Part 1: Portland, Oregon, is a city on the cutting edge of food. We’ve got great restaurants and talented chefs, wine and beer to die for, excellent bakeries, chocolatiers and coffee roasters, and a wealth of natural riches provided by sustainable small farms, year-round farmer’s markets, and locally-owned sustainable grocers. We field an excellent and highly praised food section in the local paper and have more than our share of respected food and garden writers to sing the praises of our Northwest Eden.
Yet…the sad irony is that in our little paradise, the pay for skilled artisan food labor is terribly low compared to the cost of living. Portland has an overall cost of living at 20% above the national average. Last year homes in the Portland Metro area had an average sale price of $330,000 while apartment rentals averaged around $764 per month for one bedroom and $852 for a two bedroom. Meanwhile, average hourly wages for bakers and restaurant cooks and mid level chef positions range from $8 to up around $16, with the vast majority coming in around the $10 to $12 range–about $25,000 a year. Chefs and bakers tend to put off buying a house or even a car, and in addition they often carry significant culinary school debt. It can take years before a student lands a job with a high enough salary to even begin to make a dent in those loans. We spoke to area chefs and bakers to give life to these stats.
Jane Thompson has been in the food business for over 20 years. She’s had her own bakery in Georgia, had a wedding cake and specialty cake business out of her home, worked as a private chef, been a line cook, and currently works as demo manager for New Seasons Market.
“As a salaried bakery manager, I’d used to work 12 hour days, 6 days a week. And I think that is still pretty common. During those days, I’d usually skip lunch and just grab something to eat in about 5 minutes standing up. There were no breaks…I mean now that I’m working for a bigger company, I realize that’s all illegal, but it’s just the reality of working in food. It’s incredibly stressful, both physically and emotionally. I mean, I had no time for friends or loved ones, but when you are in that lifestyle, it’s really hard to imagine another way of living. I think in America blue collar jobs are looked down on—in France, for instance, that’s not the case, people are career waiters and get respect for that. Here, people seem to think that working in the food service industry is just a stopover on the way to doing something else, maybe something you do while you are in school, learning a “real” profession. People think you’ve got no goals. I mean, I’m not stupid—I have specialized skills—I know how to do something that most people can’t do. I’m 42 years old. I am a cooking professional and have been working in this field my whole life. But still, even though I have a good job at a larger company now, a full 2 weeks of my salary goes to pay the mortgage and the fees on my condo. I’m in front of people 5 days a week now. I just want my weekend to myself. I am tired—I don’t want to have work an extra day for the rest of my life just to get ahead.”
Elsa Ortega is currently assistant bakery manager at the Arbor Lodge New Seasons Market.
Well, when I got out of cooking school, I had $32,000 in student loans. I’ve been paying them off now for 5 years and have about 5 more years to go, $450 month. I guess at the time I wasn’t really thinking about the reality of life after school. When I came to Portland, the first job I got was as an intern at well-respected bakery—they paid me $7 an hour—it made me want to cry, but I was desperate for a job. They bumped me up to $8 after about 3 weeks working like a demon. Since then, working in other bakeries and a restaurant, Terroir, as the pastry chef, my hourly wage climbed up to around $11 or $12 an hour. My boyfriend and I are kind of in denial about where we are at this point in our lives, still kind of living hand to mouth although it’s getting better. We have a little cushion of money these days, but we just kind of move it around to pay unexpected bills. We still can’t take a vacation without planning and scrimping the whole year. We rent, I don’t how we could save money for a down payment. I daydream of the day when I won’t have this debt over me. Some days I just get mad—I think it’s not ever going to get any better, so I may as well just live as well as I can today and forget about the future. I wish that doing what I love to do wasn’t something that put me in debt. I mean, I don’t regret going to cooking school, as daunting and horrifying as the debt is. I just try to think of how happy life is today and be okay with how I got here.
TwoJunes also spoke with Peter Edris, the Dean of The Culinary Arts and Baking and Patisserie Programs at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. Edris makes it a point to tell his students flat out that cooking school can’t guarantee them anything in the real world. He says it all comes down to individual passion, commitment and initiative. New graduates will make it only by taking every opportunity and maximizing it for all its worth, by networking and continuing to learn.
Jobs in cooking or baking do not bring instant gratification. It is a reality that entry level wages are lower than the starting points in many other careers. Edris stresses, that cooking school teaches management and business skills that may be difficult or take longer to acquire on the job. Edris also tells his students only half jokingly to please leave Portland once they get their education.
Portland has 4 cooking schools and a glut of graduates. For every decent job opening, there are at least 50 applicants. Portland just does not have that many large traditional restaurants with a hierarchical structure that allows working your way up the ranks, accumulating pay increases as you go. What Portland does have is a lot of small restaurants with smaller volumes and less revenue; they simply cannot afford to pay as well as establishments in other cities. But, Edris adds, students are still very reluctant to leave Portland—having quality ingredients at their fingertips and living in a community that values food becomes a hard habit to break.
What has been your experience working in the artisan food industry?
“Top Chef” Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt, NY Times, May 8, 2008, Kim Severson
Should Chefs Go To Culinary School, The Internet Food Association, November 19, 2008, Ben Miller
Living Wage Calculation for Portland, Oregon (PDF)
© 2008 Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier and The Pennsylvania State University
Lisa Bell is a freelance producer, writer and editor. She spent the first fifteen years of her working life as a pastry chef, recipe developer, test kitchen director, food stylist and print editor. She has also taught cooking classes, run a small cooking school, and worked as a food scientist. Nicole Rees currently works as a baking scientist. She is also a food writer and cookbook author specializing in baking science. Her most recent book Baking Unplugged, is filled with simple, scratch recipes that require no electric gadgets beyond an oven.