FOR THE PAST 40 YEARS, iconic Montreal bistro L’Express has hung on its walls framed photos of its team — chefs in toques and servers in aprons, all proudly standing together.
But there’s no image for 2020, the year of takeout many restaurateurs would prefer to forget. And if they take one for 2021, it will have half as many faces in it, because an unprecedented staffing shortage has chefs everywhere struggling to put teams together — in the front and the back of house.
Staffing issues would have been a concern even without a pandemic. A reputation for toxic workplaces and less-than-living-wage salaries are partly responsible for the scarcity of people willing to work in the industry these days, particularly in the kitchen, chefs say. And while it might be easy to jump to conclusions, not all of them blame government support like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as the reason people don’t want to work on the line.
“The pandemic has given people an opportunity to sit down and think about what they’re doing,” says chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage in St. John’s. “Some people just made the decision that this is not a sustainable work situation for them.”
Perrin has a lot fewer part-time staff now and that means fewer days open. “We’re doing five days a week instead of seven. Everyone works every shift and we’re committed to ensuring every- one has a living wage,” he says.
“So many experienced cooks have left the industry for good,” notes chef Joël Watanabe of Vancouver supper club Kissa Tanto. “I personally think the biggest fault is that we haven’t paid cooks properly — ever.”
Watanabe’s kitchen looks different than it did pre-pandemic. “Normally I would only have a few kids straight out of school, but that’s half my staff now. I tell them ‘You have to do it because you love cooking,’” he says, adding that he has also raised salaries considerably. “The starting wage now is something I would have never dreamed of paying two years ago.”
Chef Erin Mahoney dreamt for years of opening Joon, a Caucasus-inspired bistro in Montreal’s Little Italy, which debuted in fall 2020. Mahoney cooks, curates the wine list, shares front-of-house duties, and advertises for staff. She’s getting resumés but notes that the level of experience isn’t always as high as she needs. “We’d always wanted to do five nights plus a Sunday brunch and an evening service. Being short-staffed affects everything.”
Mario Brossoit, co-owner of L’Ex- press, has seen more applicants as government benefits slow down, and he’s anticipating having a full cohort soon. So, will those team photos return?
“The tradition will continue,” he says. “Hopefully, we can be fully staffed and back to seven days of service with our full menu. Our dearest wish is to return to the L’Express that we were before.”
By Ivy Lerner-Frank