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Dining with a conscience


Muskoka kid
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Recently the Labour Board was in at Susur. The restaurant was paying kitchen staff well below acceptable limits. He now has to have two shift in the kitchen to accomplish evening service.

The question is, does it bother a diner to know that the people who are preparing their dinner make less per week than the dinner costs? As a diner at Susur, my first meal there cost $650 or two people and that would cover the cost of two people in the kitchen for a week.

How do people feel about the compensation staff receives to prepare their food?

Muskoka Kid
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What would "well below acceptable limits" be? Even lower than minimum wage?

If I found that an establishment I frequented were paying less than minimum wage, were breaking labour laws, or were treating their workers unfairly, I would probably refrain from dining there (at least until things were straightened out).

However, having a meal cost more than what most of the workers made wouldn't bother me. I've worked in retail where I sold things that cost more than what I would make in a month. I wear clothes that most definitely cost more than what some of the peole who made them would make in a year (as do most people in the West), and I don't wear very expensive clothes.

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First of all, is this fact or heresay? You how the gossip mill permeates the biz.

Second of all, Working in any top notch kitchen is like learning a craft, more of an apprenticeship. I sure the scores of people working at El Bulli are there to invest in their future.

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So you stop going to the eatry because of their employment practices, but you drink the wine that immigrants picked grapes for at below level wages, simply so they don't get deported. Since when did we become arbitrators for fair wages and employment?

"I drink to make other people interesting".

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I don't cross picket lines, and I try to avoid patronizing companies that are exploitative, so yes, such a thing would probably make me avoid a restaurant.

However - it is not about the ratio of cost to salary. How much does an auto factory worker get paid? How much does an intern get paid at most companies?

As someone up thread noted, the people there may be there for more than just salary. If the management is union busting or using unfair employment practices that's one thing. But using stagieres is another.

Unfortunately restaurants are an industry where it is often hard to meet the bottom line - many great restaurants fail. But when a restaurant is successful, wages don't always rise to meet that success.

It is interesting to note that I couldn't find mention of this in the news or in any blogs. I'd hate for a talented restaurant to suffer from the rumor mill.

The Kitchn

Nina Callaway

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This is the kind of rumormongering that gives internet sites like eGullet and others a bad name. As far as I am concerned, this is pure hearsay. I have been in Susur's kitchen. It is small. I didn't see anyone in there who looked like they didn't want to be there or couldn't be doing something else. Susur's kitchen produces exquisitely crafted, uniquely styled food. There is no place else like it in N.A. that I have been too. It is my understanding that the kitchen staff in top kitchens are notoriously low paid as a rule. Those who work in them often to do so in hopes of acquiring skills that they cannot acquire elsewhere. Of course, this is not to say that Susur's employment practices or those in other restaurants are ethical or unethical. I do, however, doubt that anyone is working in his kitchen because they are forced to. Would they like to make more money while working there? No doubt.

If one wishes to argue that kitchen staff are, in general, underpaid throughout the industry, that is a different and totally legitimate question and one worthy of discussion.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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So you stop going to the eatry because of their employment practices, but you drink the wine that immigrants picked grapes for at below level wages, simply so they don't get deported.  Since when did we become arbitrators for fair wages and employment?

Are you suggesting that consumers should never consult their own ethics when considering where to spend their money??

The sea was angry that day my friends... like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

George Costanza

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This is the kind of rumormongering that gives internet sites like eGullet and others a bad name. As far as I am concerned, this is pure hearsay.

Agreed. A simple Freedom of Information request to the applicable agency could likely confirm the same.

officially left egullet....

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No. He's suggesting that trying to be overly pure in your buying choices will cause you to unfairly favor those whose troubling practices are either hidden or systemic over those whose troubling practices are right out in the open. You might even end up favoring the devious over the honest-but-pressed.

He might also be suggesting that capitalism is inherently exploitative to a degree, so that if you want to avoid that, you probably have to move to Cuba. But you'd probably better do it fast, cuz their economic system isn't gonna last long.

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No.  He's suggesting that trying to be overly pure in your buying choices will cause you to unfairly favor those whose troubling practices are either hidden or systemic over those whose troubling practices are right out in the open.  You might even end up favoring the devious over the honest-but-pressed.

He might also be suggesting that capitalism is inherently exploitative to a degree, so that if you want to avoid that, you probably have to move to Cuba.  But you'd probably better do it fast, cuz their economic system isn't gonna last long.

I was speaking to the last part of his statement, where he asks if we are arbitrators for fair labour practice. Obviously, everybody draws the line and a different place, and I am not suggesting that everybody will or should have equal vigilance when it comes to how they make these decisions.

As for the exploitive nature of capitalism- that is a story for another thread. Fortunately, I live in Canada and therefore do not have to make the decision between unfettered capitalism and communism.

Only Sith Lords deal in absolutes :wink:

I have not seen anything about Susur being called up for breaking minimum wage laws- if he has, that might influence my decison to go there. It depends, as others have said, on whether we are talking about stagieres or what.

Edited by annanstee (log)

The sea was angry that day my friends... like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

George Costanza

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If one chooses to not dine at any restaurant that pays the kitchen staff well below minimum wage one would have to avoid just about every fine dining establishment in the city. It is common knowledge that cooks get paid a daily wage, $85.00-$100.00 pre tax for very long days- usually 12-14 hours a day. While some feel that's called an appreticeship, apprentices in any other trade are paid quite well, by the hour. It appears some of Susur's ex cooks left the establishment bitter(which is very common for cooks), and felt the need to report him. Cooking is a very difficult profession, and may seem romantic to some to say they would wash dishes to learn how to make beautiful food,but do this for $600-700 for 2 weeks work and then try to pay rent. I agree it is an investment in your future to learn from the best but unfortunatly the wages really don't increase a whole lot further down the road. There is a serious shortage of cooks willing to work hard for the low wages and soon the industry will suffer, if it isn't already. When one looks at the income difference between the front of the house and the back it is quite staggering. A waiter in a busy fine dining restaurant will earn upwards of $1000.00 a week clear, while the cooks will earn less than half that for much longer days. The business has been this way for a very long time and with any luck things will change- we can only hope so.

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If one chooses to not dine at any restaurant that pays the kitchen staff well below minimum wage one would have to avoid just about every fine dining establishment in the city. It is common knowledge that cooks get paid a daily wage, $85.00-$100.00 pre tax for very long days- usually 12-14 hours a day. While some feel that's called an appreticeship, apprentices in any other trade are paid quite well, by the hour. It appears some of Susur's ex cooks left the establishment bitter(which is very common for cooks), and felt the need to report him. Cooking is a very difficult profession, and may seem romantic to some to say they would wash dishes to learn how to make beautiful food,but do this for $600-700 for 2 weeks work and then try to pay rent. I agree it is an investment in your future to learn from the best but unfortunatly the wages really don't increase a whole lot further down the road. There is a serious shortage of cooks willing to work hard for the low wages and soon the industry will suffer, if it isn't already. When one looks at the income difference between the front of the house and the back it is quite staggering. A waiter in a busy fine dining restaurant will earn upwards of $1000.00 a week clear, while the cooks will earn less than half that  for much longer days. The business has been this way for a very long time and with any luck things will change- we can only hope so.

This speaks more to the problems of the business as a whole. The kitchen staff at Susur may not make a lot of money, but that is probably endemic to the industry. I'm not sure what the answers are as the economics of the industry are difficult throughout. This is one of the reasons I have great respect for cooks as well as those who made it up to chef and beyond.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I used to sell $1500 guitars while making $7/h and 2% commission. I don't think any industry is different that way.

I havn't worked at susur, but I have staged there. there were a bunch of cooks who were all there because they wanted to be there. they didn't seem bitter to me, they were actually a pleasant bunch of guys to work with. I'm sure working under susur pays more in experience than what $300 a week is worth. I also know that the ones who had stuck around for awhile were making considerable more than the others.

I'm sure the cooks who apply to work for susur or any other top place know what they're getting into. if I could afford it I'd do it too

ns

There's nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves - Fergus Henderson

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If one wishes to argue that kitchen staff are, in general, underpaid throughout the industry, that is a different and totally legitimate question and one worthy of discussion.

Well said Doc. I for one, am surprised it has not been debated on EG until now and it does deserve its own topic. The "indentured servant" culture of the restaurant business is frightening at best.

mike

-Mike & Andrea

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It is common knowledge that cooks get paid a daily wage, $85.00-$100.00 pre tax for very long days- usually 12-14 hours a day. While some feel that's called an appreticeship, apprentices in any other trade are paid quite well, by the hour. It appears some of Susur's ex cooks left the establishment bitter(which is very common for cooks), and felt the need to report him. Cooking is a very difficult profession, and may seem romantic to some to say they would wash dishes to learn how to make beautiful food,but do this for $600-700 for 2 weeks work and then try to pay rent. I agree it is an investment in your future to learn from the best but unfortunatly the wages really don't increase a whole lot further down the road. There is a serious shortage of cooks willing to work hard for the low wages and soon the industry will suffer, if it isn't already. When one looks at the income difference between the front of the house and the back it is quite staggering. A waiter in a busy fine dining restaurant will earn upwards of $1000.00 a week clear, while the cooks will earn less than half that  for much longer days.

I recently left a restaurant because as a first cook I still couldn't afford, well, anything... I wasn't working as an apprentice, I trained our cooks, I supervised shifts after the chef left, I cooked for all the critics, and plated dishes for newspaper and magazine photo shoots. Waiters would make in 2 or 3 five hour shifts what I made in 2 weeks... (although I really can't blame them, not their fault I was underpaid - besides, they'd buy us drinks often) And I was one of the highest paid kitchen guys... How do you ask for a raise when your paycheck is bigger than the sous-chef's? (I was working more hours)

And yes, it already has hurt the industry, for sure here. Restaurants are closing, fewer people are cooking, the few hardcore cooks that are left are leaving town...(including myself) Why cook when you can get an apprenticeship in any trade for 15-20 dollars an hour to start, with full benefits and school often paid for? In 5 years of cooking you'll be making 10-15 dollars an hour, 5 years in another trade you're making 25-30+ dollars an hour. Or you can just head north, work on the oil rigs for much, much more.... Honestly, with the way house prices and rents have gone in the last year, it's only going to get worse for cooks.

All I have to say is I feel very bad for those people who are paying huge bucks for culinary school, to learn out-dated cooking techniques (I don't think I've ever made a mother sauce in a high-end restaurant...). At least I learned in a traditional style apprenticeship - ie. working for hardcore French chefs, and learned many modern cooking techniques (sous-vide, foams, etc...), I'm one of the lucky ones...

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Recently the Labour Board was in at Susur.  The restaurant was paying kitchen staff well below acceptable limits.  He now has to have two shift in the kitchen to accomplish evening service.

The question is, does it bother a diner to know that the people who are preparing their dinner make less per week than the dinner costs?  As a diner at Susur, my first meal there cost $650 or two people and that would cover the cost of two people in the kitchen for a week.

How do people feel about the compensation staff receives to prepare their food?

It's not my decision to decide how much someone should be making. If they feel they're being underpaid, all they need to do is leave and work somewhere else... As a cook I certainly would like to see higher wages, but no one should be forced into paying higher wages. Owners set the wage, workers either accept it or they can leave...

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