Shortage of Chinese and South Asian chefs impacts Metro Vancouver restaurants

February 14, 2018

By Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun |

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.

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.”

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