As chefs get richer, diners get poorer
Blacksheep in Beaufort is an outlier in the restaurant family
Informed restaurant goers by now understand that hourly-wage restaurant workers are chronically and shamefully underpaid. Even though patrons may lash out when they’re charged 60 bucks for roast chicken, they at least grasp on an intellectual level that their restaurant outings are frequently subpar because businesses can’t recruit as many skilled cooks and servers as they need when the jobs pay as little as $30,000 a year.
What’s rarely discussed is what’s happening on the other end of the kitchen pay spectrum, and how it’s shaping restaurant experiences. Namely (and relatedly), salaries for top executive chefs—the one-percenters of food-and-bev operations—are surging, making it harder for those in the corporate sphere to justify trading their reliable checks for ownership of honest, unswanky restaurants.
For a glimpse of what it might look like if more chefs went that route, you might head to Blacksheep in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Tongues have been wagging about the 27-seat restaurant since it first opened in May 2020, just days after South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster OK’d the resumption of indoor dining.
When chef-owner Matt Wallace and general manager Krista Duffy—who together are the whole of Blacksheep’s staff—release upcoming reservations on the month’s first Tuesday at 8 a.m., every table is typically claimed within minutes.(Reservations used to go live at midnight until Duffy learned that residents of Beaufort, where 28 percent of the population has reached retirement age, were staying up well past their bedtimes to click the link.) Customers then get back online after their coveted meals to rave about flavors that reduced them to tears, stoking the scarcity cycle.
So, when I scored a reservation, I put on a nice dress and blocked out three hours on my calendar, which I figured was the right amount of time for a multicourse prix-fixe menu.
In short, I did the one thing that Wallace doesn’t want his guests to do, other than arrive with children or previously undisclosed allergies.
“I am terrified that people are going to think that it’s pretentious cheffy food, and they’ll have to eat at Wendy’s on the way home,” he told me by phone after my visit. “I set out to make a restaurant for everybody.”
Based on my experience there, Wallace has achieved his objective. Blacksheep is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant, with little handwritten signs explaining why the HVAC system will malfunction if customers don’t prop open the bathroom door when they leave, and an empathetic GM who knows her regulars well enough to override listed wine pairings that wouldn’t jibe with their palates.
Its dishes, portioned out generously to ward off accusations of snobbery, reflect Wallace’s galvanizing interests in Southern produce and Subcontinental seasoning—but are constructed so an eater who isn’t well versed in either can enjoy the peppery sweet heat of a vinaigrette lacing chunks of ripe watermelon. (Also of note: Dinner was done about one hour after it started.)
The restaurant’s casual-yet-purposeful vibe may feel familiar to you from another place or time. Perhaps you once dropped by a little family-owned tavern on the Portuguese coast or remember a whole grain bakery that a couple of ski instructors opened in the off season. Which is to say: Blacksheep is charming and memorable, but its specialness is closer in spirit to an old BMW 2002 than a late-model Ferrari.
Somehow, though, the restaurant has been tagged with a sui generis designation, which isn’t necessarily a good thing from Wallace’s perspective. He suspects guests wouldn’t have been so quick to conflate his high standards with fine dining had pandemic restrictions not forced him to modify his initial concept of a no-reservations restaurant where strangers would share tables and plates.
Perhaps that unfussy format would have telegraphed that Wallace pictures his restaurant as a local amenity, like a pharmacy or post office. Instead, in the early days of the pandemic, when restaurants had to take crowd control measures, Wallace limited seatings and unwittingly set off the hysteria.
“It seems like as we become more well known, we have these box checkers who just come here because they feel pressured to, but don’t do any research: We’ve noticed in the last few weeks an increase in the number of people who’ve just shown up and announced they’re allergic to garlic,” says Wallace, 41, who at 27 left the healthcare industry to work in restaurants around his native Atlanta, including Kevin Gillespie’s Woodfire Grill. Wanting to relocate to the Lowcountry, he took a job at the high-volume Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar, with an eye on getting back to small-scale cooking.
Aside from those consequences of an elite reputation, I was curious why diners would size up a lovely local restaurant furnished with bare tables and bistro chairs—where the chef’s whims determine the menu, and the general manager never plays favorites with reservations requests—and conclude it could never be replicated. The so-called “specialness” that's driving even garlic haters to book a Blacksheep table looks to me like what ought to be commonplace.
Of course, it’s not, because as hotels and deep-pocketed restaurant groups throw more money at top earners, the modest financial goals that facilitate those kinds of places have become outdated.
“[Chefs] focus on profits,” says Wallace, who set his sights on a decent living when he bought the squat brick building that houses Blacksheep.
As Wallace sees it, even in smaller Southern towns with relatively reasonable rents, chefs are giving in to their guests’ requests for cheeseburgers and emphasizing high-margin items at the expense of their personal visions. “Small restaurants don’t generate millions of dollars, and that tends to be the marker of our [professional] success,” he says.
But that scenario presumes chefs are opening restaurants in the first place.
In fact, as food-and-beverage has become bigger business, there’s less financial incentive for talented chefs to go out on their own. While many executive chefs at the height of the pandemic dreamed of opening places like Blacksheep, most of them ultimately didn’t want to forsake benefit packages and six-figure salaries for the headaches and hours of a solo operation.
Crucially, the restaurant industry isn’t immune from the disparity in wage growth that’s been a feature of the American economy for decades: While head chefs 20 years ago earned 58 percent more than cooks, they now collect twice as much money as their colleagues on the line who aren’t designated “head” or “exec.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top 10 percent of chefs and head cooks—who are arguably best situated to consider a shift to entrepreneurship—make $84,570 on average. By corporate standards, that’s not a staggering sum. But for someone who entered the trade at $7.25 an hour, it could be reason enough to stay on the payroll.
Chefs surely deserve the salaries they’re getting: Restaurant work is punishing, even if you spend most of your shift checking inventory and writing schedules. But it increasingly seems like eaters are aesthetically poorer for it.
A prime example of cash holding back culinary culture is Mount Royal, Hugh Acheson’s much-anticipated Montreal-style steakhouse at a Hyatt hotel in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.
Acheson departed the restaurant in April, four months after its opening; celebrated local baker Chris Wilkins had already stepped away from it. While people involved in the project declined to comment, citing legal considerations, it appears the hotel brass and kitchen team’s competing priorities led to the collapse of what looked on paper like a great idea.
It’s tempting to imagine how tourtières and sour pickles might have fared if the stakes were lower.
“I opened this on a shoestring budget,” Wallace says of Blacksheep. “Great finishes in the bathroom don’t make you money. People who come into restaurants aren’t eating the $70 clay plates.”
At Blacksheep, they’re instead eating a wedge of pork belly smoked in the parking lot out back, with staunchly acidic pickled peaches to offset its fat and boiled peanuts to pin the dish to the Lowcountry map.
Right now, that feels pretty special.
Blacksheep is booked through the end of June, and will be closed in July for needed renovations, including the installation of cooking equipment “with knobs and dials.” Updated reservation information will be posted on the restaurant’s Instagram account.
Really enjoyed this story. I always learn something important from your articles.
Another stellar piece by my favorite food writer.