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The Great Bay Area Culinary Brain Drain

Have sky-high rents, nightmare commutes, and historically low wages turned the Bay Area from a culinary mecca to a no-man’s land for young cooks?

When Kimberly Miramontes was 18, she moved to San Francisco to pursue her dream of being a restaurant chef. After enrolling in the culinary program at City College of San Francisco, she got a job on the line at Roy’s, an upscale, Hawaiian fusion restaurant in the city’s SOMA district. Though she enjoyed cooking, the kitchen’s environment was another story. “It felt very much like an everybody’s-out-for-themselves sort of place,” says Miramontes, who is now 28.

Finding an affordable apartment presented its own set of hurdles. “Every time I moved it just got more and more expensive,” says Miramontes, who moved five times in as many years. In 2010, she paid $800 a month for a studio with a single window, in the Outer Sunset neighborhood. By 2014, she was living in a slightly larger studio in the Mission that cost $1,900 per month—and naturally, she needed a roommate to afford the rent. Though she’s since found greater stability and community as a cooking teacher for the Berkeley Unified School District, Miramontes still pays over $1,000 to rent a room in a four-bedroom house in Oakland. “I’d love to stay in the Bay Area for as long as I can,” she says, “but I also recognize that I may not be able to.”

Miramontes’s experience is far from unique among young cooks. Although the Bay Area has long been a professional mecca for aspiring chefs, some say that a combination of unaffordable housing, low wages, grueling hours, and stress is driving young culinary talent away from the region. And the economic pressures aren’t likely to abate: New renters in San Francisco faced record-breaking prices this summer, while two-bedroom apartments, long shared by cost-conscious residents, continue to grow more expensive.

“It’s just harder to find good cooks. They’re not in the city anymore, like they used to be,” Miramontes says.

It’s an observation shared by other established chefs in the area. “We’re not seeing as many young cooks from 19 to 24,” says Eric Ehler, the executive chef at San Francisco’s Fort Point Beer Co. He has a laundry list of reasons, beginning with the tendency of millennials to remain at home longer than previous generations. Then there are the financial and logistical hurdles facing young people, regardless of profession.

Ehler, now 31, can speak firsthand to the hardships of being a cook in San Francisco. On New Year’s Eve 2017, he suffered a cardiac arrest while working a 60-plus-hour week as a sous chef at the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s. He’s still paying off medical bills that he doesn’t feel like he’ll “ever be able to shed,” despite now earning a competitive salary. As for the yelling and physical exhaustion that are synonymous with traditional kitchens, those are meant for the young and scrappy, Ehler says — not “people who are trying to live a sustainable lifestyle.”

Like Ehler, Emiliana Puyana is no stranger to San Francisco’s culinary upper-crust or its concomitant financial squeeze. Now 37 and the program manager at the nonprofit kitchen incubator La Cocina, she moved to the city at 19 to intern at La Folie, which was then considered one of the Bay Area’s best restaurants. Most days, Puyana would come to work at 10 a.m. and stay until 11 p.m. She worked the line five days a week, but rarely, if ever, got two consecutive days off. Because of her unpredictable schedule, Puyana felt compelled to live nearby the restaurant, even though it meant shelling out $1,750 a month for a tiny studio. To exacerbate the financial strain, her first month of work was unpaid. After that, she made $9 an hour, minimum wage at the time.

Although the East Bay has historically been slightly more affordable than San Francisco, it poses its own challenges. Christa Chase, who is now 33 and the head chef at Oakland’s forthcoming Friends and Family, graduated from culinary school in Arizona with visions of working at Chez Panisse. But after landing in Berkeley, she learned she’d have to work her first six months for free before even being considered for full-time employment. It was “dream crushing,” she says. “That was just absolutely not possible for me.” Chase instead chose Oliveto, an Oakland Italian restaurant that takes a local, seasonal approach like Chez Panisse, but lacks its national cachet. (A spokesperson for Chez Panisse says that “we don’t and have not had a policy of requiring an unpaid internship as a prerequisite for employment.”)

When Chase took a job opening San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory in 2016, she confronted a new obstacle: the cross-Bay trek. Because almost none of the staff lived in San Francisco, she recalls, “everyone was commuting, like, a solid hour-plus to work each day.” For some, she adds, the trip was closer to three hours. While she believes that Tartine is a special place, it still doesn’t seem fair that cooks making $17 to $18 an hour (a typical starting wage for places like Tartine) can’t afford to live closer to work.

And it isn’t just young, inexperienced cooks who are struggling; these days, skilled cooks are hard to find, says Alexander Hong, the co-owner and executive chef of Sorrel, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Pacific Heights. “People either want to do their own spot,” he says, “or they know how to find other things in this industry that make more money, and have more of a comfortable lifestyle.” Hong, who turned 30 in July, recalls that a decade ago, newbie cooks would spend months on a waitlist to work at a top restaurant. Now, he says, demand is inverted: “The cooks make the calls.”

Like other ambitious young cooks, Hong began his career in prestigious kitchens. With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and a stint at New York’s Jean-Georges, he landed a job on the line at Quince. At the time, Quince had a single Michelin star, and Hong got hands-on experience at every station. But opportunity came at a price. “It was a brutal life,” Hong says, one that entailed working 12-hour shifts five, occasionally six days a week. “It was just draining on my body — it hurt all the time.” And at around $11 an hour, he was living virtually paycheck to paycheck.

When Hong left Quince after two years to work as a private chef, he saw what he describes as “a completely different side of the industry.” He made $90,000 a year, and enjoyed perks like a car and the use of several credit cards. But the work was repetitive, and Hong felt he wasn’t learning. So after 12 months, he began doing tasting-menu pop-ups in hotels and restaurants around the city. His crew grew from two to 10, and their dinners went from monthly to weekly.

“Quite the opposite,” Hong says, when asked if he had the same financial struggles as he faced when he worked the line at Quince. “We made so much money during the pop-ups, it’s crazy.” With a ticketing system, he could anticipate exactly how much food and wine to buy, and how many staff members to hire. Some venues, trying to attract business, would provide space for free. Bringing in 60 to 70 people a night, with tip, could generate $10,000. Along the way, Hong refined his culinary style, met investors, and worked with his best friends. He also had free time. “It was honestly a great life,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I should just do that.”

Though Hong was able to leverage his pop-up proceeds to open Sorrel as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, it’s difficult for most pop-up chefs to find that level of success. Few restaurants want the logistical headache of hosting a pop-up three or four nights each week, and the cost of ingredients and labor can be considerable. So while a pop-up is a good way to test the waters, says Puyana of La Cocina, it’s best suited for a side hustle or “income patching.”

Like pop-ups, food trucks have become synonymous with cash-strapped but enterprising young cooks over the last decade. But they can pose even greater obstacles to profitability. “To operate a food truck in San Francisco is basically to run on a triple-rent structure,” Puyana explains. In addition to paying rent on a commissary kitchen, which is legally required for food trucks, there’s a fee to join a mobile market, and then potential storage fees, because the San Francisco Department of Public Health requires operators to report a permanent location.

There’s another, less obvious — and even positive — influence at work on the evolving hiring landscape: Technology. Instagram, Hong says, is “huge”: He found two members of his kitchen team, both under 26, after they direct-messaged him through the app. It’s a development that Ehler says has affected how young cooks perceive the industry: Historically, he says, chefs at Michelin-star restaurants would “never fraternize with cooks.” But thanks to the ease and ubiquity of the DM, that boundary may be eroding. Young cooks can even leverage large Instagram followings to gain invitations to restaurant openings from chefs they admire.

Though the financial picture remains bleak for young chefs in the Bay Area, some feel that a new guard brings greater, unforeseen opportunities. Thanks to La Cocina’s work primarily advising women of color and immigrant communities on how to grow their businesses, Puyana believes that the program’s next generation of leaders can help change negative cultural and economic practices associated with the industry. “I see how the entrepreneurs support their employees,” she says of La Cocina’s graduates. “There’s just a level of empathy, compassion, and understanding that I’ve never experienced in the traditional brigade, French-led system.”

Ehler echoes that. “This is the best time in the world to become a young cook,” he insists. Restaurant kitchens, he explains, are increasingly filled with knowledgeable chefs who are tired of the old ways. “They just want young kids to come in to learn.”

Kathryn Bowen is a writer and lawyer based in Oakland, California.
Sisi Yu is a NYC-based artist.
Fact checker: Kelsey Lannin