Gather chef Colin Kelly, left, exits the kitchen while apprentice Maura Perry and owner Matt Chappell prep food. “If the ads all say ‘experienced cook wanted,’ and you don’t have experience, how do you get the job?” Trade group HospitalityMaine has answered its own question with a new apprentice program. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

YARMOUTH  — At the beginning of her shift at Gather restaurant on a recent Tuesday, Maura Perry took a quick peek at the handwritten list of tasks the head chef had left for her.

“Let’s see … this is nothing too fancy, but I have to build a lemon vinaigrette for one of the salads,” she said. “I have to make Caesar dressing. I have to fill some things in my station. I have to crumble some feta. I have to make a staff meal.”

The staff meal, for now anyway, is usually something simple when Perry makes it – pizza, or “a lot of scrambled eggs,” she said. Perry is an entry-level line cook at the farm-to-table restaurant. She’s the first person to be hired by a Maine restaurant participating in a new HospitalityMaine apprenticeship program designed to help alleviate the state’s lingering restaurant and hotel labor shortage. Thirty-two restaurants and hotels from Old Town to York Harbor have signed up for the weeks-old program, which was announced last fall, according to Terry Hayes, HospitalityMaine’s director of workforce development. About a dozen of those have signed up to participate in the line cook track.

“It allows (apprentices) to support themselves while they’re learning the skills as opposed to going into debt” in culinary school, Hayes said.

The apprenticeship is mostly hands-on training – 2,000 hours’ worth –  plus 145-290 hours of academic work that covers topics such as nutrition and food safety. Apprentices receive raises as they attain certain milestones, and when they complete the program they get a certificate from the Maine Department of Labor. (The department recently received a federal grant of more than $750,000 to expand apprenticeship programs in Maine; the restaurant industry could benefit from some of that funding, Hayes said.)

Maura Perry adds salt to vinaigrette. She had planned to be a botanical artist, but now says she wants a career in the professional kitchen. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Get with the program

The National Restaurant Association projects that restaurant employment in Maine will rise just over 30 percent this summer, typical for seasonal hiring here. But filling those jobs, and retaining those workers, will be as tough as ever, restaurant managers say. “Everyone is struggling to get help,” said Chris Pierce, assistant general manager at DaVinci’s Italian Eatery in Lewiston.

It’s not just about money, he said. Even if a restaurant offers more pay, it’s tough to find competent line cooks. “Sometimes if they have a pulse and a good personality, then you’ll hire them and see what happens after that,” Pierce said.

Low wages may dampen enthusiasm for a culinary career, but “at the end of the day, that’s not the big hurdle,” Hayes said. “There just literally aren’t enough people.”

In the intense competition for workers, HospitalityMaine hopes people will choose a kitchen career.

Bringing apprentices into the kitchen, paid or unpaid, was once the traditional European path to a culinary career. But those apprenticeships focused on training young people who were hungry for a life in the kitchen, not on combating a labor shortage.

The new program will target Mainers who may not have thought about a culinary career before, as well as try to tap into the stream of new Mainers immigrating to the state. “We’re also courting folks who are working with individuals in the recovery community,” Hayes said.

Then there is Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, which is offering the apprentice program to interested prisoners scheduled for release in early 2020, Hayes said; four have already signed up. They’ll start their apprenticeship in custody, and when they’re released they’ll continue the program in a restaurant.

Plenty of national programs exist to tackle the labor problem, targeting specific groups such as high school students and former military personnel returning to civilian life who may want a new career in a restaurant kitchen. Maine’s program is open to anyone, from the already-employed dishwasher who’d like to cook to the career changer who wants to test drive the job.

“If the ads all say ‘experienced cook wanted,’ and you don’t have experience, how do you get the job?” Hayes said. “This is the answer to how you get it.”

Apprentices will be able to fulfill the academic requirement by taking online courses, or classes at local community colleges and other organizations that offer courses in topics like food safety training. The Maine Department of Labor will reimburse any registered apprenticeship sponsors for up to 50 percent of the cost of the academic coursework required to complete an apprenticeship. Restaurants could receive a reimbursement of up to $1,200 per apprentice.

DaVinci’s plans to take on up to three apprentices – they’ll hire two, and sign up one current employee who has already worked his way up from dishwashing to prep work. Pierce believes in the program’s potential. “If someone came in here and worked 2,000 hours – that’s about a year’s worth of training – you could leave as a relatively competent cook,” he  said. “I think you could go to any restaurant and get your foot in the door.”

Pierce plans to start his apprentices at $13 an hour; by the time they graduate from the program they’ll be making $14.25. Experienced line cooks at the restaurant start at $16 an hour.

Maura Perry, pictured here exiting the walk-in cooler, hasn’t yet had any major mistakes on a shift. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Poster child

Gather’s new apprentice is, perhaps, the poster child for anyone who has imagined what it would be like to work in a restaurant kitchen but has no experience. Perry is a 22-year-old University of Maine at Orono student from Cumberland who is majoring in botany, with a minor in studio art. Originally, she planned to be a botanical artist, but she has a strong interest in food, and has always been tempted to work in a restaurant kitchen.

After starting college, Perry took a year off and spent some of it working on Spannocchia Farm in Italy, where she met a few young people who “all were incredible cooks,” Perry said. “Being around all that passion really inspired me,” she said.

When Perry saw the apprenticeship ad placed by Matt Chappell, owner of Gather, she liked the idea that she could learn on the job, as opposed to spending more time in the classroom at a culinary school. At first, she worried she wouldn’t fit in.

“I thought it was going to be all men, and a very masculine environment, and I was kind of intimidated by that,” Perry said. “I thought it was going to be very loud and fast paced, and I wasn’t going to be prepared for that. I’m kind of a quiet person.”

Chappell said his staff was also apprehensive, worried that the recruit would be so green they would have to babysit her, taking time from their own fast-paced jobs. But they soon discovered how eager Perry was to learn, he said, “and they’re responding to that. They want to share their craft.”

Chappell said that until about eight months ago, he was chronically short staffed, and the problem was creeping from the busy summer months into the winter. When he opened Gather in 2012, he could publish an ad for a line cook and get 20 to 30 applicants, and 10 of those would be “really good-quality candidates.” As workers grew more scarce, he’d get two or three applicants, and often they would either be unqualified or unemployable. Sometimes Chappell would hire them anyway, ignoring such red flags as gaps in resumes.

Chappell ran into the same problems that many other Maine chefs do, such as poor work ethic and lack of kitchen skills. Some recruits simply wouldn’t show up for a scheduled interview or their first day of work. Some had bad attitudes. Others would work for a few days, then quit by text, or simply “ghost” the restaurant, never to be heard from again. He’d have to ask his core staff to work extra hours, which damaged their morale and creativity.

“We’ve learned that being short staffed is better than having a full staff with weak links or bad energy,” Chappell said. “It corrupts the energy in the kitchen so much.”

Last summer was particularly rough. Chappell got tired of complaining and decided to look for solutions, and he wanted something that wasn’t just a quick fix. Along came the apprenticeship program.

“I don’t believe I would have ever found Maura using the normal channels of putting a line cook ad out there,” he said. With the apprentice program, “there was no expectation around skill set. You could come in completely green and not worry about ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to handle it in the kitchen.’”

Perry says she hasn’t yet had any major screw-ups on a shift – or at least “nothing awful yet.”

“Daily I have random things, like putting the (non-stick) pans in the dishwasher,” she said. “I haven’t gotten any bad cuts yet. My first day I made crème brûlée and I did get a little (burnt) sugar on my hand. My hands are definitely looking a little bad. They just threw me right in there, and I was making salads the first day.”

Perry works four days a week. She makes $11 an hour. (Experienced line cooks at Gather make $14-16 an hour.) Her shift starts at 1 or 2 p.m. and she usually works until 10 or 11 p.m. She and Chappell sit down at least once a month to look at the list of skills she’s supposed to be acquiring – everything from using a knife properly to preparing stocks and sauces – and decide where they should focus next.

“Each week I do something different,” she said, “but mostly I come in and work at the garde manger station. I build salads and desserts.”

Perry has got about six weeks under her belt as an apprentice. She likes it so much, she plans to transfer from UMaine so she can complete her final college semester at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and keep working at Gather without interruption. Though she hasn’t figured out the exact shape of her long-term plans, she knows she wants to be in the kitchen. Maybe she’ll become a restaurant chef, maybe she’ll go into catering.

For now, she is happy where she is, discovering her talents in the kitchen.

 

 


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