In a moderately upscale Yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, a thick plexiglass divider stood between me and the chefs like the bulletproof windows that protect bank tellers from robbery. I watched as the chefs leaned over the smoldering binchōtan coals behind it, tending to their skewers like gardeners. The smoke from the grill was grey and thick like a coal mine but the chefs would not leave their crops unattended.
When the parade of skewered food was finally over, I summoned the waiter. Discreetly, I asked if he would bring another bottle of the same sake, pour a glass for me and bring the rest of the bottle to the kitchen to thank the chefs. As I finished my meal, I raised a glass to them and we shared a brief “Kanpai” before they returned to the Zen garden of chicken sticks. I wondered, as I toasted to their brilliance, why acknowledging the kitchen wasn’t something I did more regularly at home.
The controversy over tipping customs rightly questions whether tips should be shared with the kitchen. It’s a hot topic of conversation right now in hospitality circles, but as we search for a workable solution an important question arises: Why doesn’t anyone ever tip the kitchen?
One answer is obvious—guests aren’t given the opportunity to designate a gratuity for chefs. Leaving more for the kitchen may seem like an added extravagance to diners who are already fatigued by the rising cost of restaurants. However, considering how many people are blown away nightly by delicious food, it’s a wonder that so few people ever make even a small gesture to thank the people that made everything taste so good.
Situating the kitchen out of the guests’ view severs the possible connection that diners have with the people cooking for them. Cooks themselves often feel uncomfortable even setting foot in the dining room because they know that their presence breaks the fourth wall. For various reasons, most restaurants don’t want you to see what goes on behind the kitchen doors. It’s part of the illusion.
The magic of a restaurant is that beautiful food just appears without your needing to see the blood and sweat that went into making it. But even in open kitchens it’s rare for a guest to acknowledge the cooks. It’s ingrained in us that we are responsible for paying servers but most of us never think for a moment about doing the same for kitchen staff, even though cooks as a whole are paid considerably less. It’s reminiscent of the theater, where the audience applauds the actors while all of the tech people—lighting, sound and props—who are integral to the show’s success are ignored.
In the past, kitchen jobs have been looked down upon as vocational and unworthy of the same recognition given to servers, bartenders and sommeliers. But the restaurant business has changed. Many of today’s line cooks have gone to culinary school and spent years cooking in top restaurants, preparing complex dishes that require more training and expertise. These jobs are now highly specialized and deserving of more monetary rewards. Of course, diverting money from the tip pool seems like an obvious solution to paying cooks more. But early attempts to share the wealth have been fraught with problems. It may take years for our industry to find systems to balance pay in such a way that makes everyone happy.
In the meantime, when you have an amazing food experience, send a manager back to the kitchen with a cash tip or some other offering as a way of saying thanks. Buy a gift card from the restaurant where you’re dining and give it to the cooks, who rarely have an opportunity to dine where they work. If you feel comfortable, see if someone will escort you back to the kitchen so you can thank them personally. Chefs genuinely appreciate when guests are grateful, even if there aren’t material rewards attached.
Without a viable solution to tip sharing, restaurants should consider an optional tip line for the kitchen to give guests the opportunity to reward chefs. Of course, it may create confusion about the typical customs but “hospitality included” models are confusing for guests too. How much of my bill actually went to rewarding the staff for service? Let’s face it, most restaurant owners cannot be trusted to pay their staff equitably. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be so many stories of underpaid cooks at some of the most profitable restaurants in the country.
Before you get all grouchy about being asked to tip more, just remember that the cost of your meal is kept artificially low by the substandard salaries of the kitchen staff. Since it so rarely occurs, even a small gesture to thank the kitchen will go a long way. So, be a hero. Because magic doesn’t make the food so delicious, the chefs do.