Nearly a hundred restaurants have opened in Seattle so far this year. Blink and there might be a new pizzeria on Capitol Hill. As Seattle's economy booms, the explosive growth of restaurants continues. And the serious shortage of cooks we wrote about last summer is even worse. Some local chefs say it’s to the point where restaurants are starting to shorten menus and limit hours, sometimes unexpectedly.
Checking in again with Brandon Pettit, chef and owner of Delancey and Dino's Tomato Pie, who sees the lack of labor gone from frustrating to grim, “I know multiple people who specifically reduced their hours or the days that they're open because they can't find anyone to cook.” Pettit’s restaurants haven't slowed down, but they've nonetheless had to shrink Delancey’s menu so that three cooks could handle the rush versus the usual four-person line. And Dino's may need to cut hours soon too. A world in which there is less really good pizza is a cruel one—or less great Thai for that matter. Due to being short staffed, Little Uncle recently, albeit temporarily, had to shave six hours off its regular service. No line cooks, no spicy braised beef noodles.
When Pettit needed someone for front of house he posted the opening on Craigslist, “I got something like 24 responses within a few hours. When I did a call for a cook, I got four responses in a month.” Two of them had zero experience. The other two were virus bots.
Terra Plata chef/owner Tamara Murphy remembers, “Back in the day—I've been here for 25 years, along with Thierry [Rautureau] and Tom [Douglas]—we would just call up each other, Hey do you have an extra dishwasher; do you have an extra line cook? And that's really how it worked.” Today, not so much. Pettit has employed a bait-and-switch tactic: muster dishwashers, then see if anyone was interested in cooking.
Chef Zephyr Paquette of Lecosho expands on this recurring dilemma: “We hire out of desperation.” Restaurants get dishwashers in the door and if they’re not half bad, they’re soon executing dishes for diners, then quickly promoted to sous chef, a role that demands everything from understanding your head chef's vision to keeping a clean work station: “And when we put them in the position of sous chef, we expect them to operate like a sous chef, and when they cannot, we fire them.”
For a new line cook, the desire to grow professionally, to be dedicated to the culture of a kitchen, starkly contrasts with Seattle’s economic realities. Seattle’s boom means rents are spiking and transportation is less than stellar. It’s a tale of many cities, from New York City to San Francisco, in which cooks can’t easily afford to live. All but one of Murphy’s day cooks live in Tacoma.
Scott and Heather Staples own Quinn’s on Capitol Hill and for almost 10 years they’ve had a front row seat to the changing dining scene. The Stapleses predict that cooks steeply priced out of NYC or San Francisco may eventually come to Seattle. But until this potential influx of cross-coastal cooks actually arrives, a shortage of labor, pizza, Thai, and the sacred midmorning meal known as brunch will continue.