Ines Vuckovic/Dose

The gender pay gap for chefs is the second-widest of any US profession.

Sarah was fresh out of culinary school when she took a chef’s job in Chicago. Even with her degree, she was paid $9 an hour?—?the same as a chef without any credentials. Still, after one particularly frenetic week working a national restaurant association trade show, she expected to receive a big payout in overtime.

“At the end of the week, the GM came to me and said, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been promoted to salary. We will be paying you $26,000 a year starting retroactively as of the beginning of last week!’ That came out to $500 for 80 hours of work with no overtime pay.”
?—?Sarah Grobman

Over the next few years working in kitchens, Sara had to choose between prestigious, career-making appointments, or multiple, more humble jobs that got the bills paid.

“I turned down really amazing opportunities food-wise because I couldn’t make the shift pay work,” she says. One obstacle was the traditional view that laboring in a prominent kitchen is sufficient compensation all by itself.

“I have a friend who worked at Charlie Trotter’s for two years for free,” Sarah says. “It’s the culture. The more famous the chef, they sell the experience as being more beneficial than culinary school. Culinary school costs $30,000 or more a year. Working for free for a year for them would save you the tuition.”

Then Sarah had a baby. The only way she could earn more than $12 an hour was to go on salary, and she simply couldn’t balance a 60–80 hour workweek with the responsibilities of motherhood. She became a full-time mom, hanging up her chef’s toque and her dream of a culinary career along with it.

Sarah’s story is all too common. The low pay, combined with the fact that many restaurants offer no paid leave to new mothers, forces many women out of the business. It’s one reason restaurant management remains dominated by men. The gender pay gap for chefs is wider than that of any other profession in in the US except programmer, according to a report by Glassdoor.

Even without the gender disparity, the way America pays kitchen staff is, in a word, broken. Here’s why the people who cook your food earn less than the people who serve it to you.

Waiters get tips from customers, and because of that, they are paid a lower minimum wage. The federally mandated wage is $2.13, and it hasn’t changed for a quarter century. However, the tips they get more than offset the difference.

Waiters can legally share their gratuity with bartenders, bussers, food runners and hosts, because they also traditionally get tips. However, they are forbidden by law to share tips with kitchen staff, who don’t interact with the public and do not “customarily” receive gratuity. So chefs and dishwashers rely solely on minimum wage. For Sarah, that was $60 for a ten-hour shift.

“The median pay for cooks is about $10 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For waiters, it’s roughly $9 an hour. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story?—?because waiters are paid tips, and kitchen workers are not. And tips completely skew the comparison.”
?—?Roberto A. Ferdman, Washington Post

(In seven states including California, servers are also paid minimum wage, which is good for them, but just magnifies the pay gap between the front and back of house.)

“Restaurants, as is, barely make any money, if at all,” Sarah points out. “There is no more money to allocate to better pay. Servers make better money than cooks because their pay isn’t dependent on the restaurant. Servers work 4–6 hour shifts and make twice as much as the cook who worked 8–12 hour shifts.”

In a widely-read argument against tipping, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells painted the pay gap in medieval terms.

“The restaurant business can be seen as a class struggle between the groomed, pressed, articulate charmers working in the dining room and the blistered, stained and profane grunts in the kitchen,” Wells wrote in 2013.

To bridge the divide, many restaurants are changing their compensation systems.

San Francisco’s Tacolicious began sharing wait staff’s tips with the kitchen. But in February, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision threw the legality of that into question, leaving the restaurant open to possible lawsuits.

Many restaurants have instituted a “service charge” on all bills in addition to tips, or entirely replaced tipping with a service charge. But because that money goes to the restaurant’s ledger rather than the server’s, it creates other problems.

“Those strategies result in much higher taxes,” writes Jonathan Kaufmann in the San Francisco Chronicle, “and restaurateurs are terrified diners won’t take to no-tipping models.”

Others, like SuperBite in Portland, have gotten rid of servers altogether. Chefs run plates of food to tables. The management says it results in some awkwardness, but both customers and chefs like it.

Then there’s Alimento, in Los Angeles. Chef Zack Pollack added a “kitchen” blank after the “tip” blank on credit card receipts. It’s dubiously legal and potentially scary for diners. Even Pollack admitted to Eater, “This is a fix. Is it perfect? Of course not.”

Given the dubious success of ad hoc “fixes,” the real fix may lie in increased awareness on the part of us, the diners.

Americans in recent years have become far more concerned about the quality of the food they eat. They’re paying more attention to whether animals are humanely raised and slaughtered, and favoring restaurants that source from local farms instead of multinational conglomerates. They’ll even pay more.

So it’s probably time that we also start caring about how the people who make our food are compensated, and work to correct this glaring irregularity in one of our country’s biggest labor markets. We can do it by supporting legislation and patronizing restaurants that correct the imbalance.

It might make dining out a little more expensive, but that seems a small price to pay for creating a system that rewards people fairly for their work. And we all stand to benefit. After all, happy cooks make happy food, right?