During the lunch rush at The Boss on Main, there are about 100 people seated in the booths eating and ordering food. In the kitchen everyone is working full-tilt including cook Shuji Chen.
Chen’s specialty is preparing the kinds of Hong Kong-style Chinese food that regulars like. He’s an expert in using a commercial wok. It’s much more challenging to use than a home wok because it’s bigger and heavier and doesn’t have a single long handle to grab onto: you have to learn how to cook — and not burn yourself — by holding the side grip with a cloth.
What makes Chen unusual is his age. At 64, he’s been working in the kitchen of The Boss since he came to Vancouver from Guangzhou in 1986. After 28 years, he’s dropped down to working four days a week from six. He knows he’s getting close to retirement but he plans to keep cooking, at least for a few more years.
What’s happening with Chen in the kitchen of The Boss is not unique in Metro Vancouver. There is a general shortage of chefs for many restaurants but it’s even worse in restaurants specializing in the national cuisines of China, India and other countries. Chefs are aging and they’re not being replaced either with new immigrants with specialized cooking skills or by locally-trained chefs.
The Boss in Chinatown is one of many restaurants serving Chinese, Indian and other national cuisines facing a shortage of trained chefs.
Behind the scenes, restaurants are figuring out ways to deal with the shortage. Some are paying more or closing sections. Others are reducing hours so they’re no longer serving, for example, lunches on some days. Owners and their families have always worked long hours and now many are working even longer days of up to 16 hours.
At The Boss, Perkin Lai is the son of owner Jason Lai. Recently, the restaurant has been even more short-staffed because of holidays. That means he’s starting at 6 a.m. and working until 9 or 10 p.m., seven days a week.
He’s 34 and a 2010 graduate of Vancouver Community College’s general culinary arts program. He works in the kitchen alongside Chen when he’s not learning how to be a manager.
Besides the food it serves, The Boss is unique in another way. Not only is language of communication in the kitchen Cantonese, all of the orders by wait staff are written in Chinese characters. That was a problem for Lai who was born and raised in Vancouver.
“In order to help my dad, I had to figure everything out,” he said. “I had to learn how to read all the menu items.”
At The Boss, the wages for chefs start at $14 an hour and go up to $20.
The Boss on Main was opened in 1986 by Steve Yuen (seven years earlier he opened his first Maxim’s on Keefer). He gave it an unusual name because he said the customers were his ‘boss’. Yuen, now 79 and almost retired, has handed off the business to his brother-in-law Jason Lai, Perkin’s father.
Over the years, the company has expanded into a network of 15 bakeries and restaurants that include Maxim’s as well as a central bakery on Commercial Drive. Lai estimates that all the various outlets employ about 200 people.
Lai believes that the chef shortage can be solved by bringing in more people from Hong Kong, China or wherever so long as they have cooking skills.
They can learn English once they’re here, he said, and “They have to know Chinese.”
“It’s difficult to train locals to read Chinese characters and communicate with existing staff if they only speak English.”
One of the ways employers like Lai have dealt with labour shortages in the past is the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. It allows an employer to bring foreign workers into Canada when the jobs can’t be filled by Canadians.
In 2016, 79,000 work permits for temporary workers were issued across the country. That’s a drop of 33 per cent compared to the average for the previous five years.
The 2017 federal budget documents said that the reduction was implemented to ensure “Canadians and permanent residents are considered first for available opportunities.”
The Liberal government did modify the program last year for some Canadians. It waived the $1,000 fee for each temporary worker for families needing foreign caregivers and for families with an income of less than $150,000 needing child care.
Hedy Fry, MP for Vancouver Centre, said she’s met with restaurateurs about the chef shortage. She said the Liberal government recognizes that there’s a problem.
“We’re looking at how to fix it,” Fry said from Ottawa.
She said she’s also been told that sometimes what occurs is that a trained chef may come to work for one employer only to be lured away by another who offers more money. In addition, she said there’s a potential issue with restrictive employment contracts that could be challenged by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
For many who come to Canada under the program, the possibility of getting permanent residency at the end of a contract is a big lure.
“This is something that we’re determined to move the agenda forward on,” she said.
“We’re determined to make sure people who have the skills that Canadians do not possess can come here and help to be productive workers and have the benefit of bringing their families.”
Since the restaurant opened in 2004, it has had an afternoon buffet. In January, Mroke stopped the buffet because he couldn’t find anyone to prepare the dishes in the morning.
“I cannot do my buffet anymore because I have no staff,” he said. “I’m burning out myself. I can’t do 14- and 16-hour days any longer.”
India Bistro specializes in cuisine from Northern India. To prepare authentic tandoori and curry dishes, chefs need specialized knowledge of how marinades and rubs interact with foods such as chicken and meat in a tandoori oven.
The language in the kitchen of India Bistro and Swad Indian Kitchen, also operated by Mroke in West Vancouver, is Punjabi, Hindi and English.
He’s particularly frustrated with the current Liberal government in Ottawa. He said they seem unable to understand that requiring immigrant chefs with specialized skills to speak English just doesn’t make sense.
He said if you were to take 50 ethnic restaurants in Metro Vancouver and went into their kitchens, what language would you hear being spoken? It wouldn’t be English.
“In India, the system doesn’t run that way. The best chefs don’t speak English. But they know how to cook food,” said Mroke who has been operating a restaurant in Vancouver since 1989.
“These chefs are not dealing with the customers so they don’t need English.”
During the interview, Mroke sounded like he didn’t see a solution to his problems.
“Yes, I’m frustrated,” he said.
“At this stage right now, I’m willing to sell the restaurant and get out of the business.”