The Union Club of Cleveland’s Lawrence McFadden, CMC, GM/COO, says reinvention is not only necessary but should be lead by club chefs.
I entered the culinary profession in 1982 as a dishwasher for the local Ramada Inn. I had a freshly minted high school diploma and an eye on the armed services. Since the culinary profession has always welcomed the untrained and uneducated, it was an ideal stint for me at the time.
Back in those days, luxury restaurants were European and secretive. Each gateway city had one or two that existed for milestones and special occasions. For the most part, culinary wasn’t even much of a profession. It was more of trade. Those who entered the professional were typically immigrant, retired military, or college dropouts.
Community colleges owned the education space generating competent cooks for positions in hotels, clubs, and restaurants. Apprenticeships were traditional and considered finishing schools hosted by private hospitality establishments. These programs offered advanced culinary education and hotel labor for many out-of-the-way destinations. In addition, the American Culinary Federation focused on professional certification levels. All these educational tools added value to what was traditionally a blue-collar craft.
Still, even with better education, the profession had yet to hit its stride. PBS began to feature chefs like Julia Child, Jacque Pepin, and regional stars like Justin Wilson. Slowly, quietly, celebrity chefs like Alice Waters, Jeremiah Towers, and Larry Foregone emerged as stars of American Cuisine. For the first time in our history, American Chefs saw someone who looked like them.
From the late eighties to the two thousand, our industry was white-hot. Demand for and interest in the professional was plastered all over the cover of every lifestyle magazine. Cooking shows, networks, Chef, and all things cooking became bragging rights for foodies. Vacations, destinations, and even celebrity gossip columns were centered on culinary for the first time ever.
Parents began to proudly share that their child was a chef. The profession went mainstream and demanded creative thinking artisans.
In all this hype and noise, no one discussed the long hours, terrible conditions, addictions, and low wages. Instead, these things were justified as the cost of craft commitment. The industry continued to share and promote the bohemian lifestyle of a kitchen brigade. Chefs were turned into sex symbols. Everyone wanted to know and be around the chef, despite the aforementioned dirty secrets.
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen confidential stoked the legendary momentum with lots of “wow” factors. On the heels of this book came Hell’s Kitchen and other cooking series roaring with profanity and insults. America loves “reality” TV and the ratings soaked up the viewership.
In contrast to all the celebrity chefs was the culinary corporate side of the business with chefs who ran world-class operations and secured safe and productive kitchens. These chefs quietly mentored a different culinary generation. These professionals were fostered mostly in the hotels, clubs, and restaurant chains. Unfortunately, wages, schedule balance, and personal wellbeing still seemed to lag.
The first culinary ”popularity crack” came around 2010, when the educational cost lacked value in comparison to the industry’s discouraging wages.
Not far behind that was the #metoo movement, where the industry outed some of those very visible celebrity chefs.
The final blow came in 2020 with a global pandemic. While Hollywood was pumping out cooking shows, our industry was grappling with human rights issues, no customers, and the results of cruel conditions for culinary workers. Burnout was front and center for those who no longer could or would keep up.
Today, our industry’s popularity is in a free fall. Celebrity chefs who once hung their shingles on hometown streets have shuttered. Profits have dwindled and popular chains, pop up and quick service are cutting into the fragile demand of the once artisan restaurant dining space. Now, the once dominate American Chef is on the outside looking into the business they use to rule.
Sought-after restaurant reservations are easier to get. Home meal kits and eat-in parties are taking the place of weekend outings. The art of dining, and the competition between restaurants to be the best in class, is shrinking. Even if chefs can find financial backing, labor availability and costs of ingredients are shrinking menus and impacting business.
While this could sound like a sad chapter, creativity comes during challenging times. Our industry will not only survive, but it will also prosper, reinventing itself as it has for centuries.
The real question is can chefs—especially club chefs—reinvent themselves to lead this change?