August 31st, 2013
02:26 PM ET

The Not So Glamorous Reality of the Restaurant Industry

It used to be that Zagat was for snobs and Julia Child’s The French Chef was your grandma’s cooking show. Over time, beloved reality shows like Bravo's Top Chef and Food Network’s Iron Chef America brought high-end cooks like Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali to living rooms across America and not only turned chefs into celebrities but made haute cuisine accessible to the masses. These days, food is not merely meant for sustenance. It's deconstructed and documented. It's a challenge to sit down for dinner at a restaurant and not see someone whip out a smart phone to chronicle their meal on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. People are even logging on to share their coffee shop visits. Starbucks, for instance, leads a new MomentFeed Restaurant report that found patrons took and tagged 109,054 photos over the course of just four months.

What we're having for dinner suddenly matters, whether we're dining in or out - and it shows. Restaurant industry job growth outpaced the overall economy every year from 2000 to 2012. Sales are projected to hit $661 billion in 2013 - equal to four percent of U.S. GDP. That's up from $379 billion 13 years ago. Restaurants are raking it in, so you would think the people carefully layering your truffle burger behind the scenes would be too. But they make next to nothing and spend almost all of their time at work. Just ask Chris Reynolds. This line cook at a top New York City restaurant has a reality check for those romanticizing the life of a culinary artiste.

A former creative writing major at USC, Reynolds started cooking at the age of 23 and recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Before that, he worked in catering and as a line cook for one of David Burke’s restaurants in New York City. “The first six months I started in the industry I was working for minimum wage," Reynolds tells OutFront. "Somehow in the culinary world the more prestigious the restaurant, often the less you're paid. More of the middle or lower end restaurants and tourist traps will pay you more but it's not what you want on your resume.” Reynolds, now 26, is a line cook at Morimoto in Manhattan.

The average salary for chefs and head cooks is $46,570, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . Entry level cooks, by comparison, are paid peanuts. Based on Reynolds' experience in New York, the average salary for a line cook is "between 25 and 30k a year before taxes.”

At the other end of the culinary spectrum is celebrity chef and restaurateur Stefan Richter, a 41-year-old Finnish runner-up on season 5 of Top Chef and return contestant during season 10. Richter ran away from home at the age of 13 and started a cooking apprenticeship in Germany. As a chef in training he chose to be completely financially independent from his parents and ate his daily meals at the restaurant and lived above the kitchen in housing for the employees with communal showers. “At first [I got] paid back then… 280 bucks a month," he says. "It was 100 bucks, or 125 for the room, so you end up with 175 a month which is enough if you’re a young kid. Your housing [and] your food is taken care of. What else do you need?”

Today, Richter oversees a restaurant empire that rakes in $16 million a year. He has two small Los Angeles-based cafes, a bistro called Stefan’s at L.A. FARM, three restaurants in Finland and two more opening there between this year and 2014. He even has a forthcoming television show in Finland. But Richter is candid about the realities of his daily life. “You know it’s all so f–king glamorous to be a chef these days. Everyone’s, ‘oh my god, you’re in the restaurant [business],’ and people love you and take pictures with you," he tells OutFront. "It took me 22 to 23 years to get there, to know how to run a business. It’s things people don’t know: labor, insurance. All this stuff comes as a restaurateur.”

Reynolds, the 26-year-old line cook in the Big Apple, would one day like to be as successful as Richter. “I definitely want to open my own place in the future, but I might take a different approach from the norm," Reynolds says. "I'm planning to work front of house later in my career to be a better owner and understand both sides of the restaurant. I'm hoping to start a restaurant in the next five years.”

Richter’s advice to Reynolds? “If his parents give him money to open a restaurant he’s going to lose it," Richter says. "He doesn’t know yet. You order the most beautiful products and produce from the farmer’s market and f–k around on the weekend… and then you open a restaurant and guess what? You’ve got to make payroll and then if you don’t make payroll - guess what? - you lose your restaurant. All the glamour is gone. You got to shut the fuck up for the first 15 years of your career. As a chef you just cook.”

But Reynolds is already paying his dues. At Morimoto, his exhausting routine consists of prepping his station and then working service at night. On the weekend, the prep can take anywhere from four to six hours. Then he has service to contend with, lasting another seven-and-a-half hours before breaking down stations, which can take an hour. He says "it's kind of like two full work days combined." Before getting the first order in, Reynolds is responsible for setting up proteins, prepping vegetables and sauces, and having back ups ready on some items. "You never want to run out of a component to one of your dishes during service or your ass is grass," he says.

Somehow, amid the stress and long hours, Reynolds the rookie and his colleagues manage to have fun. He recalls he "once worked for a [General Manager] who was a pretty big prick. He was constantly dieting and had my friend make him a cobb salad with no bacon for lunch everyday. My friend would always secretly mix about a half-pint of bacon fat into his salads. Our G.M. would always tell him, 'You know, I really hate you. But goddamn do you make the best cobb salad I've ever had."

Follow Jessica Reinis on Twitter: @JessicaReinis

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