Martyna Krowicka had had enough.
For nearly two decades Krowicka, 35, a fine-dining chef, loved her work. "I love cooking," she said.
She cooked at some of New Jersey's best restaurants, including The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station. At age 28 she was a "Chopped" champion, and two years later a nominee for a New Jersey rising star award. In 2018, she joined Felina, an award-winning Italian restaurant in Ridgewood, New Jersey, first as sous chef and then executive chef.
But in the fall of 2021, she quit Felina. "I just couldn't do it anymore," she said.
Working in restaurants has always been tough, but in recent years, thanks in large part to COVID-19, the work had gotten so difficult that many people, including top chefs, have left. While some may still be dicing carrots and whipping egg whites, they are doing so as caterers, private chefs, country club chefs or recipe developers. They are staying out of restaurant kitchens.
And it's not just chefs who are finding the work conditions in restaurants punishing. Anyone and everyone, it seems, is.
"Everyone is burnt out," said Chris Cannon, owner of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey. "After the three years that we had, how can they not be?"
If we learned anything about restaurant work in the past few years, it's that despite what the television food shows would have us believe, the work is far from glamorous. It is, in fact, grueling and poorly remunerated. The hours are long, the stress level high, the pay is low and the work strenuous − and too often painful. Lugging heavy bags, lifting overloaded pots and standing on your feet all day can strain bodies, especially knees and backs. And as for having steady downtime and a life outside work? Forget it. Restaurant employees work when most of of us are socializing.
Add to all of that COVID-19-induced labor shortages, high food prices and, according to chefs and restaurateurs, rude and demanding customers, and you've got yourself a recipe for misery.
'I got so burnt out'
Chef Paul Gerard, 53, also loved his work. The Brooklyn-born father of two worked his way up the culinary world, ending up in 2015 as chef and partner of Antique Bar & Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he happily cooked almost everything in a 400-square-foot century-old 30-ton coal oven. "It was fun," he said.
Two years ago he called it quits, went hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, traveled around the world, and today is a restaurant consultant and private chef living in New York City's East Village. "I just didn't want to operate a restaurant anymore," he said. "It was getting too much."
Ariane Duarte, 55, fell in love with cooking while watching her grandmother prepare family dinners. Duarte owned her first restaurant, CulinAriane in Montclair, New Jersey, in her 30s; and her second, Ariane Bar & Kitchen in nearby Verona, in her 40s. Both were great successes and won a slew of awards.
"Working in a restaurant is a labor of love," she said. Until, that is, the love fades.
Last year, she sold Ariane Bar & Kitchen and started a catering business. "I got so burnt out," she said.
"COVID changed the industry for sure," said acclaimed chef David Burke, who owns nine restaurants in New Jersey, including 1776 in Morristown, Red Horse in Rumson and The Fox & Falcon in South Orange. "It's much tougher."
Tougher is not what the notoriously stressful industry needed. It already had high rates of substance abuse and suicide. One study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on substance use by industry found that restaurant and hotel workers rank at the top for illicit drug use (19%) and third-highest for alcohol use (12%), behind miners and construction workers. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that chefs had the highest suicide rate among all occupational groups in the U.S.
Little wonder then that even before the pandemic hit, 80% of hospitality workers claimed to be burnt out, according to a report by Forbes. And now? Though statistics are not available, Homebase, an online employee scheduling, time tracking and communications service for small businesses, reports that from 2020 to 2021, 52% of hospitality and food service workers left their jobs because of burnout.
"Burnout existed before," said Dr. Cheryl Graber, director of the Physician Wellness Drop-in Clinic at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "Now, however, it is everywhere. We're dealing with the tremendous psychological aftermath of COVID."
How stressful the work is − COVID or no COVID − is something that the runaway FX series "The Bear" has been applauded for accurately portraying. The arguments, the chaos, the bruised egos, the profanity-laced verbiage, the financial struggles − heaps are served up without sugarcoating.
But not all chefs are thrilled with the show's depiction of restaurant work. Celebrity chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless, winner of seven James Beard awards, recently lashed out, claiming that "The Bear" has pushed the industry back 20 years. He was speaking at the Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum.
“If you’re a mother of a teenage boy that’s watching that show and he goes, ‘Mom, I want to work in restaurants,’ would you let him?” Bayless said at the event. “No, you wouldn’t. That’s like the worst profession in the world.”
'It’s never been this challenging'
Chef and restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach still loves to cook but can vouch for how tough the work is, especially today.
"It’s never been this challenging as it is now in this industry," said Schlossbach, 58, a mother of two. It's so challenging that a few months ago she sold five of her New Jersey restaurants. She's down to one restaurant — The Whitechapel Projects, a pub-brewery-music-art space in Long Branch. She also has a catering firm, an organic kosher chocolate company and a moringa oil business.
"The cost of doing business is up exponentially, profit margins are much smaller, and hiring staff is a chronic problem for everyone," Schlossbach said. "It's tiring, all of it."
She said she used to get more than 100 applicants when she had a call-out for a server. "Now if I get one, I'm lucky." Lucky, too, if that one job-seeker shows up. "People are just not showing up for interviews."
In September, Schlossbach said, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that may be caused by stress − something she experiences nearly constantly.
Because of the pressures of her job, she said, "I never had a holiday off. I didn't see much of my kids for a decade. They are 11 now. Before you know it, they'll be going to college." She added: "The work-life balance is out of whack more so than it ever was. I want a little more time for myself. I want to travel more, meditate for an hour. This is not what I want in life anymore."
It's not what Brianne Welsh, 42, wanted anymore either.
For 10 years, Welsh worked at Schlossbach's recently shuttered Langosta Lounge, first as a waitress, then bartender and finally general manager. (Schlossbach and Welsh today are friends.)
"I got sick of of missing family birthdays. I got sick of working on holidays. I got sick of working late nights. And I got sick of being too tired when I did have days off to enjoy them." She also got sick of her back hurting. "The lifestyle associated with restaurants," she said, "sucks."
Welsh today has a 9-to-5 job at a residential solar installation company. "I love it," she said, adding: "My back doesn't hurt anymore."
Sometimes the body damage is irreparable.
Chef Brett Smith, who worked at David Chang's much-heralded Momofuku restaurants, quit in 2014 at age 29. Today he owns his own eponymous catering firm − and loves it. But nevertheless, he wonders if the physical toll of cooking, even if not in a fast-paced restaurant kitchen, will force him to change again.
"I have arthritis in my thumb, forefinger and palm," said Smith, 38. "My father-in-law is a mechanic and we have the same issues. I'm not going to be able to be on my feet when I'm 50. Will I have to make another pivot?"
Chef Kenny West, who has worked in restaurants since age 17, also wanted a different lifestyle when All The Smoke Barbecue, his primarily delivery and takeout joint, closed a year ago.
"I wanted to prioritize my family," said West, 38, the father of a 2-year-old boy. Today he is the executive sous chef at Wonder, a restaurant-quality food delivery system. He works, he said, Monday through Friday, gets home by 5:30 p.m., has weekends and holidays off and is "treated really well."
"Yes, I miss working in a restaurant," he said, "the service, the heat of the moment, being with my team, the camaraderie that it brings, seeing all the guests and seeing them happy. But I like spending time with my son and my wife even more."
Where is the return on investment?
"COVID made a lot of people realize that what they were doing was not substantial enough for what they got in return," said John Vitale, owner of Caffe Anello in Westwood, New Jersey. (Today he is also running for the New Jersey Assembly.)
Six years ago, Vitale co-founded Fair Kitchens, an organization striving to make restaurants more hospitable to their employees − and to let diners know how tough it is to work day in and day out in hot kitchens and busy dining rooms.
"A chef is an artist," Vitale said. "Every night chefs put their artistry on the line − only to be criticized by hundreds of people every week on Yelp or what have you."
We, diners, many of us who came out of pandemic home arrest feeling "entitled," chefs and restaurateurs said, have also played a role in the Great Resignation in the restaurant industry.
Martyna Krowicka was already unhappy with restaurants before COVID-19 − she overate and gained weight. But bad customer behavior helped her leave Felina. "I had servers cry in the kitchen," she said. "COVID made people so demanding, so entitled."
She recalls her breaking point. A diner requested a dish that was not on the menu: shrimp with mixed vegetables. Krowicka explained that there are two shrimp dishes on the menu but not that one. The woman insisted that she make it. Felina's dishes are composed, Felina is not a short-order restaurant, but the woman, Krowicka said, didn't care.
"You can have patience and tolerance," Krowicka said. "But eventually you are going to explode. You can’t hold it in forever."
She didn't. She left and, today, she is executive chef for the Circuit of The Americas, one of the nation's most prestigious racetracks in Austin, Texas − 100 pounds lighter and happy, she said.
Ariane Duarte, too, found customers had changed − not for the better − in the past few years. "Everybody thought they deserved everything − and now," she said. Because of labor and food shortages, "we shortened our menu, and everyone is asking: 'Where's this? Where's that? What do you mean you can't get pork chop? This is what I came all the way here for.' You can't say anything. You bite your tongue."
She doesn't have to anymore.
"I’m feeling great now," said Duarte, who with her husband, Michael, runs the catering firm CulinAriane Caterers based in Brick Township. "I am living life, traveling, see my family a lot more. I’m down at the beach. I love my life now."
Paul Gerard, who left Antique Bar & Bakery and is today working on a TV show, consulting on restaurants and is a private chef for a client with a house in St. Barts, is happy too.
"I don't particularly miss restaurants," he said. "I’d rather make eggs in St. Barts."
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Restaurant chefs are leaving the industry in droves. Here's why.