Haute Cuisine Has a Low Wage Problem

Image by djjewelz (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Every April, the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list makes a little wave in the culinary world with its endorsements and snubs, comebacks and falls from grace. At Eater, Corey Mintz takes a hard look behind the clean, minimalist lines of these restaurants’ dining rooms to expose a rarely discussed reality: The proliferation of underpaid and unpaid apprentices. Along the way, he places this labor practice in its historical context, as the high-end kitchen has become the place where the Renaissance guild meets 21st-century-privilege.

Having had the same conversation with a hundred chefs, I’ve heard all of the justifications for the unpaid staff. I’ve even had chefs suggest that, for the education they’re getting, stagiaires should be paying the restaurant. This isn’t a new idea. In the Middle Ages, children as young as seven were sent to work as apprentices, sometimes paying to learn under a master craftsman of the highly controlled craft guilds, such as printmaking or goldsmithing.

But if we have to go to “once upon a time” to date the history of your employee practices, then your labor standards are literally medieval. The Industrial Revolution — which began in the late 18th century and stretched through the mid-19th century — created a demand for both skilled and unskilled workers that radically changed the labor market. The development of unions, the rise of professional education, and the idea that children should not be indentured slaves evolved the nature of apprenticeship. While informal internships persisted — copy boys, messenger boys, bobbin boys — they weren’t part of the post-secondary educational process until the late 1960s. Within a decade, universities systematized and incentivized internships through course credits, shifting the skill-building and networking opportunity into the mandatory experience it is today.

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