In an article headlined, “Fixing the Toilet and Designing a Menu: Are Chefs White- or Blue-Collar Jobs?” the acclaimed club chef was highlighted as a primary example of what is now seen as a “hybrid” profession that requires a high level of education, skill and sophistication while still calling for “hard, hands-on work.”
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article headlined, “Fixing the Toilet and Designing a Menu: Are Chefs White- or Blue-Collar Jobs?” featured Martin Hamann, Executive Chef of The Union League of Philadelphia, as exemplifying the need for high-profile chefs to now be artists and sophisticated businesspeople while still retaining working-class skills and work ethics.
Hamann, the Inquirer noted, “has spent as many hours in front of fire as Satan, laboring in hot kitchens from here to Singapore.”
“He’ll display the scars on his hands and tell you the precise dish he was making when the knife slipped.” the article continued. “He’ll reference his new hip and describe the constant bending over ovens, the hoisting of 50-pound bags of potatoes—the endless culinary calisthenics and 14-hour days of standing in grease and bedlam.
“This is hard-core physical labor,” said Hamann, now 60, told the Inquirer. “A chef is absolutely a working-class job.”
Hamann, for whom the Union League named its 1862 by Martin Hamann fine-dining restaurant, was described by the Inquirer as “an athletic, blue-collar boy” from the working-class town of Morton, Pa. in Delaware County outside of Philadelphia. His mother was a telephone operator and his father was a baker, which led to Hamann always being “drawn to kitchens,” the Inquirer reported.
Hamann (who presented at Club & Resort Business’ Chef to Chef Conference in Denver, Colo. in 2013) originally tried cakes as his entry into the culinary field, the Inquirer reported, but he lacked the temperament for the “chemist’s exactitude’ that baking required. His father then suggested that “Maybe you should work in the savory end,” and that led Hamann to study at Philadelphia’s Restaurant School, which is now known as the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.
After doing some work abroad, Hamann then went on to a 25-year career with Four Seasons properties, rising to Executive Chef (he joined the Union League in 2008). Married with a college-age daughter, he told the Inquirer that he never forgot he was a working-class guy “cooking for the elite” while at the Four Seasons. One Christmas, he related, he was running out of food as people kept ordering steaks. “I’m in the kitchen wondering, ‘Why aren’t they at home with their families today?’ “ he said.
“That’s a separation of class,” Hamann said. “The upper class eats steak at the Four Seasons at Christmas. We stayed home.”
The Inquirer article reported that those who study social class say that chef is a rare kind of hybrid job — like nurse, FBI agent, surveyor, or geoscientist — that combines college education with hard, hands-on work.
“It’s a blending of both classes,” David Jansen, chef-owner of the Jansen fine-dining restaurant in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy section, and a former Four Seasons colleague of Hamann’s, told the Inquirer.
“I’ll fix the stopped toilet and peel the carrots,” Jansen, 50, explained. “But I’ll also design the menu; create a plate with beautiful flavors and textures; manage food costs; then be a part-time priest when someone in my kitchen is fighting with his girlfriend.”
Willa Zhen, food anthropologist at the Culinary Institute of America told the Inquirer that “the professionalization of cooking” now requires chefs to possess artistry, financial acumen, and the white-collar polish for clinking glasses with money-dropping regulars. Plus, most top chefs have now achieved their status only after logging years of arduous study in a cooking school.
Still, the Inquirer noted, the toilsome aspects of chefdom are often a surprise to neophytes breaking into the business. Young people who’ve feasted on a ceaseless diet of television food shows, which elevate chefs to lavishly remunerated rock-star status, walk into kitchens expecting to run their own spots in a year—and instead spend their days chopping onions.
“For people who are smart and physical, there are easier, more lucrative alternatives than restaurants,” Jonathan Deutsch, a Professor of Culinary Arts at Drexel University, told the Inquirer.
A chef’s average annual salary is $47,390, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Inquirer reported, and low pay and blue-collar conditions could be why the restaurant industry is experiencing a chef shortage. In Philadelphia and its suburbs in 2016, there were 2,020 chefs in restaurants, 500 fewer than there were 10 years before, according to the BLS. Food cognoscenti around the country report similar trends.
This comes at a time when the restaurant industry is exploding, noted John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association in Harrisburg. For the first time in U.S. history, he said, Americans today are spending more money for food in restaurants than in grocery stores. Nationwide, annual restaurant sales are $798 billion, compared to $587 billion seven years ago, association figures show.
Longstreet attributed most of the chef shortage to all of that industry growth—too many kitchens, and not enough bosses.
But, he acknowledged, “there’s frustration for young chefs looking for the glamour of being [Food Network icon] Guy Fieri, and quitting after seeing that isn’t what it’s like.”
Describing the chef shortage in Philadelphia, Deutsch, the Drexel University professor, told the Inquirer that it’s caused, in part, by a combination of “some kids not wanting to pay their dues” and chef’s wages failing to increase sufficiently to entice new blood, even though “there’s a plethora of great restaurants here.”
Perhaps it’s inaccurate to fit chefs for blue or white collars, Megan Elias, Director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, told the Inquirer.
“They’re the creative class” making art, she said, adding, however, that line cooks do most of the cooking, while earning half of what chefs make. And many filling these positions are “unappreciated and frequently undocumented immigrants,” she added.
Nick Elmi, winner of Bravo TV’s 2014 Top Chef contest and owner of the Laurel restaurant in the trendy East Passyunk section of Philadelphia, told the Inquirer that he doesn’t agree that he and his peers are Picassos with spatulas.
“I’m more like a mason than an artist,” said Elmi, 37, who grew up in a middle-class Massachusetts family. “Beauty’s important, but there’s a physical workmanship to it.”
Regarding class in restaurants, Valerie Erwin, chef-owner of the now-closed Geechee Girl Rice Café in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy section, told the Inquirer that she hasn’t considered where chefs stand. She does, however, see a divide preventing working-class minorities from becoming waiters.
“Dining rooms are more segregated than kitchens,” said Erwin, 65, a Princeton University graduate born into a working-class North Philadelphia family. She currently manages the nonprofit EAT Café, a West Philadelphia spot with a pay-what-you-can component that’s run by Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and other organizations.
“In a majority-black city, you don’t see black servers in fine dining,” Erwin noted. It’s also widely known, she added, that “very, very few women are at the chef level at any kind of restaurant,” Elias said.
Recent sexual misconduct allegations lodged against famous male chefs — John Besh of New Orleans and TV personality Mario Batali — underscore the degrading macho cultures that persist in restaurant kitchens, the Inquirer noted.
But restaurants are becoming more serious about improving conditions, Deutsch, the Drexel University professor, believes. As part of that, he added, they will be hiring chefs who are blended-collar types representing “the full package: physically strong with deft hands, smart multitaskers who can create a delicious roast chicken, and 10 other things at the same time.”