Hotels, restaurants struggle to fill kitchen openings

October 2, 2018

Taos Ski Valley has five kitchens serving seven separate food and beverage outlets at the resort, including The Blake, an 80-room luxury hotel entering its second season.

Trouble is, said David Norden, Taos Ski Valley CEO, last week, hiring experienced culinary staff is a challenge these days. The company goes far afield to round up qualified talent, he said. About 40 employees out of 900 winter workers there are in the resort kitchens.

The resort’s human resources manager, Jessica Caskey, said the nation as a whole is short culinary professionals.

She attributes the problem to declining enrollments, culinary schools closing and a shift in career emphasis among younger generations from hands-on pursuits to those in technical fields.

In Santa Fe, too, restaurant professionals have said culinary talent is hard to come by. For aspiring chefs, however, learning opportunities in local colleges and kitchens, along with jobs, are still available for those willing to work.

“It’s a dying art almost,” Caskey said Friday. “My best guess is that it’s not as prestigious a career as it used to be. It takes an immense amount of talent to be a great chef.”

To ramp up interest in culinary arts and find new talent for its kitchens, Taos Ski Valley is partnering this year with the culinary arts program at the University of New Mexico-Taos to provide spots for three interns. UNM-Taos has a 30-credit certificate program in culinary arts. About 15 students are enrolled this year.

“We heard the same thing: It’s hard to find good people to work in restaurants,” said Randi Archuleta, dean of instruction at UNM-Taos.

The three interns will get paid and receive credit for working at Taos Ski Valley while they attend classes at the UNM-Taos kitchen at Taos High School, she said. If successful, the program may expand to more interns and other restaurants and hotels in town, she said.

“I think there’s an opportunity in the future for more,” Archuleta said. “This is our pilot effort.”

Taos Ski Valley also is working with Navajo Technical University to bring students to the resort to work during the winter holidays and spring break, Caskey said. The resort also brings students from Mexico and India on J-1 visas to work for six-month stints.

“They experience us and we experience their culture,” Caskey said. “It helps with inclusion and diversity in our work force.”

In New Mexico, about 81,00 people were working in food preparation and related occupations in May 2017, the most recent detailed data available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau does not provide an employment breakdown by occupation for Taos County, which had a total labor force of about 15,000 and a 6 percent unemployment rate in August.

However, in Santa Fe County, about 7,500 people were employed in food service out of a total workforce of 61,400 last year. The president of the Greater Santa Fe Restaurant Association this year said that while front-line customer service positions are relatively easy to fill, experienced kitchen help is hard to find and retain.

A recent era of celebrity chefs and popular TV cooking shows put a tint of glamour on the culinary arts, but in reality, kitchen work is hard and starting wages are low. A food-prep worker in Santa Fe earned an average $25,160 last year, according to the bureau.

But higher levels of work earn a wage greater than the median household income in Santa Fe. The average wage for an executive chef in Santa Fe was $54,290 last year, the best-paid position in the food service category, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Working your way up in the kitchen is the general rule, said Patrick Mares, a chef instructor at the Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program.

“You don’t come out of college and, ‘I have this paper and it means I can be an executive chef,’ ” Mares said. “It doesn’t mean you’re not qualified, but you have to get your feet wet.”

Mares puts his connections with executive chefs in Santa Fe to work finding jobs for SFCC graduates, he said. An advisory group of culinary professionals also provides input to SFCC in terms of the skills and knowledge they think graduates should have, Mares said.

“We’re partnering with local chefs in Santa Fe; they come and talk [to classes] and take our interns,” he said. “We have great relationships, and our program is known for that.”

While enrollment at SFCC is down, Mares said students each semester manage to fill two sections of a culinary fundamentals class, with 12-13 students in each. Not all are pursuing kitchen careers; many just want some skills to employ at home.

“There are a certain few that you can see that want to pursue this,” he said.

For the few, cooking is more than skill, Mares said.

“It’s in the title, ‘culinary arts,’ ” he said. “It’s like putting a canvas down on a table and making a nice piece of art.”

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