THE BLOG
01/09/2014 11:04 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2014

So You're Not Curing Cancer

I'm not curing cancer. I've given up my career helping to rethink education in failing schools across the country. But I haven't abandoned my goals to work for the greater good (of others), even though it wasn't so apparent when I co-founded DinnerLab.

As my rough 1.5-year-old startup has grown, we've given over 250 opportunities to up and coming chefs in a grueling industry. And I've learned through this experience the great joy I feel being around awesome people -- our 500-plus chefs, close to 50 employees, and thousands of members across the United States.

We're a for-profit with accountants, investors, income statements and the need to make money -- far different from my time working for Teach for America in the Katrina-ravaged Ninth Ward, or with up and coming educational entrepreneurs.

It's been a rough adjustment.

Everyone I used to work with was focused on tackling big issues, but I've found that there is great struggle with the culinary world. According to a recent article, assistant chefs make as little as $30,000 per year. In most cities, like New York, where the median salary is about $51,000, an assistant chef salary might barely make ends meet. Many young chefs are also saddled with debt from culinary institutions that leave alumni with six-figure loans. But despite this debt and salary equation, everybody and their mother wants to be in food. The number of talented chefs vying for a limited number of positions is at an all-time high, and this has led to an unfortunate view from the top (ownership) down. Wages have been stagnant and in a world where replaceability dictates earning power, fortunately and unfortunately, culinary talent is easy to come by.

Making matters worse, once you've landed a gig, career advancement is tough. Everyone is clamoring for at the head chef job and there aren't that many opportunities for advancement. As a result, the average sting of a restaurant worker is about 1.3 years.

Translation -- you can move laterally, but not up. It's a concept that reminds me of a popular quote from my hometown of New Orleans: "We love the music, but hate the musician."

Starting a band is cheap, but starting a restaurant isn't. Couple that with the fact that approximately 61.4 percent of independent restaurant operators fail, you may start to get a picture of why the industry is the way it is. The people in the industry are fantastic; some of the most down to earth ball busting people in the world, but the system they are working in, hasn't been rethought in a while.

On the surface, we bring together up and coming culinary talent with an eager audience by hosting pop-up events, but what we're really after (not trying to be sneaky) is arming those that want to advance their life with critical feedback and information so that they may advance their careers. If successful, we may have a hand in driving down the rate at which restaurants close, because we have a sense of what types of concepts are working where, and who best to cook them.

This would shift the dynamic of a vision being handed down from ownership and a chef just executing, and would in turn make the chef more irreplaceable and drive wages up.

So yea, it's not curing cancer, but one of the greatest things we can do nowadays is give someone the ability to pay their rent and give them an opportunity to better their life.