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Embedded in the fabric of restaurant culture, as deep as the belief in fresh ingredients and sharp knives, is the idea that asking for fair compensation is greedy or lazy. For years, I have heard cooks and chefs describe it as a badge of honour to work so hard with so little financial reward in aid of greater goals — like ownership, camaraderie and personal culinary greatness.

That misplaced pride in suffering is key to a cycle of exploitation. Cooks are worked as if they are labourers but paid as if they are artists: Often, Toronto cooks make just over (and sometimes under) minimum wage, currently $11.25 an hour in Ontario. Hourly kitchen rates for seasoned grill cooks hover between $13 and $15, the higher rate reserved for skilled labour with probably at least five years experience at the demanding work over long hours.

There is no such thing as industry standards (or collective bargaining) in a business in which the majority of companies are independent entrepreneurs. Each restaurant is its own fiefdom, subject to the laws of the land, but operating under cover of metaphorical and literal darkness, governed by the decree or benevolence of owners (who have their own headaches).

If your response is to say, "Well, I'd never eat anywhere that treats people like that," get ready never to eat out again. The problem is industry-wide. Of the dozen cooks I asked about wages, most did not want me to use their names for fear of losing their jobs.

"Line cooks that work 60 hours a week don't do anything with their two days off. They just recover from that grind," says chef Kris Schlotzhauer of Enoteca Sociale. He has been in charge of the kitchen at the rustic Roman-style Toronto restaurant for two and a half years.

Up until recently, his six cooks were each on a weekly salary of $700. That covered five work days that started at around 11:30 a.m. and ended just before midnight, which works out to $11.66 an hour, far from uncommon. But Schlotzhauer is tired of seeing cooks burn out in five or 10 years. "By the fifth day of a 60-hour work week, they're dragging their feet," he says. "They're useless."

A few weeks ago, Schlotzhauer made a big change. Starting on Oct. 12, kitchen staff at the restaurant were switched to hourly pay, and told that they were expected to work no more than 11 hours a day, four days a week. For a company selling anything but Che Guevara T-shirts, this is a radical move.

"That's an extra 52 days off a year," one cook said upon learning that Enoteca Sociale would pay the same amount for four days that it had for five. When Schlotzhauer told his cooks about the changes to their hours and pay, they hugged him. It balanced out the chilly response he says he has felt from chef peers.

This may sound counterintuitive, but one universal truth is that cooks get paid less in fancy restaurants. A typical shift in a "fancy" Toronto restaurant (let's not get bogged down in a dispute over what constitutes fancy and just agree it is where you might go for your birthday) is 12 hours, although I repeatedly hear of people working 14.

A cook with 10 years of experience just quit one restaurant in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood because he was unable to afford the gas from Brampton, Ont. He has found something else at $13.50 an hour, for which he had to fight. Another is on salary at the same spot for $32,000, working 10- to 12-hour days. Before that, he was sous chef and got $40,000, but was required to work 15-hour days, six days a week. A pastry chef at another restaurant said she earns $40,000 a year, which sounds decent, but since she works 10 to 18 hours a day, it comes out to less than $10 an hour.

The will to succeed in this competitive industry sometimes causes employees to come in regularly before their official start times and work a couple hours off the clock for free. Pastry chef Cora James of Mamakas says she has done it in the past. "Yeah, that's Buca," laughs James of the celebrated high-end Italian restaurant. "That's standard for Buca. I worked at Buca for six months prior to working at Bar Buca. You work an hour or two prior to your shift, for free."

Buca chef and co-owner Rob Gentile says anyone who comes in to work for free is doing so of their own volition – he says his cooks are so enthusiastic he has had to force them to take a break for a staff meal.

"So the problem is that you have guys that are like, 'I'm coming in at noon. I don't care that start time is two o'clock. I'm going to come and help.' That's our culture," Gentile says. "You have students and younger cooks that are incredibly motivated and driven. It's hard to say to somebody, 'You can't come in to learn butchery on a fish or take down a pig with us.'"

The chef, who has run Buca for six years, says that while other employees might feel pressure to keep up with their eager colleagues, coming in early is not a requirement of the job. "The guys that don't come in two hours early, they do absolutely not get flak as long as they're on top of their s--t. These guys are just as valuable as anybody else," Gentile says. Hourly pay at Buca ranges from minimum wage to $16 an hour; at the junior sous chef position, cooks segue into salary, with benefits.

The attitude that asking about money is treasonous begins at the top, whether in cooking school or in the kitchens of the world's most famous restaurants. Meg Westley, program director of Stratford Chefs School, says she is not aware what current industry pay is. "It's not a lucrative field," she says. "People go into this because they're passionate about it."

In 2008, I interviewed chef Ferran Adria when he was still running elBulli, arguably the world's best restaurant. Like most high-end restaurants, elBulli participated in the tradition of staging, which means working in a kitchen for free, to learn or in hope of being hired. I asked Adria how many cooks he had staging: At the time it was 25 stagiaires to 10 cooks on staff. Asked to justify the majority of his kitchen labour being unpaid, Adria told me that elBulli could not be thought of as a business or even a restaurant, that it was "a way of understanding life."

To be fair, everyone with artistic cooking aspirations wants to work for and learn from the best. I would not argue against a popular axiom that staging for two years is a cheaper, better education than cooking school. No one becomes a great chef without working their butt off. But by exploiting this passion, restaurants get workers on the cheap.

Or, they have up until now. Chefs keep telling me poor wages are behind a growing scarcity of cooks.

"A cook can find a job at 10 places today," Schlotzhauer at Enoteca Sociale says. "Not only are we losing people, we're not attracting new people." As the shortage becomes apparent, fewer cooks are willing to accept being paid day rates, a practice that allows restaurants to circumvent overtime. One restaurant told me they start people at $125: For a 12-hour day with no breaks, that works out to $10.42 an hour.

When Dimitra Psomopoulos graduated from cooking school in 2012, she knew she would be working long hours for low pay. But she was not prepared for 20-hour days followed by chasing owners for missing wages, then having her hours cut when she asked about a raise. "It's bad enough to get paid so little, but all the other deception that comes along with it is disgusting," Psomopoulos says.

She found a new job in the events section of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is unionized. In cooking circles, working in a unionized job (usually a hotel) is often spoken of the way movie cops talk about taking a "desk job:" with a mixture of pity and derision. But Psomopoulos started at $16.50 an hour, has already got a bump to $19.49 and gets overtime pay, breaks, regular raises and the potential for benefits.

"I realize that this limits my choices of where I choose to work and learn and grow as a cook," the 35-year-old says. "I also realize that I will not be cooking for much longer, because physically and financially, it just isn't feasible in the long run. It's not built as a sustainable industry."

This is not just happening in one restaurant or one city. Disparity of pay is a problem all over. Montreal restaurateur Fred Morin says hourly wages are a bit higher in his city, going up to $17 or $18 an hour, but he believes restaurant cooking has become too complicated and labour-intensive to be made without exploiting cooks.

"Part of it is the chef's ego. How many people work for nothing just so a guy can see himself in the pages of The New York Times," says the co-owner of Joe Beef, known for less fussy fare. "There's a lot of vanity in that." Morin advocates for simpler menus and outsourcing the repetitive production of things such as beef stock, using the time and money saved to compensate cooks more fairly.

Another flashpoint is that servers in popular restaurants can make two or three times what cooks earn (a lot of it undeclared and therefore tax-free, but that is another story), creating resentment and tension between front and back of house. In New York, high-profile restaurateurs Amanda Cohen and Danny Meyer are eliminating tipping to recalibrate these pay structures. The two are planning to increase menu prices and distribute profits more equally between front and back of house. Cohen starts dishwashers at $15 an hour, about $19.50 Canadian.

Florida chef Eileen Andrade, who co-owns upscale Asian/Latin restaurant Finka, says all restaurants in Miami pay overtime after 40 hours and cooks usually do not work more than a nine-hour day. "Toronto's dark," says Matty Matheson, executive chef of Parts & Labour on Queen Sreet West, who pays his cooks $150 a day. "In my whole cooking career, I only got paid overtime from one restaurant."

It does seem that a few Toronto chefs are starting to think progressively, to reject the premise that their employees should suffer as they suffered. "I went through many years of extreme poverty doing this," says Danny McCallum, executive chef of Jacobs & Co., a luxury steakhouse owned by King Street Food Co., which also operates Buca. "But I'm trying to change that here. I believe cooks should be able to make a living." At Jacobs, day rates range from $135 to $165, with benefits covering dental, glasses, massage and prescription drugs.

For Schlotzhauer, the decision to move to a four-day work week was not made overnight. It took three months of discussion with the owners of Enoteca Sociale, who also own four locations of Pizzeria Libretto, with another 88 back-of-house staff. There was a lot of crunching the numbers to make it work without raising prices – he will have to hire another person, which will increase kitchen costs by about 15 per cent.

A less appealing alternative is to raise prices and let customers absorb the true cost of paying people fairly. "We in North America are hooked on cheap food," Schlotzhauer says. "And no one wants to get tagged as an expensive restaurant."