Friday, September 30, 2005 | Hurricane Katrina has forced many Americans to take a good hard look at poverty in this country. Most of us who work in the restaurant industry don’t think about poverty and the working poor, but when we took a look at the incredible number of hospitality workers from New Orleans who fell into the category of working poor, we had to take notice. As the dishwashers, bussers, cooks and hostesses come to work every day in San Diego, do we wonder how they pay the rent, buy the groceries and provide health care for themselves and their families? The California Restaurant Association certainly doesn’t as it lobbies against increasing the minimum wage and providing health benefits for employees.

There are lots of good reasons for the lobbying effort. Increases in hourly wages and health benefits cost money. That money has to come from somewhere, which means jacking up the menu prices or cutting staff. Restaurant owners fear the worst: people won’t come. It’s a vicious circle for a business that runs on a very tight profit margin; however, we need to think about what we are doing to our lowest paid workers because our restaurant kitchens couldn’t run without them. Some restaurateurs, like Danny Meyer in New York City, are willing to take the risk and charge what it takes to provide every employee with a decent wage. Other owners are willing to help in an emergency. But most continue to pay the lowest wages allowed by law.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, the restaurant industry rallied around its comrades. Special events are being held all over the country to help the New Orleans restaurant community. This money knows no boundaries. Owners will get help cleaning up. Chefs will be offered other positions. Dishwashers, cooks, wait staff, bussers and hostesses will receive monetary aid to tide them over until the next job comes. And so the cycle continues.

For many years in San Diego, restaurants have supported an annual event called Chef Celebration. Teams of local chefs cook multiple course dinners with $30 of each dinner sold going to a culinary scholarship program. What makes this event unique is that the scholarships go to cooks already working in the industry. It gives help to beginners and up-and-comers to attend culinary school, hone their skills and get better jobs. What better way to help adults, who under normal circumstances could never take time to improve their skills and become the chefs who will help lead San Diego’s culinary future. As well as generating scholarship money, this year 25 percent of all dinner sales will go to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. I urge everyone in San Diego to support this event. It may not buy health insurance, but it will allow workers to get better jobs that might provide it.

The following are the dates and locations for the Chef Celebration dinners for 2005:

Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.

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