New Years Eve last year found Mary Mastricola in a bind.
She had booked 80 people for a four-course prix fixe dinner at La Petite Folie, her French restaurant in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. But with two employees recently resigned and others unavailable to work the holiday, there was almost no one around to cook and serve it.
So Mastricola pulled the evening off assisted only by her loyal dishwasher-turned-cook and a University of Chicago pediatric pulmonologist who moonlights as a pastry cook in the restaurant’s kitchen.
“It was nutcase,” Mastricola recalled.
She expects better staffing as she prepares for this year’s New Year’s menu — but that crazed feeling has become familiar.
A huge boom of new restaurants in Hyde Park and throughout Chicago has left Mastricola competing not only for customers but for employees, who are quick to alight to larger restaurants that can afford to pay more.
The revolving door has led to the executive chef working 17 hours some days, taking out trash or scrubbing pots when employees don’t show up for their shifts or quit without notice.
“Someone has to fill the gap and it’s almost always me,” Mastricola said. “There is an exhaustion that sets in that makes it hard to even be civil.”
Restaurateurs for years have complained of the difficulty of finding good workers, but they say the labor crunch has intensified with a surge of new openings, a smaller pool of immigrant workers and more opportunities for cooks in nonrestaurant jobs with saner hours.