Before the novel coronavirus crisis reached America, Samuel Prieto was working as a line cook at a relatively large, independent restaurant in Los Angeles. (He prefers to not disclose the name of the restaurant given that he is no longer employed there and doesn’t know if he will be in the future.) A career in restaurants had been the plan since he graduated from college, and after paying his dues working in kitchens, Prieto envisioned a future that included owning his own restaurant. Now, that future is more uncertain than it’s ever been; Prieto doesn’t know if he’ll have a restaurant job in a few months, and he worries that the career ladder he planned to climb has been completely dismantled.
Eater spoke to Prieto about the pandemic’s present and long-term impact on his generation of line cooks. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eater: How was your experience filing for unemployment?
Samuel Prieto: The week leading up to Eric Garcetti’s stay-at-home measures in which he closed all the restaurants, I remember watching our cover count go down every night. I was off that Sunday, which was when the declaration was made that restaurants would shutter and non-essential businesses would close their doors, and I remember thinking that this was coming because the states and the counties further north were beginning to do it. That Sunday I received an email from the restaurant basically saying we were all being furloughed.
I think I was among the first wave of recently unemployed people to apply for unemployment. California has an online portal, and it’s relatively easy aside from the waiting, in which you have no idea what’s going on because they don’t send you a notification online that they’re mailing you something. So basically you qualify online, you receive something in the mail, you respond to that and mail it back, and then you’re given a code through which you can access the online portal.
I had a relatively easy time applying online. I have friends who applied later than I did and are still waiting to hear back or are still waiting on their first checks in LA. And these are people who applied maybe three, four days after me. There must be a backlog. One of the scarier things about this is that an entire industry has let go of basically all of their hourly workers, and no one is on the same schedule as anyone else. It’s not like you can call a friend and expect them to be on the same timeline you are, because that’s just not happening. It’s such a huge phenomenon.
What provisions has the restaurant you worked at set up for staff?
They’ve been keeping us abreast with information as it comes out. Anyone who gets health insurance through the company will get it until at least May at this point. I imagine in May they’ll reach out with updates. We got a gift basket going into Easter weekend full of hard-to-find groceries. I do feel the restaurant has been doing what it can to take care of us. When restaurants can’t make money I don’t expect them to keep up pay for hourly employees who aren’t working.
Where are you in your career?
I’ve only ever really worked at independent restaurants. This is the fourth restaurant I’ve worked at long term. I’ve only ever been a line cook, which basically means that I’m an hourly employee who’s responsible for prepping a station, working service, and doing the actual cooking. As a line cook, you don’t do any of the management activities that you see sous chefs and kitchen managers doing. Your job is to produce the plate and to keep up with what’s going on. You are the labor that creates the product that is sold to the customer.
I’ve been doing this for five years now, and I’ve gotten to the point where I could find myself a job in many high-level kitchens, and I feel like I can do that job well. I’ve become an expert at “being a line cook,” whatever that means. My entire career has been in fine dining.
Are you looking forward to going back to work in restaurants?
I would happily go back to work. I know for a fact we’re in stay-at-home measures for at least another month and I don’t know what restaurants will look like when or if I return to them. I also worry that I might need to find another job before that is possible. I’m turning 26 in July. I’m currently on my parents’ insurance, which I’m incredibly lucky and very privileged to have. [Editor’s note: Job-based insurance plans typically cover dependents until they turn 26.] I don’t know that I can enroll in the company’s insurance while being furloughed. I haven’t asked about it yet. It may be something I need to do. I may need to find a job before then just so that I have health insurance. Since I’m currently unemployed I could get health insurance through the state, but I don’t know what bills will be passed in the time in between. Perhaps they’ll extend the coverage for people who are about to age off their parents’ insurance.
I don’t want to trick myself into thinking we might open up earlier than we will. I think when restaurants do reopen it will be piecemeal. We’re going to see a few cooks brought back here and there. We’re going to see a lot of restaurants closing forever and it’s going to be a saturated market. There will be a lot of cooks looking for work and there aren’t going to be as many restaurants. And even if people step into those leases that have opened up, it still takes a restaurant a while to get to the point where it can hire at full scale. I worry that I won’t be able to find a position that’s commensurate with my skill level and with my experience, because I don’t know how many of those positions will exist when that time comes.
What other industries are you looking to as options?
I’m currently looking into restaurant-adjacent industries, industries that operate in the food world. A lot of people love food, and I definitely love food, but I also love restaurants. I love the action that surrounds them and the challenge that each day brings. There are very few other industries that feel the same, that have that sense of urgency that working in a restaurant brings. So as of right now, I haven’t actively begun job searching, but I am trying to talk to people to find out what’s out there. There are a lot of hiring freezes in almost every industry now. Everything is up in the air.
I think restaurants are in this unique place where they were one of the first industries to be affected by the spread of coronavirus. We started seeing business going down long before we were told to close our doors, and I think we will see that business is still low after we’re able to reopen. It may be a long time — or never — until people are eating out at the level that they were.
What do you want to see happen to make things better for people in your position?
I felt like I’ve seen almost nothing written from my perspective, that of a line cook, which I know is so common. There are so many line cooks. There are so many prep cooks. There are so many porters and dishwashers. There are all these people in this somewhat unique position that many of us have worked in restaurants our entire lives and now we’re en masse without jobs. A lot of people who work in restaurants see that as their purpose. They’re able to serve people in the way that they want to. They’re able to provide hospitality.
It’s not that I want to see things done for me. It’s that I worry that I will not be able to do for myself what previous generations of cooks have been able to. I worry I will go into an industry that won’t be able to support young restaurateurs who want to own restaurants. My dream has been to open restaurants. I don’t know that I’ll be able to keep to the trajectory I imagined for myself. I worry that my entire generation of cooks will be held back by this.
I’ve gone through the tried and true methods. I’m on unemployment. Most of my friends are either on it or waiting to hear back. The question is: Will there be work for us in the future? Because as of right now there is no work for us.
What do you think the future looks like for your generation of restaurant workers?
Something a lot of people have not thought about is that this crisis, though it’s happening right now, alters the path that has traditionally been in place for aspiring restaurateurs. There are so many notable exceptions to this path. Many famous restaurateurs never worked in someone else’s kitchen, but those are really the exception to the rule. Usually the path is that a young cook works in restaurant kitchens and gains skills, not just cooking, but management. You learn the business on the job, and I don’t know that this path will still exist coming out of this.
We may see a rash of openings whenever that might be possible, but we’re also going to see an entire generation of cooks who won’t be able to find the management positions they need in order to learn the business side of restaurants. I don’t know that there will be the capital necessary for young chefs to open. Any of my friends who were serious about opening in this calendar year or the next calendar year have talked about putting it on pause.
We’ll see a different type of restaurant come out of this. Even in the past five years we’ve seen delivery become more important and it will continue. Who knows what will happen to the restaurants that thrive on the business lunch crowd? The traditional structure of a restaurant may be very different. There will certainly be restaurants, but I don’t think anyone knows what they will look like.