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Chefs wanted: The staffing crisis in Berlin’s kitchens

Working in a restaurant was hardly a dream job at the best of times, and then the pandemic hit. Now, with pantries re-stocked and bookings full again, the only thing missing is the staff.

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Michel Le Voguer of French bistro Chez Michel is one of many restaurant owners struggling to find qualified staff. Photo: Metallica White

Fresh out of his Abitur exams, Franz Thies began looking for a placement to train for his dream job – despite his friends’ and family’s best efforts to advise him otherwise. “I’ve wanted to become a chef for as long as I remember. Even if people have been warning me for just as long that I shouldn’t put up with the crappy hours, the stress and the low pay,” he says.

But it was spring 2020, and a new era was dawning. An era of closed kitchens, hygiene measures and massive losses for the restaurant industry. Despite the lockdowns, Thies didn’t give up on his dream. In fact, he was one of the few trying to get into an industry that was otherwise haemorrhaging human resources.

If you can’t stand the heat…

According to the DEHAGO association for the hospitality industry, Berlin restaurants are currently missing around 500 chefs and even more waiting staff. In our postlockdown, geimpft/genesen/getestet world, this is causing a massive headache for business owners raring to fill tables again. Take Il Calice, for example, an upmarket Italian just off the Ku’damm. Its Venetian owner Antonio Bragato says his kitchen is fully stocked but he’s down by three or four waiting staff. Only recently, a reliable waiter left to work at an online wine retailer. “The people who are interested in good food were also forced during lockdown to discover the internet.”

He doesn’t necessarily begrudge the waiter for leaving. “It is okay if someone doesn’t want to spend their entire life working evenings in a restaurant.” But even Bragato has noticed the aggressive campaigns of supermarket giants and other companies to poach people from the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Their message: the gastro scene might be cool, but we offer crisis-proof jobs. Berlin’s fine-dining circuit has already lost a couple of top hires. Alexander Seiser, formerly the sommelier and host of Bandol sur Mer on Torstraße, will now be curating the wine department at EDEKA’s new concept store in Charlottenburg. And Hagen Hoppenstedt, once the Hotel Adlon’s maître d’hôtel, has gone on to become the department head of beverage at KaDeWe.

Meanwhile, the smiling waiter at your local pizzeria might now be hauling parcels for a logistics company or delivering food. “With corona and the lockdown, many had to take a break and looked for other jobs,” says Michel Le Voguer (pictured), who runs Kreuzberg’s go-to French bistro Chez Michel on Adalbertstraße. “They did delivery for Amazon or whatnot. And now they’re not coming back to the gastro business. They’re done! They realise: why should I go back to slaving away in a kitchen for poverty wages when I could do something else that is either better paid or less tiring, or both?”

Over-cooked workers

So how much is the pay? Germany-wide, the average monthly wage for a chef before tax is around €2000 (based on a 38-hour working week). That’s what Le Voguer was offered 12 years ago, when he was looking for a spot as a head chef. “Everywhere I went, they wouldn’t offer more than €2000 before tax, whereas I’d get €3000 after tax for the same job back home in Brittany. Plus, here they’d pay a huge part of our salary under the table – so the day you went on the dole, you’d get peanuts”, he says, adding that, in Berlin, a trained chef isn’t even eligible for a car loan. “After 30 years of experience, I wasn’t ready to slave away under such pauper’s conditions.” After considering working abroad – he’d already worked in Kiev and Saint Petersburg, where his skills as a French chef were better valued – Le Voguer ended up borrowing money from friends to set up his own restaurant in a vacant Döner spot across  from his home. And so, Chez Michel was born.

As long as chefs are paid peanuts, there won’t be enough of them, or enough good hires on the market.

Today, like every other employer, he’s struggling to find qualified staff. For the Frenchman, “it’s a structural problem: as long as chefs are paid a pittance, there won’t be enough of them, or enough good hires on the market.”

On top of that, restaurants are tough workplaces – and that was true long before corona hit. A Germany-wide study conducted by the trade union-allied Hans Böckler Foundation in 2015 found that chefs were far less satisfied with their working conditions than their counterparts in other sectors. Professional cooks frequently reported high stress and an out-of-whack work-life balance. Fifty-eight percent of chefs told the foundation’s researchers that they worked more than the stated number of hours in their contract. Among those who worked overtime, only around half were compensated for those extra hours.

Holding onto the dream

“Cooking is the greatest thing in the world. I’ve always been convinced of that,” high-school graduate Thies says. Still, there’s a limit to how much he’s willing to trade for a chef’s hat. He eventually found a placement in September 2020 but quit after “a physically exhausting month” spent in the basement kitchen of an unnamed restaurant, during which he worked “far more than 40 hours a week”. As a Praktikant, he did gain some experience at least: “I learned what exploitation and exhaustion meant.”

“The chef profession doesn’t really have a great reputation at the moment,” says Thies, who currently works as a trainee chef in the kitchen of Otto, a restaurant serving up seasonal small plates on Oderberger Straße in Prenzlauer Berg. “Perhaps a large number of Azubis once decided to pursue this career because the alternatives weren’t exactly any better. Now, young people are no less passionate but maybe have a bit more freedom to choose.” Among those who do decide to train in a professional kitchen, around half don’t complete their training – although the situation does seem to be better in Berlin, where the drop-out rate is around 30 percent, according to the city’s OSZ Gastgewerbe, a college for budding members of the hotel and hospitality industry.

Useless YouTubers

According to Le Voguer, some young people don’t have what it takes to commit to the job. “It is a demanding job. It’s not for loafers or hobby cooks,” he says. “You need to work long hours, under pressure when it’s full. It requires skill and passion, and it’s hard, physical work.” But what’s more, it requires appropriate training. The veteran chef has endless stories of “young kids” with lots of aplomb but scant qualifications. One candidate made a good impression during the interview, the restaurateur recalls. “But the day I asked him to prepare a pate à choux for my profiteroles, I saw he was on his mobile phone secretly watching a YouTube tutorial. He just had no idea!” Another would-be employee was left clueless in front of a piece of Argentinian raw beef when asked to prepare Chez Michel’s famous steaks. “He didn’t know how to slice meat! That’s the basic, something you learn at cooking school!”

Struck by the dearth of qualified culinary talent, Le Voguer decided to get back in the kitchen himself and now works alongside the one good chef he was able to hold onto. “I make a point of paying my cooks decently. I know what it’s like having been an employee myself,” he says. “Of course you always wish you could do more.”

So why doesn’t he? “The problem is that in Berlin, food has been too cheap for too long,” Le Voguer says. Restaurant prices have gone up as the pandemic made many ingredients more expensive. But they would need to rise further to allow for more generous wages. “The problem is that you cannot change the rules of the game alone. If you want to pay everyone decently, you won’t stand the competition because no one else is doing it.”