May 312013

Craig Giesecke

One of the good/bad things about being in the food business in one of the world’s great food cities is the competition. The upsides are many: the continued pressure for innovation and creativity, the consistent high quality of even the most basic places and the ability to socialize and work with some of the best chefs this nation has to offer. There are many, many other great things about the New Orleans food scene, not the least of which are talented colleagues and the very discerning and appreciative customers.

If you’re lucky enough to have made something of a name for yourself within the industry, you will never have much trouble finding a job. The only question is which job you are willing to take. Even the newbie fresh from culinary school or the career-changer looking to get into a kitchen won’t have a lot of trouble getting hours under his/her belt. There are also places willing to hire a complete novice, since the demand for decent food is as constant in New Orleans as our summer humidity.

But while this competition for jobs and customers is a very good thing overall, restaurant operators are very well aware know much talent is out there and wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of housing. New Orleans has seen a big post-Katrina influx of high-tech jobs and start-ups (so many articles have been written) and the huge new medical complex in Mid-City will only exacerbate the trend.  The city is indeed bringing in more good-paying jobs, but they are not in the culinary field.

Five years ago, when I started J’anita’s, I started most of my staff at $10 an hour. My goal was to find staffers who would not quickly jump ship to work across the street for an extra 50 cents per hour.  While it was sometimes a struggle to meet payroll at such a new operation, the theory basically worked. Turnover was blessedly minimal, the staff was productive and the working atmosphere was delightful. I can honestly say I do not remember anyone leaving to take a better-paying slot someplace else.

Anymore, that $10 an hour is woefully inadequate unless the person getting it is still living at home with parents or has found a roommate (or two) who earns at least that much. Sadly, many chain operations (as well as some independents) are getting by with paying less. This fosters job-hopping, bad attitudes and a generally malevolent atmosphere in the kitchen. This means chefs and sous chefs are often having to wrangle an increasingly cantankerous and mobile staff – a situation that’s not good for any restaurant.

Given this situation, many managers view their staffs largely as easily replaceable cogs to be mined for ideas and reputations before being discarded or nearly pushed out the door if they decide to leave on their own.  While such activity certainly isn’t new or illegal or unique to the restaurant industry, it also isn’t good for the industry and, ultimately, the customer and the long-term bottom line.

Management blames staff and staff blames management in these kinds of dysfunctional kitchens, but it’s up to management to break the cycle because it’s the managers who control the purse strings. The word “respect” is too often misused and misapplied, but is certainly applicable here. Employees have families, homes, personalities and bills too. They’re a lot more willing to do good, consistent work if they feel their needs are taken into account to a reasonable degree.

This includes professional courtesy. More than once, I have been employed by operations that have kept some of my well-known menu items on their menus after I was no longer working in their kitchens. I can’t do anything about copyrighting an ingredient list any more than a musician can copyright the eight notes in an octave. But when those notes are arranged in a particular way and given a particular name, courtesy demands proper credit or removal. It’s simply The Right Thing To Do, laws notwithstanding.

I’ve always been a little naïve about such things, assuming others will do the right things in any given situation. I’m usually right, and I sleep well at night because of it. But, unfortunately, I’ve found myself becoming more and more self-protective and suspicious of others’ motives when it comes to food-service management – mostly because I’ve been in their shoes and can’t understand such a negative thought process toward employees.

It’s a shame to say that about the industry you love.

Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.

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