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2009 Survey: Chefs Salaries Increase - Women Still Paid Less.
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From by Emily Bell with Katherine Martinelli: If you’re consulting the Financial Times, latté prices, or your neighborhood psychic for signs of economic recovery, you might want to peek your head into the nearest restaurant kitchen. Okay, so chefs aren’t playing catch with surplus foie lobes or topping everything from the mineral water to the dessert course with shaved truffle and edible gold, but by and large the restaurant industry seems to be maintaining, and in some cases even improving, its financial health in these less-than-salutary economic times—and at least a few paychecks are showing it.

Sure, our 2009 Salary Survey confirmed some of what we already know—white executive chefs make the most per year—and some of what we suspected—women are still paid egregiously less than men—but it also taught us a few new things about the industry, from its unique fiscal geography (stay out of California, sous chefs) to its apparent neutrality towards culinary degrees (feel free to skip class, you can make as much without one).

So whether you’re a chef de cuisine looking for a change of scenery (head to a hotel or catering operation, preferably in Massachusetts) or a woman concerned about her comparative earning potential as a female executive chef (get ready to be 24% angrier at gender inequity), peruse the results of our 2009 Salary Survey—from almost 1400 respondents—and check the fiscal temperature of an industry that continues to surprise, frustrate, reward, and, as ever, moderately to severely overwork its employees.

In the real-time Monopoly marathon that is making a living, the guys on top tend to stay there. And it’s no different for executive chefs, who made a healthy rebound in 2009 after a slight dip in 2008, with salaries averaging 6.1% increase. Pastry chefs had their own sweet year, with salaries showing a 5.7% increase after taking a veritable nosedive in 2007. (Apparently the American sweet tooth dulls in times of economic crisis.) 

Meanwhile sous chef and line cook salaries took a dive, down 4.4% and 2.6% respectively, widening the gap between the upper and lower rungs of the professional ladder in the kitchen. And chef-owners, that brave population without a fiscal buffer between themselves and the cold, hard hand of the Recession, saw a slight increase in their salaries, not as much cause to celebrate as sigh in relief. And considering the creative freedom of the chef-owned restaurant, we’re glad to know the operations we’ve seen are capably enduring, if not yet thriving, in these less-than-sunny times.

Salaries by Restaurant Type
Not every kitchen is created equal; some will pay you a good deal more for the same work. For sous chefs and chefs de cuisine, the end of the rainbow, and its promised pot of gold, is apparently at a hotel or catering company. Last year sous chefs and chefs de cuisine made markedly more than they did in standalone restaurants, an almost $10,000 increase—hardly chump change. Executive chefs and pastry chefs, on the other hand, fare best in the kitchens of private country clubs, where steep membership dues apparently don’t deter healthy and consistent restaurant spending.

Salary Averages by Location
As many a beleaguered, broken chef-owner can testify, location means a lot in the restaurant business. And the same holds true for salaries, although not always consistently. For instance, in 2009, an executive chef in New York state made almost $4,000 more than an executive chef in Florida, as likely as not a reflection of the enduring triumph of fine dining in New York City (as opposed to an actual statewide trend).

But despite its overall largesse, New York doesn’t pay its pastry chefs as well as Florida does, where professional sweets-slingers made nearly $3,000 more than their New York-bound counterparts in 2009. In the same vein, the chef de cuisine did reasonably well in the Empire State, but the same job in Massachusetts earned him $2,000 more per year. Sous chefs in California finished the year with the lowest average salary across the board, making around $10,000 less than their East Coast counterparts and $4000 less than reported last year. It’s uncertain whether the prestige of having a movie-star governor or the thrill of intermittent celebrity sightings made up for the difference.

Gender and Ethnicity
Like most major players in the American workforce, the restaurant industry still exhibits a few strong prejudices towards, well, white guys running the show. And this is especially surprising for an industry that should be, at least philosophically, merit-based: the food either tastes good or it doesn’t. But socioeconomic factors being what they are, fiscal inequity among races and between the sexes endures.

Of our executive chef respondents, 91% were male and a mere 9% were female. Either female executive chefs have a stronger work ethic—i.e. they don’t take time out of their busy schedules to answer online surveys—or, and far more likely, the gender gap pervades in chef salaries. A male executive chef makes $15,000 more than his female counterpart, and the industry average reaches nearly $17,000 between blue and pink paychecks, or 24%.

Only among sous chefs is there any reasonable similarity in salary, so male and female sous chefs can celebrate the progressive triumph of being almost equally underpaid. As for pastry chefs, who rank at nearly half male and half female, salaries are slightly closer—and even there, males are still paid 22% more. If the pastry chef ratio predicts anything, it’s likely if more women become executive chefs in the coming years, the salary gap between the sexes will decrease.

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