There’s a Shortage of Cooks in Seattle Restaurants’ Kitchens

Seattle’s boom means good help is awfully hard to find.

By Allecia Vermillion July 28, 2015 Published in the August 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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When Brandon Pettit posted an opening for a cook at his pizzeria, Delancey, in Ballard, the sort of place where diners line up before doors open and the staff enjoys one another’s company enough to hang out during off hours, he got exactly one response. From someone who has never worked at a restaurant. Pettit hired her.

Though nobody’s keeping a formal tally of unfilled positions, chefs at restaurants from casual to ambitious say Seattle’s growth—and related circumstances like high rents and insufficient transit—leaves their kitchens seriously short staffed. Our breakneck civic expansion has produced a multitude of new restaurants, but no corresponding influx of cooks—the men and women who endure hours of physical work for modest pay, who actually dice the onions and fire that cod entree. 

Pettit thinks this shortage could mean more counter service and takeout spots like Kedai Makan or Il Corvo. Scott Staples, owner of Restaurant Zoë, Quinn’s, and Uneeda Burger, wonders about shorter, less ambitious menus whose dishes require less labor. As he puts it, “No matter how good any chef is around town, you’re at the mercy of the quality of your cooks.”

The scarcity means those cooks, especially the quality ones, command a few bucks more per hour than they used to. Meanwhile bosses simultaneously cheer the idea of talented employees earning more money and ponder how to absorb those costs well ahead of Seattle’s graduated $15 minimum wage schedule. 

While the city doesn’t lack for culinary training, there aren’t enough students to fill the void. Seattle Central College’s well-regarded culinary academy produces about 55 graduates each year; at least that many new restaurants have opened in the past year just in the surrounding blocks of Capitol Hill. At FareStart, which graduated 112 aspiring cooks in 2014, director of student and graduate support Chelsea Van Rask says career counseling has evolved from “Who’s hiring?” to weighing factors like wages, benefits, hours, and opportunities for career advancement. 

That explosive growth is exactly what’s luring tech workers here from all over; line cooks and sous chefs, not so much. National food magazines have lavished acclaim on Westward chef Zoi Antonitsas, who still mostly sees resumes from Northwest natives. In her experience, “Not a lot of people from the Midwest say, ‘I want to be a professional chef, so I want to move to Seattle.’ It’s mostly San Francisco or New York; we’re still earning our way in that.”

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