Top Chef winner makes his mark in tough industry

Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga has a job, but his fellow chefs face a hard time finding one.

David Geisbrecht / Bravo
Kevin Sbraga won Bravo TV's 'Top Chef: Washington, D.C.' Wednesday night. Sbraga, who is African-American and Italian, describes himself as the 'Barack Obama of the cooking game,' declaring that wanted to prove 'he can.' He has proven that 'he can' win the contest, but he and fellow chefs still have to make it in the shrinking world of top chefs, which has seen a 23 percent job loss rate in the past decade.

Kevin Sbraga, executive chef at Rat's Restaurant in Hamilton, N.J., won the season finale of Bravo's Top Chef: Washington D.C. Wednesday night, garnering accolades and lots of Twitter attention for his dessert version of a Singapore Sling.

But when the studio lights fade and the attention turns elsewhere, Mr. Sbraga returns to an industry whose future looks far less bright. Becoming a full-time chef in America is a tough business and getting tougher.

In the past decade, 23 percent of US chef jobs have disappeared. That leaves about 100,000 chefs toiling in mostly high-end restaurants or country clubs.

Average pay? Only $44,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Why aren't there more top chef jobs? Consumer habits are changing.

“High-end restaurants will always have their audience,” says Andrew Abelman, president of Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary institute in Cambridge, Mass. But “some people are shifting down. Where they might have gone to an upper-class steakhouse like Morton’s, they move down to a Chili’s or Applebee’s. And people who would have gone to Chili’s before might go to McDonald’s now.”

“They’re feeling the brunt of the recession,” says BLS economist Jon Kelinson.

What happens next for the industry depends on one's point of view.

Optimists believe the industry is poised for a rebound, albeit a tepid one.

“Some restaurants were hit harder than others, but when it comes down to it, people need to eat,” says Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association (NRA). While the culinary industry did lose jobs during the great recession, it lost them at only half the rate that the overall economy did.

The NRA projects 1 percent annual growth over the next decade, barely outstripping the rate of population increase during the period.

Less sanguine forecasters, like Mr. Kelinson of the BLS, see no expansion at all at the top of the culinary industry for the next decade.

“The growth of the industry is going to be in lower-end restaurants that don’t require so many chefs and head cooks,” he says. “Cafeterias, fast food, sandwich shops – that’s the part of the industry that will be increasing.”'

But for those chefs like Sbrago who already have jobs as top chefs, not all is doom and gloom. Salaries are up. Restaurants, country clubs, and caterers have paid more and more to a shrinking pool of elite chefs.

“We’re not in it for the money,” affirms John O’Toole, the chef de cuisine for Technique, a Cambridge restaurant staffed entirely by Le Cordon Bleu students. “But we do get great benefits, like instant gratification: People come up and thank you after they eat your food.”

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