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With Fewer Pots to Stir, Competition Rises Among Cooks

With Fewer Pots to Stir, Competition Rises Among Cooks

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

A SHOW, BUT ALSO A JOB With thousands of restaurant jobs lost in New York the past few months, cooks are looking for other paths. Some 150 applicants for the next season of “Top Chef” lined up, above, earlier this month downtown.

Published: March 17, 2009

JAMES LENZI, a chef who is opening a restaurant near Columbia University, recently posted an ad on Craigslist for an assistant. Salary: $25,000 a year with no benefits.

Robert Caplin for The New York Times

HOLDING ON The chef Josh DeChellis, right, working with Eli Culp at La Fonda del Sol, said restaurants cannot cut staff too much or quality suffers.

“The résumés started pouring in,” he said. “Hundreds of them. Chefs, managers, people who’ve worked at the best restaurants in New York.”

Nine of the 300 applicants had Ph.D.’s., he said. “I can’t stop thinking about what’s going to happen to them.”

In New York City, chefs, owners and workers say they cannot remember a time when so many restaurants were closing or struggling, so many restaurant workers were looking for jobs and so few places were hiring. According to the New York State DepartmentricaLabor, after adding 50,000 jobs in less than seven years, the New York City restaurant business lost more than 10,000 jobs between October 2008 and January 2009.

The economy is obviously a factor, but some in the business say they’re also seeing the results of a decade of exuberant, possibly unsustainable expansion.

“Suddenly the restaurant business looks not so different from the financial and real estate markets,” said Joseph Bastianich, a co-owner of 12 restaurants in New York and nationwide. “When expansion is fueled by unfounded optimism, you get a balloon that doesn’t exist in reality.”

In September 2007 the chef Fabio Trabocchi was brought in from suburban Washington with much publicity to take over Fiamma in SoHo. Its handmade pastas were praised to the skies, and Frank Bruni gave it three stars in The New York Times that November. In January its owner closed it.

“A boom is exciting, and it raises the level of the food for everyone,” Mr. Trabocchi said. “It’s too soon to say if it was a bubble, but at the end there is only a certain number of people to eat in your restaurants.”

Fiamma is one of the few high-end closings in New York, but owners say business is down 10 to 30 percent.

In just the last five years, Jimmy Haber and his chef and partner, Laurent Tourondel, have opened 14 BLT restaurants, 5 of them in Manhattan.

“Everybody was out there celebrating life,” Mr. Haber said. Now, he said, business is down 10 to 20 percent from its peak in 2007.

Many restaurateurs suspect there may have been too much celebration.

“People with euphoria and momentum and money stepped into the business,” said John McDonald, an owner of Lever House and Lure Fishbar. “Landlords thought they could charge crazy rents anywhere in Manhattan.”

Soon, he said, many restaurants with 200 seats to fill each night and $20,000 in rent to pay each month will be in trouble. “I am just hoping to hold on to my best people and hunker down until business gets better,” he added.

Bad times aren’t confined to Manhattan. Federal Labor Department figures show the restaurant industry has cut more than 100,000 jobs nationally since September; in the same time a year before, the industry added almost 50,000 jobs.

In the last decade, the luxury restaurant boom went national, as hotels expanded and brought in prestigious chefs like Daniel BouludEric Ripert and Tom Colicchio. Across the country, the contraction has already begun. Gordon Ramsay recently sold his share in his restaurant in Los Angeles after less than a year of operation.

Joachim Splichal, the chef of the Patina Restaurant Group, which runs more than 30 restaurants in the United States, said people like him were the reason for the boom in high-end restaurants in places like Las Vegas and New York.

“I was one of the celebrity chefs who started opening more and more restaurants, and now we are totally overbuilt,” he said, referring to the industry.

“People are coming to L.A. from Las Vegas looking for work,” he added. “They are leaving here to go to the Midwest, they are going from the Midwest to Florida. The business is going to look completely different after this.”

Elizabeth Blau, who worked with Steve Wynn to bring many top chefs to Las Vegas and is a partner in four restaurants there, said that with restaurant business plunging since September, the market is being tested. Michelin-starred chefs, she said, are not the draw that they were a year ago.

“Las Vegas is like the subprime mortgage market of restaurants,” she said. “This may be a healthy correction.”

New York restaurants are not yet feeling as much pain as those in Las Vegas, but even people with jobs here are sending out résumés.

Timothy Reardon was a sous-chef at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Midtown when he “saw the writing on the wall” after a round of layoffs last fall. “I knew I was next,” Mr. Reardon said; he began actively looking for a job, and landed one as executive chef at the Core Club in Midtown. “It’s not Robuchon, but it’s my own kitchen,” he said.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Would-be contestants on “Top Chef” waited in a long line to apply in New York recently.

Some of New York’s most experienced restaurant workers are taking work that might have been considered beneath their abilities a year ago. Nicole Kaplan, who was the top pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park and Del Posto — and, briefly, at the Plaza — is working as a part-time cooking instructor. “An executive pastry chef is an investment that a lot of people don’t want to make right now,” she said.

Colin Alevras, who was the chef and owner for 10 years of the Tasting Room in the East Village, and a branch in NoLIta, has closed his restaurants and decided to seek more stable work within the industry. He is pouring wine at DB Bistro Moderne in Midtown, part of the chef Daniel Boulud’s empire.

“We have a family to support, so I was happy to accept the reduction in ego in exchange for stability,” Mr. Alevras said of himself and his wife, Renée. Johnny Iuzzini, the pastry chef at Jean Georges, said he had never received so many offers from experienced cooks to do unpaid internships in his kitchen. “A lot of people are using unemployment as an educational opportunity, and of course to build their résumé,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Even those willing to work for free are having a hard time. “Everybody’s on the edge, and I don’t need people hanging around my kitchen messing with the morale of the paid guys,” said Michael White, the chef and an owner of Alto and Convivio and, soon, Marea. “Let them go to Italy, learn to make pasta, and wash their clothes in a bucket like I did for seven years.”

Alexandra Raij, a chef and co-owner of Txikito, a tapas bar in Chelsea, said that it used to be impossible to find skilled cooks who wanted to work in her tiny, two-electric-burner kitchen. Now, she said, the situation is so desperate that cooks push résumés through the security gate late at night.

Chefs say they are willing to try anything to hang on in the industry. On a recent snowy Sunday morning, a record number of applicants waited on the sidewalk in front of CraftSteak in the meatpacking district to try out for the next season of the culinary-competition show “Top Chef.”

The line, which grew to more than 150 people, started to form at 5 a.m., five hours before the auditions began. There was a Culinary Institute of America graduate overwhelmed bystudent loan debt and working as a barista; a line cook laid off from three successive New York hotel kitchens in the last nine months; and Caroline McDaniel, who has cooked in New York for more than 30 years and who said she had never wanted to cook on television before.

“At this point all of us would do anything to protect our jobs,” she said, gesturing to her fellow cooks. Until the end of last year, she said, she earned enough by catering parties and private dinners. But after Election Day, she said, $28,000 in the holiday bookings she counts on were canceled by nervous clients.

Cutting the staff can be a last resort, said Josh DeChellis, the chef at the new La Fonda del Sol in Midtown. “If you want to maintain quality,” he said, “there is a threshold that can’t be crossed.”

Yet some chefs are quietly jubilant that layoffs put top talent on the market.

Terrance Brennan, the chef and an owner of Artisanal and Picholine, said that a year ago he was “dismayed” by the quality of cooks applying for junior positions in his kitchens. “Now I’m overwhelmed by it,” he said.

Andrew Carmellini, who is opening a restaurant with the actor Robert DeNiro, said the best cooks used to be spread too thinly. “When I moved to New York in 1991, there were maybe 10 restaurants with brigades of serious cooks,” he said. “Now there are 50 — but not all of them will survive.”

He said he has 100 high-quality candidates to choose from for his brigade.

“Our kitchen is going to be sick,” he said — fantastic in chef parlance.

Michael White said the New York restaurant scene was due for a “cleansing.”

“This is a good time for those of us who are serious about cooking, and a good time for those who are serious about eating,” Mr. White said. “Now the cream will rise to the top.” 
Alina Munoz
Author: Alina Munoz
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Category: industry news