Chef salaries rising amid labor shortage, demand to dine out

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The demand for experienced restaurant staff has put salaries on a fast boil – with pay skyrocketing as much as 75% and one recently hired chef scoring a $400,000 deal, Side Dish can report.

The salaries are soaring thanks in large part to a labor shortage and rising demand to dine out after pandemic lockdowns, according to interviews with chefs, restaurant consultants and headhunters.

“I think there is a new standard,” said Alfred Ehrlich, a chef turned executive search/personnel consultant who heads Kitchen Maestro. “The people I represent are earning 20 to 75 percent more than normal. The pendulum swings one way or the other, and labor has the upper hand now — especially for highly skilled chefs.” 

Top New York chefs can earn $300,000, while those in the Hamptons can earn $160,000, he said, adding that signed NDAs prevent him from divulging details of the deals. A chef he recently placed in Miami got a whopping $400,000 to run the kitchen, he boasted.

“If it’s the season and a restaurant wants to open, they have to pay. They can’t afford not to or they will shut down,” Ehrlich said.

Don Evans, a restaurant consultant known as the chef whisperer who is helping to produce Taste of Summer – six Hamptons food events with more than 70 participating restaurants – said there has never been a higher demand for skilled chefs.

Restaurants are poaching the top toques by offering unprecedented salaries and perks, and everyone down the line – from line cooks to dishwashers – also benefits, he added.

“Staffing in New York and the Hamptons is acute for all restaurants, and that’s led to unprecedented offers to chefs that bear no relationship to the volume of the restaurant. There just aren’t enough qualified, talented chefs to fill these positions,” Evans said.

The lofty pay is being dished out even as restaurateurs are seeing their profits squeezed by decades-high inflation.

“It’s crazy as the No. 1  story for restaurants is inflation,” Ehrlich said. “But on the other hand, you can only charge as much as your demographic will pay. Lots of places can’t increase their prices or they will lose customers.”

Chef salaries were rising even before the pandemic, according to the last stats released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, which found that chefs and head cooks’ salaries were up 8% year over year for an average salary of $56,310 in 2018. 

But now, experienced chefs who were earning $117,000 a year can pull in $165,000 – and even line cooks were seeing their hourly rate rise to $27 an hour from $17.50 – especially in seasonal hotspots like the Hamptons, according to Ehrlich.

The higher salaries can also come with perks like signing bonuses, and housing and travel allowances, Ehrlich added, since chefs with name recognition can raise restaurant profiles — and revenues — while drawing in diners.

The staff shortages were exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns, causing many restaurant workers to seek careers in other fields, one prominent East End chef said.

Chef Drew Hiatt
Chef Drew HIatt says staff shortages were exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns, causing many restaurant workers to seek careers in other fields.
Edmund J Coppa
Drew Hiatt
Hiatt is now executive chef at the revamped Pridwin Hotel
Edmund J Coppa

“I know around 37% of the hospitality workforce found other jobs due to COVID and some of them didn’t have proper papers, couldn’t get unemployment, so they went to other jobs like construction or landscaping where at least in the Hamptons people are still having that work done,” said the chef, Drew Hiatt, now executive chef at the revamped Pridwin Hotel. “But even US citizens found they didn’t have work so they paid for schooling, got certified and are now doing other things.”

An industry insider put it more bluntly: “Rich people always need their grass cut whether there’s a pandemic or not.”

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