Thin Ice

Shuna lost her job.

Shuna is a slashie like me. No, not a actor slash male model, silly Zoolander fan, blogger slash chef. Pastry chef to be exact. And she recently lost her pastry chef job.

I point this out, not to irritate what is a sensitive situation, but to shed light on the fragility of a pastry chefs job. Our position is a constant walk on thin ice, a weekly prayer that the ice won’t crack and swallow our position altogether.

It is a rare restaurant that can truly afford a pastry chefs salary, particularly outside hotel and restaurant groups, and in the small intimate passion driven restaurants I prefer. Labor costs on high end food run around 40 percent. What that means, is for every dollar that comes in the restaurant, 40 percent of that goes to labor. The goal for food cost is around 25 percent. That leaves a slim 35 percent of the gross income to pay for rent, china, equipment, tables, chairs, electricity, flowers, anything and everything.

And profit? 1 percent is considered successful.

The thing about labor cost, is that it’s flexible. Veil’s kitchen staff of 4 can put out 30 dinners, or 80. It costs the restaurant the same to have those 4 cooks/chefs in the kitchen, but clearly having 80 customers brings the restaurant much much more money. Thus, labor cost goes down the busier the restaurant is.

Equally, the slower the dining room is, the higher labor cost is. To create high end, fine dining it takes the same 4 cooks to run a moderate evening as it does a busy evening. To include a pastry chefs salary into labor cost, a restaurant needs to be busy, or big, or part of a large restaurant group, or a hotel.

So we watch numbers like a hawk. We count how many desserts were sold each night, how many covers we had, what percent of diners chose to have dessert. We keep our own food cost in check. We worry over slow days, weeks, months. We see the ice getting thinner, and the potential of our job slipping through the cracks.

I am fairly lucky, I was trained as a line cook long before I entered into the pastry world. I have versatile skills, which help to validate my salary. To keep my self firmly planted in the kitchen I could prep out the veg station, work the pantry, butcher, or cook on the line.

I could take a hourly wage and work part time. Or take a small salary and work 60 hours a week.

I could work for far less money than I know I could get elsewhere.

And I do, believe me.

I do all these things to work at Veil. I make all these sacrifices to stay out of a restaurant group, out of a hotel, out of a private club, out of large busy restaurants. I thrive in a small intimate kitchen, where quality can be absolutely controlled. I prefer to labor intensely for an owner who I know and like, who’s benefit I can see my work directly effecting. I like the security of personal relationships with all levels of management, who are the people see day in day out, inside and outside the restaurant.

I want to feel connected to the growth and success of the restaurant I work for. I want to feel connected to the customers I cook for.

I could care less about bringing in profit for a corporation. There is absolutely no motivation for me to break my body, work 60 plus hours for people who don’t know me. People who see me as a labor cost, not a person.

So I make sacrifices. I don’t want to be a line cook, but if it lets me stay in the kitchen and create the desserts I do at Veil, then I’ll do it. I don’t want to be broke, but if that’s what it takes to stay in a kitchen of integrity, intimacy, I will.

I do this, because above all, I don’t want to lose my job.

11 Responses to “Thin Ice”

  1. chadzilla says:

    Good points, Dana. It seems that pastry chefs are becoming a luxury in this industry… only few can afford them.
    What do you think about the current evolution of pastry perception? I’m talking about those who are pushing the boundaries like Mason, Iuzzini, Ong, Goldfarb. I loved watching Stupak push out great savory dishes (I hate to even use the word savory in it’s context of being the opposite of pastry) on Iron Chef. It seems we are coming to a point in the not-so-far-off future where restaurant kitchens employ only ‘chefs’ (without the specifics of prefixes or attached titles). It’s hard to look at someone like Albert Adria and call him a ‘pastry chef’ when he has just as much to do with the overall innovation at El Bulli as Ferran. It seems the ‘pastry’ title was put on him for semantic purposes only. I embrace a time when all chefs can be considered the same as their pastry chef brethren and we are all just simply considered chefs. After all, it’s really just about the food. Why should we differentiate our duties and even work in separate kitchens based on the ‘sweetness’ or ‘saltiness’ of our food… seems old-fashioned and close-minded (and francophilic) in a big way. We should all just be about the food and learn as much as we can from each other while working side by side.
    … and I mean all of that on the highest level of respect for what people like you and Shuna do. None of us should have to fear for our jobs on a daily basis unless we all share that fear. A pastry chef is not a foot caught in a bear trap, and we shouldn’t cut them loose. We just need to rethink our world and take it all to the next level.

  2. jack says:

    wonderful, thoughtful, heartfelt post Dana. your passion for your craft is a rarity… and reminds me that we still need to make our first visit to Veil.

  3. kirsten says:

    Dana, I wanted to take a moment to compliment your creativity. I recently expereinced Shannon’s dinner at gypsy, and while we enjoyted the entire meal, I must add that all the desserts were AMAZING. I still dream about the crispy peanut butter apres bite. We especially appreciated it at this event, b/c we know that the staff contributions to gypsy are above and beyond an already challenging week.

    Now, back to your post about number of desserts ordered. As a diner, I would add that we usually order one dessert to share. Usually not for $$ but b/c we are already sated and only want a few bites. Could it help your cause if there were 1/2 portions or bite sized desserts on the menu? I would certainly order 2 of those, with the benefit of getting to try 2 of your creations. Just a thought…..

    You are so talented – keep up your passion – it is worth it. Life needs dessert.

  4. dana says:

    Chadzilla- I agree on some levels, that pastry isn’t a segregating title, but more specificly in a restaurant kitchen. I spend a lot of time explaining to people that I create dishes the way a savory cook would, building textures around flavor concepts, rather than making a traditional pastry like a tart, and plopping it on a plate.

    There is no denial that bakers and cooks are different animals.

    The line is really blurred in the modern restaurant. However, the dessert menu is not the savory menu, and there is a distinction, no matter how many ingredients they share. The dishes on the regular menu are there to satiate the underlying primal need to feed yourself. It’s a hunger that arises 3 times a day, a need to fill our bellies. And as artistic and creative as we make them, as intellectually stimulating as they are, they do serve the purpose of filling our bellies, quashing our hunger.

    Now dessert, these dishes are ordered after this hunger is aleviated. They are chosen to satisfy a different need, one of reward, pleasure. So even if we use the same ingredients, the desserts are created to satisfy the guest on an emotional level. The trend in haute cuisine may be reflecting a use of ingredients that are traditionally used in the dishes that satisfy hunger, but there is a distinct difference in the feel of the dishes. They still elicit the same feelings that a big piece of chocolate cake, or a scoop of ice cream do.

    One can take a deeper look and ask why a bell pepper is fair game for a dessert, but not a piece of squid. Will there be a day when squid, clams, beef tounge will cross over to the last course on the menu? Probably not but why? Are we so programed to understand that meats are belly filling nourishment, that they can never be emotionally recieved as the reward that dessert is?

    One look at Stupak’s dishes and you know they are desserts. No matter how chock full of chickory, or avocado, bell pepper, or cilantro they are, they still represent to us the reasons we order one more dish, after we are full.

    Jack- we look forward to having you!

    Kirsten- Thanks for the nice thoughts.

  5. Hey Dana – I was interested in your comments on food and labor costs. I had heard that food costs for pastry were generally a lot lower than for savory dishes, but I’m curious whether that is still true with the high end desserts that you make? Also, I was kind of shocked to hear you say 1% profit is common for this kind of restaurant. I’ve seen a lot of different percentages kicked around, from 3-5% (for a larger but non-chain place) to 8% for a family diner, even up to 20% for specialty take-out. I can’t even imagine how the doors can stay open with 1% unless the owner is also taking a salary before profit or collecting rent or just doesn’t need the money…

  6. [...] a couple of them have a pastry chef. My friend*, Dana, at Veil is one of them, and even there she has to pick up some shifts doing pantry work just to stay [...]

  7. Brett says:

    I just left a comment on your more recent post, but I wanted to leave one here as well. Some of the dilemmas that you write about apply to line cooks as well. When I cooked on the line and was a sous chef, I also chose passion and integrity over salary. I sacrificed the higher salary offered by hotels, private clubs, and wealthy families (who hire private chefs) to work in the small chef-owned restaurants that inspire me. It’s a sad contradiction that, so often, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of the restaurant and the level of the cook’s pay. I sympathize with you pastry chefs, because, as my friend Shuna’s recent experience demonstrates, when the going gets tough, the pastry chef is the first to get cut. Often the next to go are the more experienced (and therefore higher paid) sous chefs. Both are replaced by eager, less experienced cooks who are willing to do the same job for less pay. It’s a crazy industry that we’re in. Yet I can’t stop myself from loving it!

  8. chadzilla says:

    I understand the differentiations, Dana. But from my personal perspective, a slab of meat can be every bit the reward that a slab of chocolate can… especially if they are eaten together. We just brought in some Bellota Iberico ham from Spain, and to call it anything less than a reward (as opposed to putting calories in the body) is heresy.
    Maybe it’s because I’ve never really had a sweet tooth. I look at all food the same… both for nourishment and reward. If I could, I would also eliminate the menu succession to reflect that. I am more open to traditional pastry elements when they are woven into other dishes… like Seinfeld’s wife sneaking vegetables into her kid’s diet.
    Although we are in a resort/hotel and have distinct menus and dessert menus, we work with our pastry chef, Fabian, on ideas and techniques daily. We see each other as running separate areas of the kitchen rather than being separated by the big devisive and territorial line that breaks the hot line off from the pastry prep area.
    … but I’ve been around the block. I completely understand your points and the passion behind your words. Again, if this were a verbal conversation, everything I wrote would be said with complete respect for your views.
    I’m just excited with this ever-changing industry, and I want us to reach a point where the industry treats us all the same… like a big ol’ tip pool of gratification.

  9. Laurie says:

    I don’t think there are enough restaurants in Seattle with interesting, special desserts–and lack of pastry chefs is probably the reason why. I just looked at the James Beard award semifinalist list. James Miller of Cafe Besalu is nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef. I am delighted for him and agree that he has an amazing gift for wonderful pastries. But I would like to see more competition in Seattle restaurants creating distinctive pastries and desserts.

  10. Aaron says:

    Chadzilla,
    I like your enthusiasm, but I think you’ve crossed a line by suggesting there shouldn’t be one in the kitchen. The menu succession of savory to sweet is a long-honored tradition. I understand the need to evolve, but food connects us to people and places in a way that food fads and modernity never can. This division makes sense, not merely historically, but also from a biological/nutritional standpoint. Have you ever eaten a slab of chocolate cake on an empty stomach…yikes! Our forefathers knew what they were doing when they saved the sweets for the end, the point in the meal when the proteins and fiber we have eaten can buffer the sugar rush.
    Dessert is an ending. It can be an afterthought, an elegant finish, or fireworks that take the diner to a different level. That experience depends on the pastry chef and more commonly the amount the chef and owner value this component of the meal. Rather than breaking down a division, I would hope for more thoughtful appreciation of this schism and more respect from savory chefs for those on the other side and the creations they produce.

  11. Brittany says:

    Dana, Thank you for giving this issue a voice. We pastry chefs walk a tight rope to keep our jobs and pusue our passion professionally. Without the restaurant owners out there who are willing to invest in us, it’s just a hobby. I’ve been out of culinary school since 2000 with a cert. in pastry and specialty baking. But in those 8 years I have had to do work on the line, cook brunch, prep cook, and nearly accepted a job where I would be butchering half of the time. I thank my lucky stars every day that I work for people who accept the fact that they will not turn a profit on dessert, but realize the importance that it be housemade by a pastry chef.
    To the general public- I know you are full. But for an extra 7 or 8 bucks on your tab, you can experience our craft that we put just as much love into as the chef did your meal. Even if you split your dessert with your dining partners- you will (hopefully) find it to be worth the money and you will help keep desserts from being “outsourced”- or made by a cook who finds it to be a hassle and won’t put nearly the amount of care and thoughtfulness into each plate. I am not saying this is always the case- but I know it certainly can be.
    Thanks agian Dana- and lets go eat dessert somewhere soon!!

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