Recently a friend of mine was telling me of the shortage of good cooks-indeed, all restaurant staff–in Melbourne.  He added that restaurant wages and conditions there appear to be on par with those in this country, including the trend to very quiet business early in the week, followed by swelling numbers on the weekend.

I mention this simply because we all know Melbourne to be one hell of a town for dining and yet we face the same dilemmas here in Hawke’s Bay. Helma Van den Berg from Clearview Estate Winery agrees.  It’s hard, she says, to sustain full-time staff at a good rate of pay when business is light early in the week but balloons on Saturday and Sunday.  And public holiday weekends really don’t help, as the staff costs rise by a factor of three.  Helma mentioned that there’s no problem finding the top staff-Chef and sous chef-but the mid level part of the brigade-the chef de parties and commis, the general hands–virtually doesn’t exist anymore.

Head chefs in New Zealand on average get paid between $45-55,00 per year (of course there are exceptions). Judging from the personnel emails I receive, these numbers are the same in Australia, and even in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. It has been this way for nearly 20 years, yet the average working week for a head chef of a good establishment will be 50 to 70 hours a week-or should be if they are taking the task seriously. Hours for other staff are similar; and 80 % of the hospitality work force is earning minimum wage or slightly more at fourteen dollars an hour.

Several years ago, we had kids coming out of trade schools and indeed high schools clamoring to join the hospitality ranks. This seems to have dried up for us here in Hawke’s Bay, with many of our top-line future talent fleeing to major cities and the perceived better restaurants, or just a great restaurant scene.  And others are fleeing to more lucrative trades.  Young builders, electricians, etc. can easily get to twenty five dollars per hour, generally clock off at 5 p.m., and have off weekends, public holidays…even Christmas!  And there’s no need for the expense of tertiary hospitality education, so they have no student debt either.  Just straight to the earning position.  Who can blame them?

Chefs too, are leaving their chosen career because they can’t raise their families and have a normal car-mortgage-kids kind of life.

Clint Toomer of European Gourmet is one of these chefs.  Four and a half years ago he and his lovely wife Regina made the break from the kitchens as chefs and started their own business making exceptional stocks and classical sauces, etc. for home and supermarket sales. Clint says it was a lifestyle choice.  Now he can raise a family, take the kids to school and be there for them in the evenings…in short, have a normal life.  Since that decision, they now have three children under the age of four! Income might not be all that different, but he has many more benefits in his new business compared with the old seventy hour weeks on the pans.

In all honesty, if restaurants were airlines or a power companies, our prices would rise with the cost of living, as they should. If our staff were unionised like most other trades, we would get annual pay increases along the same lines. But, restaurants have to keep prices down to remain an attractive option for the diner. According to a formula employed by most restaurants, labor costs and food costs can’t exceed more than 66 % of every dollar of food sales, give or take a percentage here and there.

The food index rose over 23 % last year, and two months ago, we had the highest increase in food prices in one month since 1989. Luxury dining rooms in New Zealand have had a fairly difficult time of it and have had to increase their prices, quite justifiably, to provide the same level of service.

An exception seems to be the luxury lodge. Larry Blume, proprietor of the Masters Lodge on Napier Hill (rated as one of the top five Art Deco lodges in the world) says that the normal rules of food costs and such that apply to a la carte restaurants don’t feature in his market. He knows his guests’ wishes and plans before arrival and can staff accordingly.

But the pressure on New Zealand restaurants is coming on and restaurants are downsizing labour and the price of their produce to keep prices favorable for the client.  For example, in the Shed 2 Gastro Pub, I use a lot more pork belly, ox cheeks, and beef short ribs than I ever would have.  The dishes are delicious. I still purchase from the same single farm that delivers amazing quality; but ten years ago, it was a different picture.  I could buy premium cuts for less, with free delivery.  My margins were better and enabled the operation to supply at a friendlier market rate.  In my fine dining restaurant we have increased prices to cope and still provide all the luxury items you would expect.

So, what do we do?

We go dining and consider ourselves lucky that we are spoilt for choice by the dedicated professionals that truly love their industry. It is times like these when you gain more respect for quality operations that have been on the map for over a decade and longer. Establishments such as Clearview Estate, Vidals, The Mission, and so on.  They deserve our patronage now more than ever.

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