the Twin Cities’ biggest players, and the hope for a better shot at the industry’s rare peak.
While the majority of a kitchen staff might not be formally educated, most executive chefs are.
“It is what it is,” she said. “You build the skills at this base level. You pay your dues. You put in the time.
“But if you’re young and willing, it can work.”