Solving America’s Cook Shortage, One Culinary Training Program at a Time

This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

Madison, Wisconsin-based chef Jonny Hunter has a passion for hand-crafted, local food. The charcuterie produced by his company Underground Meats has won three Good Food Awards. His meat-centered restaurant, Forequarter, was nominated as one of the best new restaurants of 2013 by Bon Appétit, and he was nominated for “Best Chef: Midwest” Semifinals of 2017 by the James Beard Foundation.

With all this success, it’s hard to believe that he can’t find enough cooks to staff his kitchen.

“Casual fine-dining places have been opening with much more frequency,” Hunter said. “After the industry started to grow, [our] labor supply dried up pretty quickly.”

Amid historically low unemployment in Wisconsin and around the country, it’s perhaps no surprise that finding kitchen help is a major challenge for restaurants. But widespread employment isn’t evenly distributed — many minority populations still face chronic unemployment. To address that unemployment crisis, and to build a more diverse workforce, Hunter reached out to people who were systematically under-employed. In 2014, he joined with two other like-minded individuals, Matt Feifarek of Slow Food Madison and Chandra Miller Fienen of Starting Block Madison, to form FoodWorks Madison.

At the top of their agenda was to develop First Course, a job-training program tailored to produce cooks ready for a kitchen job in three weeks. Their first cohort graduated in May of 2017. “We really want to make it so that our student [can] apply for a job on a Tuesday and be useful on a busy Friday night shift,” Feifarek said.

A Nationwide Cook Shortage

In addition to Madison, restaurants in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and other cities around the country are also struggling to fill their kitchens with cooks. The low wages and long hours of the restaurant industry are known for making recruiting cooks difficult. Although some restaurants have increased wages and benefits, the need for cooks still outnumbers the supply.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for cooks is expected to steadily increase as new restaurants continue to open and people continue eating out. Although the overall demand for cooks in schools, hospitals and cafeterias is expected to grow by 6 percent from 2016 to 2026, the growth for restaurant cooks is expected to grow by 12 percent. That means the U.S. restaurant industry will need a total of 1,377,200 cooks in 2026 compared to 1,231,900 cooks employed in 2016.

To fill this need, leaders in the food industry are taking a more active approach to staffing their kitchens. Instead of waiting for the cooks…

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