How Much Do Chefs Really Make?
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
When 20-year-old Jacques Van Staden left his native South Africa for Washington in 1990 to become a chef, he had to sell his car to pay the airfare. Sixteen years later, he is making $140,000 plus a percentage of the profits of a restaurant group and is executive chef at its award-winning Alize restaurant in Las Vegas.
His success is a result of talent and hard work -- and his move to Nevada didn't hurt, either.
Higher salaries, more opportunities, and in some cases union benefits are luring top chefs to the casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Average salaries there -- $85,000 a year for a chef and $14 an hour for line cooks, the people who make the food that gets sent out to diners -- are the highest in the country, according to a recent salary survey by StarChefs.com.
Even the prestige of the White House pastry kitchen wasn't enough to keep Thaddeus Dubois in Washington. Although Dubois said money wasn't the only reason, he recently left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and a $120,000 salary to return to his former employer and the prospect of working at a luxury hotel and casino being built in Las Vegas.
Although Washington restaurants are among some of the finest and priciest in the nation, chefs' salaries here are actually below national norms. The average salary for an executive chef here is $71,666, according to a recent salary survey by StarChefs.com. The national average is $75,596, according to estimates by the online industry magazine.
Locally, the range for line cooks is somewhere between $12 to $15 an hour, chefs and restaurateurs say. "I have some cooks who have to work two jobs," says Ann Cashion, the chef and co-owner of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan and Johnnie's Half Shell on P Street. "It's very common."
When Van Staden started out, he wasn't even making that much. He manned the overnight guard station at the South African Embassy, helped out in the kitchen and mowed suburban lawns to afford tuition to culinary school. Over time he became chef at several posh Washington restaurants and hotels. But he wanted his own restaurant, and eventually became the chef and co-owner of Cafe Ole, a thriving but modest mezze place on Wisconsin Avenue NW. He paid himself $30,000 a year.
Almost overnight, he tripled that salary in 2000 when he became executive chef at the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas. Since then, his stature has continued to rise -- and with it, his income.
Washington's $71,666 average isn't enough to keep sought-after chefs where they are or to lure hot young chefs either, local restaurateurs say. "It takes more than that to get good talent," says Ashok Bajaj, who runs a small empire of restaurants in Washington.
"There are certainly chefs in this area in the six-figure range," says Dan Mesches, president of the Star Restaurant Group. The group, with Guest Services Inc., recently hired Bryan Moscatello, one of Food & Wine Magazine's 2003 Best New Chefs in America, to be executive chef at the new Indigo Landing restaurant on Daingerfield Island.
Even so, owners say, salaries are limited by the revenue of a restaurant -- about 3.2 percent profit on checks that exceed $25, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Hotel restaurants tend to have more financial leeway: "We pay whatever it takes," says Michel Morauw, general manager of the Park Hyatt Washington. The Park Hyatt has kept its top chef, Brian McBride, on the payroll since closing its Melrose restaurant last July. It also paid all of McBride's expenses while he conducted research in Europe and Asia for the Park Hyatt's new restaurant, Blue Duck Tavern, which is scheduled to open May 22.