A robust market has Baton Rouge restaurants rethinking back-of-the-house retention

Kalurah Street Grill Executive Chef Kelley McCann was tasked with filling about 20 kitchen positions when he left Galatoire’s Bistro last year to lead the culinary team at the new Perkins Road overpass eatery. Photography by Allie Appel

The fun part of opening the new Kalurah Street Grill in early January, says executive chef Kelley McCann, was crafting an original menu and nailing down the restaurant’s “New American” culinary theme. The higher stakes part was finding the right people to fill about 20 back-of-the-house positions, including salaried sous chefs, hourly line cooks and dishwashers.

McCann, the former executive chef at Galatoire’s Bistro, is a bootstrap cook who never went to culinary school, working his way up over the last 14 years from what was then a common starting point—washing dishes. McCann says building a consistent labor force in the kitchen is one of the most important parts of the job. Today, it’s also one of the trickiest.

“The market certainly is tight,” says McCann. “A lot of things have to happen to ensure you have the right team in place, and passion for the job is really important in a scratch kitchen like ours.”

While restaurants are one of the biggest employers in the nation, hiring staff for a restaurant kitchen belies the hiring practices of most other businesses. Forget personality assessments and multistep interview processes. Instead, chefs like McCann say they hire by gut. They know who’s going to work out not so much by past experience as by  attitude.

“I’m extremely picky about people,” says McCann. “I want somebody who comes in not bragging about all the stuff they’ve done but who wants to work and learn. We’ve been really lucky so far with who we’ve hired.”

Baton Rouge’s robust restaurant sector means more restaurants are vying for talent, prompting executive chefs, owners and managers to find new strategies for finding and retaining employees. By nature, the field is prone to high turnover; the vast majority of kitchen positions are paid by the hour. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restaurant cooks earned an average of $10.44 an hour—or just over $21,700 a year—in 2015. Median income for chefs in 2015 was $19.95 per hour, or $41,500 annually.

“You want to hire a culinary graduate, but you might only be able to pay them $11.50 an hour. Meanwhile, the culinary graduate might be worried about student loans. The best case scenario is that they recognize the fact that if they stick with it, they’ll work their way up. That’s why you want someone who is hungry.” —Jeremy Langlois, president, Baton Rouge Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association

The Baton Rouge restaurant market has historically included a healthy number of national restaurant chains that can outpay independent eateries. Still, independents usually offer a higher level of on-the-job training. Serious cooks want to learn all they can from talented executive chefs, says Justin Ferguson, executive chef of the forthcoming seafood and barbecue restaurant BRQ.

“Any culinary cook or anyone aspiring to be a chef wants to do things from scratch and not cut corners,” says Ferguson. “Most restaurants in this market are getting food out of a bag and cutting corners.”

Along with restaurants, the food service workforce pipeline has also changed in Baton Rouge. With no education requirements for entry level positions, restaurant kitchens are a natural onramp for unskilled workers who need a job or who are interested in working their way up in the field. Meanwhile, schools like the Louisiana Culinary Institute, Baton Rouge Community College and Virginia College are turning out a steady stream of students equipped with culinary degrees. LCI requires that students also complete internships or apprenticeships with partner restaurants.

“The landscape is so different from where it was five to 10 years ago,” says Jeremy Langlois, president of the Baton Rouge Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and executive chef at White Oak Plantation. “There are a lot of interesting chef-driven restaurants that do really great food, but with that kind of shift, it may be getting harder to find the right people.”

It’s also harder for boutique eateries to pay for talent.

“They’re operating on razor-thin margins with food and labor costs already being high, and they’re not turning the numbers of tables the big guys are,” says Langlois. “You want to hire a culinary graduate, but you might only be able to pay them $11.50 an hour. Meanwhile, the culinary graduate might be worried about student loans. The best case scenario is that they recognize the fact that if they stick with it, they’ll work their way up. That’s why you want someone who is hungry.”

Zeeland Street Restaurant owner Stephanie Phares says she had a difficult time filling positions last fall for cooks to help her launch a new weeknight dinner business and expand her weekend hours to include Sunday brunch. Phares completed a renovation of her Garden District breakfast and lunch spot over the summer, and she had hoped to expand the menu and begin serving alcohol in the fall.

“I think because so many new restaurants were opening out there, and then the flood hit, too, there was a labor crunch and we just could not find anyone,” says Phares, who has successfully maintained a loyal workforce among her daytime staff since she opened 20 years ago. “I was very eager to expand our hours, but I knew that unless I had the people, I could not do it correctly.” Phares says she may ultimately decide to get back in the kitchen herself.

Last fall, Galatoire’s Bistro had its share of hiring challenges after the restaurant had to replace McCann and several other back-of-the-house staff when McCann left to open Kalurah Street Grill.

General Manager Blake Hernandez says the restaurant bounced back thanks to a rolling online recruitment process.

“We literally meet week to week, and we sit down and address any concerns in the kitchen and talk about what we need,” says Hernandez. “Then we grab the applications and call people in on a need-by-need basis. Referrals are big in this business, and we also do a lot with LCI. It’s our mining field.”

Hernandez acknowledges it’s a buyer’s market now with workers eyeing new opportunities, and sometimes having to deal with closures.

“The field is constantly changing,” says Hernandez. “This week alone, with Table [Kitchen & Bar] closing down the street and Ruby Slipper [announcing an] opening in Acadian Village, I lost a neighbor and gained a neighbor.”

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