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Foodstuffs: Portsmouth Restaurants Lure Summer Kitchen Staff With Subsidized Housing

Emily Corwin
Becky Jacobs and Matt Thorne study culinary arts at UNH's Thompson School of Applied Science

Summer may be a ways off yet, but in Portsmouth, restaurant owners Matt Louis and Jay McSharry are already anxious about staffing their kitchens. That's because there’s a shortage of line cooks in restaurants all across the country, especially on the Seacoast, where unemployment is particularly low.

“Come May when the beaches open, it’s a mad sprint to make sure you have enough staff to be ready for summer,” McSharry says.

Together, Louis and McSharry run gourmet restaurants Moxy, Franklin Oyster House, and McSharry owns Jumpin’ Jays Fish Café. They say there aren't enough line cooks -- employees who prep food, and clean for about $12 an hour.

In the meantime, thanks to reality cooking shows like Top Chef, culinary schools are bursting with applicants looking for those seemingly glamourous jobs as a chef – managing the line cooks.

Twenty-five minutes from Portsmouth, Becky Jacobs washes dishes at the UNH Thompson School of Applied Science. “I would love to have my own restaurant,” Jacobs says. She took out student loans to earn her Associates’ degree in Culinary Arts. Because of those loans, she says, she can’t spend too long earning line-cook wages.

The director of Jacobs’ program at UNH says – by graduation, she should be ready for a sous chef position.

But Matt Louis says  - that’s unrealistic. He says cooks should have at least 5 years on the job before even considering a sous chef position.

“You may have been shown the proper way to cut an onion,” says Louis, ”but you need to be able to cut 50 of those onions in eight minutes accurately every day, while doing 18 other things. Those things are what come after culinary school.”

Plus, Louis and McSharry don’t need any more chefs. They need line cooks.  So last year, these restaurant co-owners came up with a plan.

They would recruit culinary school interns at job fairs, offering something that – in Portsmouth, at least -- is even better than money. An apartment.

See, McSharry is not just a restauranteur.  He’s also a landlord, with a handful of apartment buildings and two bedroom homes in Portsmouth.

“So what we did is we held off two of those units,” says McSharry. “We furnished them, we put in cable, we put plates and silverware, and then we put bunk beds in the two bedrooms.”

The interns rent wasn’t free, but it was subsidized.

This year, McSharry says, he’s still tweaking the system so he doesn’t lose too much money in the process. He just bought a bunch of weeklong rental cottages in Kittery, which are better suited for temporary housing.

Plus, Louis says, this is a big picture investment.

“We wanna develop these people to ideally get in this job market with us, or in the community somewhere else.”

And – it’s working. Last year, Louis says he was hustling at job fairs until the last minute. This year, he has inquiries from more than a dozen students at high end culinary schools around the region -- and it’s only February. 

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