Making peace with 'selling out'
Helming the stoves at a high-end restaurant used to be the pinnacle of a chef's career. But the rock-star-chef generation is growing older, Ann Hui writes, and work-life balance often means going corporate or leaving the kitchen altogether
Almost 10 years ago, Cactus Club Cafe made an announcement that sent shockwaves across the food world. Rob Feenie, then one of the country's brightest culinary stars, would be going to work for the Vancouver-based "casual fine dining" chain.
The move was calculated on both sides – at the time, Feenie was looking for a stable place to land after walking away from his two restaurants, the result of an acrimonious split with his former business partners. And Cactus Club could cash in on the cachet and street cred a name such as Feenie's carried at a time when the power of food culture and food television (of which Feenie had been a star) was becoming fully realized.
Still, the reaction was swift. "Yikes, Feenie really sold out on this one," one commenter on the the foodie forum eGullet said at the time. "The power of the dollar!"
That announcement was just the start. In the near-decade since, many of the best restaurants across Canada have seen their top talent leave for jobs at corporate chains. Michael Steh left his job as executive chef at Toronto's acclaimed the Chase to join Browns Restaurant Group, the company that runs dozens of Browns Socialhouse restaurants, mainly in Western Canada. Kristian Eligh, formerly the culinary director at Vancouver's Hawksworth, also joined Browns. Earls, meanwhile, has assembled an entire "chef's collective" of young stars.
And just last month, Cactus Club announced another prominent name joining its midst. Cory Vitiello, recognized as one of Toronto's brightest young chefs from his time as chef/owner at the Harbord Room, would also be joining the company.
The restaurant business has grown increasingly competitive and, many say, less lucrative, especially in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto. At the same time, costs – including rent both for restaurant space and staff housing – have increased exponentially, far outpacing wages or revenue. Food costs, too, continue to increase.
Meanwhile, announcements such as that of Vitiello and those before him, are compounding a general sense of angst – a realization that the chains, already competing for customers, are also competing for the best talent. Last year alone, more than 2,000 independent restaurants shut down across Canada. The chains, such as Cactus Club, Moxie's and Joey, meanwhile, continued to expand.
Altogether, it's a good reason for cooks to increasingly question the relevance of the old model – one that has traditionally placed the chef-driven restaurant at the very top.
More and more, young cooks who came up in a culture of celebrity chefs – and the idea of chefs as "rock stars" – are growing older, re-evaluating the idea of "going corporate" and what it means to them to "sell out."
Any accusation that he's selling out, Vitiello said, would be "totally fair."
"To be honest, maybe seven, eight years ago, if my peers did the same thing [moving to corporate], I would've probably said the same thing," he said. But after 23 years of cooking, he's ready for the next step. "A cook's education never stops."
'The restaurant model is broken'
Like Vitiello, many cooks' perspective on "going corporate" appears tied with age and experience.
"When I was 21 or something, I would've said to you, 'No, man, I love this. That fire is not gonna die and I wanna cook forever,'" said Jonathan Poon, the young chef-owner behind Bar Fancy and Superpoint in Toronto.
When he opened his first restaurant, Chantecler (from which he's since stepped away), he spent day and night at work. "I'd sleep at the restaurant on top of the fridge," he said. "The hours are long. It's a lot of standing and lifting and things like that. You get injured a lot. You get burns and you get cuts."
But now, at 31, Poon's thinking has evolved. Although he's still opening restaurants, he's now thinking about a model that won't involve him personally cooking behind a stove every night. After all, restaurant jobs don't often provide pensions or further opportunities as cooks age out of the intensely physical work.
"The notion of selling out I think is just silly. In the cook culture, there's a lot of ego and people are macho," Poon said. "But honestly, you have to be honest to yourself one day. Like, 'Man, I'm broken.'"
Unlike the many cooks who go corporate later in their careers, Michael Nguyen, the sous chef at the newly opened Biera in Edmonton, started the other way around. He's seen the pros and cons of both sides, and can understand why many appear now to be skipping the independent route altogether.
Fresh out of high school in the early 2000s, Nguyen was hired as a line cook at a Moxie's in the Vancouver area. He quickly rose in the ranks, becoming a trainer by the time he was 25. He was paid well and working stable hours in a professionally managed environment.
But that was when foodie culture was just starting to take off, as typified by voices such as the cantankerous Anthony Bourdain – outspoken in his ideals of what a "real chef" is and isn't, and in his derision of cooks who "sell out." (Time and age got to Bourdain, too, who himself has famously "sold out," these days hosting TV shows and juggling other non-restaurant projects.)
"Even at the time, I could see it wasn't real cooking," Nguyen said of his time at Moxie's. The business model, he said, is based on the idea that anyone can be hired and trained to cook the menu. And those menus were based on popularity and items that sold – pub-style favourites such as wings and burgers, and an assortment of other greatest hits of restaurant trends from the 2000s: fish tacos, sliders, chocolate lava cake and the like.
Any appearances of culinary creativity, he said, were "copycats of famous dishes" created by chefs elsewhere.
Even the smallest ingredient change required the approval of multiple managers and officials up the chain, stifling creativity. "I wanted to be more serious about cooking, and do better," said Nguyen. So he left Moxie's to start his way up in independent restaurants.
But that meant a drastic change to his lifestyle.
For years, he barely scratched out a living. While working as part of the team helping David Hawksworth open his eponymous restaurant in Vancouver, he was getting paid a "day rate" of $110. The pay seemed reasonable until he took into account the fact he was working between 14 and 15 hours a day. The culture in many of the kitchens he worked in was high pressure and punishing.
Meanwhile, the cost of living in a city such as Vancouver was skyrocketing. In order to get by, he shared a studio apartment with a roommate. Eventually, he left for the more affordable city of Edmonton.
"That's why a lot of young cooks get tired," he said. "You shouldn't have to sacrifice that much for a job."
Nugyen has now worked his way up to a position he says he loves and finds creatively fulfilling, but has watched many of his former colleagues in Vancouver move to the corporate side. "Now as an older cook," he said, "I can respect that in the end, it's a business."
The burnout factor and question of work-life balance are some issues many restaurants and prominent chefs have tried to tackle in recent years. But little has changed.
Dana McCauley, a food-trends expert who has worked in both restaurant and corporate kitchens, said there are many reasons careers in kitchens are becoming increasingly unsustainable – and much of it has to do with the fact the restaurants themselves have become so difficult to keep afloat.
Her husband, Martin Kouprie, shuttered his Yorkville restaurant, Pangaea, just last year. Running the business, she said, simply became too expensive. "The restaurant model," she said, "is broken."
'I'm just worrying about food'
Since Feenie's 2008 move to Cactus Club, he's dropped off of all "top restaurant" lists. A review in The Globe and Mail of the new Cactus Club Cafe in Toronto last year slammed its "slapdash, low-rent" menu.
Still, Feenie says it was the best decision he's ever made. On the regular, he said, he'll hear from another restaurant chef who tells him how much they envy him – the fact that he can spend time with his three kids and have a stable lifestyle that running his own restaurant never afforded.
"I wanted to have the best restaurant in Canada. I wanted a Relais Gourmand, the Traditions [&] Qualité, all of that," he said in an interview. "I did all that. I accomplished it and I've moved to the next chapter."
Feenie says he relishes the challenge of overseeing a menu that has to be executed in almost 30 locations all over the country and says he's genuinely proud of the food – especially for consistency in experience. "To be honest, it's a lot more challenging as a chef than it was before, just because the sheer precision that has to happen," he said.
He added that the job means he no longer has all the other headaches involved with running a business. Feenie's move to Cactus Club came immediately following a well-publicized falling out with his former business partners.
At Cactus Club, he said, "I'm just worrying about food. Other people are worrying about HR. Other people are worrying about the computers."
For Vitiello, who also runs his own small chain of rotisserie restaurants called FLOCK, he's keen to learn from a large company with as many moving parts as Cactus Club. "Learning that infrastructure is something that directly pertains to the growth of my own business," he said. "There's a lot more to this industry than just cooking. Cooking becomes, at a certain point, the easy part."
Vitiello added that independent restaurants have a lot to learn from chains, particularly in consistency, and in breeding a positive culture among employees. Despite the angst in the industry, both Vitiello and Feenie said they believe there is room for both independent and chain restaurants.
"Cooking for ego isn't something I thrive on any more," Vitiello said. "From a business standpoint – having my name on the door, that's not an ultimate goal any more. Quality of life and a great life is."
Still, some worry that having too many others follow in their footsteps will come at a cost to the overall dining culture.
"The best chefs are innovators and they're pushing the cuisine forward," McCauley said. The continued growth of chains at the expense of smaller restaurants will mean less creativity and less choice, she said.
"Unless we can fix the [restaurant model], we're going to have a lot of fairly derivative restaurants."