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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane, state experiencing shortage of cooks

“Apply yourself and learn every day,” said Molly Patrick, executive chef at The Blackbird restaurant in Spokane, while talking about the shortage of cooks in the industry. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
“Apply yourself and learn every day,” said Molly Patrick, executive chef at The Blackbird restaurant in Spokane, while talking about the shortage of cooks in the industry. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Molly Patrick can’t find a cook, at least not one she wants to keep around.

The head chef at The Blackbird and Manito Tap House said she’s had three openings at the Tap House that have been unfilled for three to four months.

“They come into the kitchen and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this,’ ” Patrick said. The reality is “it’s really hard and it takes a long time to be a chef.”

Her struggle to fill kitchen positions is one she shares with many chefs. .

“I think it’s always a challenge here in Spokane and in Washington in general,” said Trevor Blackwell, owner of the Twigs restaurants.

Patrick believes the shortage has to do with a change in culture. Cooking has been glamorized and would-be chefs have unrealistic expectations of what it means to work in the restaurant industry, she said.

Patrick started cooking in 1996 at a small Italian restaurant in Georgia. For her, it’s been a labor of love. She’d go into work early to learn new techniques, she said. She spent a year and a half in France learning and working at farms in exchange for a place to sleep. She worked for 10 years to become a sous chef.

Now, people come into the industry expecting to advance quickly and painlessly through the kitchen ranks.

“It just has to do with all the TV shows and everyone thinking it’s so easy,” Patrick said. “I mean, it’s a lot of fun if you’re crazy.”

While not everyone agrees with Patrick’s diagnosis of the problem, there is a shortage of cooks statewide, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association.

There are a number of reasons for the shortage, Anton said. A stronger economy means fewer people are willing to go into low-paying, high-stress jobs. Additionally, many people don’t see restaurant work as a sustainable career choice.

“What we’re failing to do … is explain this is not meant to be your last job, this is meant to be your first job,” he said in reference to entry level positions such as dishwashers and counter positions in quick service restaurants.

Anton estimates Washington is short between 6,500 and 7,000 full-service cooks.

Spokane chefs and owners believe part of the problem comes from an increased interest in fine dining.

“We even have smaller mom-and-pop places who are trying to grind their own burger,” said David Blaine, the owner of Central Food. “More restaurants are fighting over the same amount of skilled labor.”

Blaine said the issue isn’t so severe for him because he has a small kitchen staff. But like Patrick, he believes the glamorization of cooking has affected the industry.

“We’re kind of coming out of the golden age where it was the sexy career,” he said.

Patrick McPherson, the owner of Manito Tap House and The Blackbird, echoed Blaine. Increased demand has stretched the pool of qualified labor. Additionally, the disparity in pay between front-of-house employees like waiters and the wages paid to cooks discourages many from getting into the profession, he said.

“I think the other thing that is at play is that the economy is doing pretty well, and so there are other jobs,” McPherson said.

Even if he doesn’t have an opening, Blackwell said, he will interview an applicant and try to find them work in anticipation of an opening. Twiggs has about 60 kitchen staff across four Spokane-area locations.

“One thing that would make it easier … is if we had a tip credit,” McPherson said. “We could balance the disparity between the front of the house and the back of the house.”

The tip credit would allow Washington restaurants to pay employees less than minimum wage, like Idaho. If that happened, McPherson said, restaurants would be able to increase kitchen staff pay.

Now, kitchen staffs often make a dollar or two more than minimum wage, he said. Tipped employees make much more than that.

According to the National Restaurant Association, there were 14,913 eating and drinking places in Washington in 2014. Those places employed 286,800 people, or 13 percent of the state workforce.

Nationally, more full-service restaurants opened from 2004 to 2014 than any other industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The restaurant industry is expected to grow roughly 15 percent through 2025. That means the industry will need 200,000 more cooks and chefs nationally.

Patrick, the chef at The Blackbird and Manito Tap House, agrees that pay is low and demand for cooks is high because of an increased interest in fine dining. However, she believes the core issue is a cultural shift.

“Yeah, I need money to pay my bills, but I didn’t start cooking to make money,” she said. “People get into it not knowing what they’re getting into.”

Correction: A quote from Anthony Anton was taken out of context. “What we’re failing to do … is explain this is not meant to be your last job, this is meant to be your first job,” Anton said in reference to entry level positions such as dishwashers and counter positions in quick service restaurants. The quote has been clarified in the story.
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