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Too few cooks 

HRM is a great city for epicureans, culinarians and gourmands—in general, anyone who loves food and loves to eat. Sure, there are things that could and should be fixed (service, anyone?), but in a town that offers everything from the most delightful donairs to the most fabulous foie gras, diners have it made.

HRM, sadly, is not such an inspiring place for chefs and cooks, and that’s something that could and should be fixed.

First, there are problems with sourcing ingredients. Fortunately, organic local produce is now readily available, and there are a growing number of livestock providers. But why, in a seacoast city, do cooks need to buy blocks of frozen shrimp imported from Thailand? Why is west coast crab on some menus? And why is there such a lack of fresh seafood? This city needs a fish market, and not just a storefront, but a real market where early morning buyers can try not-so-well-known lesser species like sea urchins.

And thank god for private wine stores, because if restaurants had to rely on the paltry, limited offerings of the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission, their wine lists would look pretty sad. For years, the NSLC imported the same shortlist of wines. Try and get something special brought in, and there was a song and dance the likes of which couldn’t be seen on a Broadway stage. With the openings of the private stores, the selection has improved all round, but there’s still far too much bureaucratic red tape at the NSLC.

And on to what I think is the biggest problem for cooks in this town. Imagine, if you will, an industry where you are expected to work 60-hour weeks, including weekends, holidays and evenings; where burns, cuts and other injuries are par for the course, and where you stand either hunched over plates or sweating over a stove, contorting your body into unnatural positions as you bend, stretch, lunge and reach. For this, you can expect an average rate of pay of $9 an hour. Of course, not just anyone can have this whopping salary—first you have to complete a three-year apprenticeship or a two-year cooking program. By the same token, a construction labourer with no experience can expect to average $14.75 an hour, while a plumber with a four-year apprenticeship can expect to average $21.50, according to the National Labour Standards website and Human Resourcess and Development Canada. To be sure, there are exceptions, but these are averages, and all you need to do is take a look at the HRDC job board to see cooks are being offered anywhere from minimum wage to around $12.

And while I am not out to disparage the work of other trades, chances are if the plumber forgets to tighten a washer with his wrench, it’s not quite the problem that the diner faces if the cook forgets an allergy to shellfish.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, a cook can’t get no respect. In Europe, cooking is a noble calling, and chefs get the acclaim their hard work earns them. In Canada, cooking has been something you did if the “real” trades were filled up. This perception is changing, thanks to the popularity of television cooking and “celebrichefs,” but not quickly enough.

Journeyperson cooks are forced out of the industry, driven to other work by better wages and working conditions. Even those who stay with the trade tend to head for greener pastures out west, or in larger centers like Montreal and Toronto, where opportunities are greater and wages higher.

And despite these defections, despite the major culinary talent drain, despite the closure rate of eateries, owners (with few exceptions) still think that nine bucks an hour is a sufficient wage.

Review Liz Feltham’s 2006 reviews online:

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