Living in New York City is a financial challenge for almost anyone, no matter what tax bracket you fall in. For a full-time line-cook working ten to 12 hour shifts, five days a week (at least), through nights, weekends, and holidays, opening the weekly paycheck can feel acutely demoralizing.
New Yorkers are increasingly turning to restaurant work, jobs that were once thought of low-wage, entry-level employment for high school kids. The failure of fast-food work to provide real living wages, and the possibility of raising the minimum wage ($7.25), has been in the media spotlight recently. Nevertheless, pay for restaurant work remain low, for both the front and the back of house. The Department of Labor recorded last year’s median annual wage for line cooks in New York City to be $25,060.
The restaurant industry is, of course, not a homogenous one. For the full-service, high-status kitchens that dominate food-media coverage, cooks may be making a bit more (around $35,000)—better than average, but still depressing when broken down to an hourly wage (around $11). Across the spectrum of restaurants, cooks’ wages remain truncated with few employee benefits, like health and retirement plans. Cutting corners (and coupons) are essential to surviving on a cook’s salary in a moneyed city like New York City. But it’s doable. Here’s how to survive on a cook’s salary in NYC.
Don’t Go to Culinary School
After sinking $50,000 into culinary school, you will still be starting on the salad station making $10 an hour. In most kitchens, experience is valued over a degree, and reliable cooks are a hot commodity to a high-turnover industry; even top restaurants have a hard time filling holes. Because each kitchen has its own eccentricities and every chef will expect cooks to modify their techniques to his or her liking, every new hire will do some degree of learning on the job. Being a quick study and a person who shows up for the shift is more prized than being able to recite the difference between espagnole and veloute.
Making rent is the biggest hurdle for most salaried cooks in New York; the solution is usually living in the outer boroughs with roommates. You’re going to be spending most of your waking hours in the restaurant anyways, so if your apartment is a bundle of blankets in a closet, who cares? All you’ve got to do is sleep there.
Eat Out on Your Day Off
You know what a 60 hour work week means? Very little free time. Eating out may seem like a hassle when you only have two days off: one day spent doing stuff that adults do—laundry, cleaning the apartment, watching bad TV, and catching up on porn—and one day to yourself. But do it anyway! Go to other people’s restaurants. Check out the scene, splurge, and make that one day a blessing—and a learning opportunity.
Just as a writer must read great literature, you must eat at great restaurants.
Get to Know the Industry
This is how you get perks (i.e., free food and drink when dining out). Don’t announce the chef you work for like an asshole; instead, drop subtle hints that you work in a restaurant. Be friendly. Order well. Drink Fernet. Create a network. Make friends with cooks in other restaurants, as well as sommeliers, managers, owners, and servers. And when you do get hooked up? Tip 20% or more.
If there are leftovers from good family meals and your kitchen allows it, take quarts of food home: soup, beans, curries, loaves of bread, whatever. These will come in handy when you are hungry at home but don’t want to leave the apartment and have not been to the grocery store in two months.
Golden rule: Never miss family meal.
What Gym? The Kitchen Workout
After 12 hours on your feet in a hot, fast-paced kitchen, you won’t need an expensive gym membership. The hours of nonstop line shuffling, lifting heavy pots, dicing onions, and eating very little add up to a better workout than cross-training. Additionally, ask your yogi server co-workers for passes to their pilates studios. Stretch in the morning. Bike to work (see getting to work).
In-house Wardrobe Shopping
Get chummy with the hosts and managers of your restaurant. Need a pair of winter gloves? An umbrella? A cashmere scarf that you would never buy for yourself? Before they pass along the haul of unclaimed, left-behind, lost-and-found clothes to the Salvation Army, ask if you can pick through it.
Getting to Work
Some companies offer Metrocard rebates that are taken out of your check, pre-tax. Ask your restaurant’s managers if they offer any transportation benefits. Or bike to work.
Working nights, weekends, and holidays can disable even the strongest of relationships. Dating other restaurant people or those with flexible schedules makes the most sense. It’s an incestuous industry for a reason…
Beyond Tinder, dating other restaurant staffers might be your only hope.
Ask For Raises
Getting to know the organizational structure of the restaurant you are working in is a crucial step in acquiring more money. If you have dedicated yourself to a specific kitchen for an extended period of time (i.e., years, not months), it’s time to ask for a raise—schedule a review with your employer and discuss your pay. If you are in an institution that you respect and you have shown your superiors that you are a loyal and diligent worker, your salary should increase over time. This process may entail being proactive and requesting more responsibility: Ask if you can take on the fish orders; offer to re-organize the dry storage; bring in ideas for new dishes; cook thoughtful family meals. Show your bosses that they would be at a loss if you left for another kitchen. Ladies, I’m looking at you! Men are four times as likely to request an increase.
Leave When Your Time Is Up
When you have mastered all of the stations in a specific kitchen, moved up through the hierarchy, and hit a plateau in title, skill-set, or motivation, maybe it is time to graduate to a new kitchen. Again, we’re talking years of working in one place, not months. Cooks have a tendency to jump from one kitchen to another these days, looking to pad their resumes as quickly as possible. There will come a point for every ambitious cook to move on to a new restaurant to expand her horizons and, eventually, her paycheck.
Scarlett Lindeman spent a decade cooking in kitchens in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and New York. She hung up her apron last year to pursue a Ph.D in Sociology.