Ho­tels, restau­rants strug­gle to fill kitchen jobs

Taos Ski Val­ley part­ners with col­leges to at­tract culi­nary tal­ent

The Taos News - - IN THE KITCHEN - By Joseph Dit­zler jdit­zler@sfnewmex­i­can.com This story first pub­lished in the Santa Fe New Mex­i­can, a sib­ling pub­li­ca­tion of The Taos News.

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, re­cently, 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 on 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 work­force.”

In New Mex­ico, about 81,000 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 front­line 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.”

Cour­tesy Taos Ski Val­ley

The 192 restau­rant at The Blake in Taos Ski Val­ley fea­tures wood-fired pizza and eclec­tic tapas. The restau­rant, like many around the state, is hav­ing a hard time find­ing and keep­ing culi­nary staff. It is part­ner­ing with Univer­sity of New Mex­ico-Taos’ culi­nary pro­gram to ad­dress the prob­lem.

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