Why Are So Many Chefs Leaving New York?

Analyzing the recent (and alarming) wave of departures
November 9, 2015
by Kelly Dobkin

As one of the great restaurant capitals of the world, NYC’s kitchens are a revolving door for young cooks who want to learn from some of the greatest in the biz. The pace, the volume and the ambition of the concepts executed here is unrivaled by most other places in the world. But recently, an alarming number of chefs have announced that they're packing up their knives and getting out of the Big Apple. Following a general wave of expatriatism that's been chronicled by the national media (i.e. this year’s NY Times story on how LA is the new Brooklyn), it seems that it’s harder than ever to make it in New York in just about any creative profession, including and especially the tempestuous restaurant industry. And while stories of chefs, or basically anyone, getting chewed up and spit out by New York's frenetic pace are as old as time, this latest wave of departures feels somehow different.

Allison Robicelli, co-owner of Robicelli’s bakery in Bay Ridge, was born and raised in Brooklyn and has spent her entire life here. For the last seven years she’s run her eponymous bakery, known for creative combos like Buffalo chicken wing cupcakes and the viral Nutelasagna, alongside husband Matt, but recently she announced that they were packing up and moving to Baltimore. A shocking move for a chef who has come to be regarded as a fixture of the Brooklyn dining scene. “There’s no joy left in this city,” Robicelli laments. “This is not the New York I grew up in. I finally started to realize...I’m going to be working 90 hours a week for the rest of my life just to get my bills paid.”

With rents skyrocketing all over town, along with food and delivery costs, many restaurants are having more trouble making it than ever. Line-cook shortages, iconic restaurants having to close or relocate (Commerce, Union Square Cafe, WD-50 just to name a few), and a movement toward tip-inclusive policies are all symptoms of an overarching financial crisis within the industry.

Matt and Allison Robicelli

It's always been difficult to live and work in New York, but now the overwhelming financial difficulty of running a restaurant/food business is coupled by a greater-than-ever personal toll. Robicelli admits that her marriage suffered as a result of trying to keep up with the demands of running her business in Brooklyn's "new economy." And then, something else happened. She began posting her grievances on Facebook and was overwhelmed by how many other New Yorkers validated her complaints. “Everyone was messaging me being like, ‘Thank god you said something because I was the only one doing something wrong.'” Robicelli clearly wasn’t alone.

Alex and Kevin Pemoulie of Thirty Acres

Chef couple and Momofuku alums Alex and Kevin Pemoulie opened Thirty Acres in Jersey City in 2012 in part to escape the chaos of the NYC food media machine. But apparently, it wasn't far away enough. Recently the restaurant announced it would close by the end of this year and that the Pemoulies were moving to Seattle. A Grub Street interview with co-owner Kevin Pemoulie went viral when the chef lamented NYC’s cutthroat restaurant climate as one of the reasons why they were leaving: “We’re looking to change and to enter into a part of the country that isn’t so insanely cutthroat and hyper-competitive. We’re really ready for change. We have ideas, but we honestly just want to reset and recharge and feel that we’re ready to do something again that we want to do — not something that we feel like will be better than this or that guy.”

Chef Gavin Kaysen of Spoon & Stable

Gavin Kaysen, former executive chef of Cafe Boulud and coach for Team USA at the Bocuse D’Or (aka the culinary Olympics) knows everything about competition. So when last year he announced he was moving home to Minneapolis to open his own restaurant, the restaurant world was taken aback. “My goals were to own my own restaurant and build my own company. Once I realized what I really wanted to accomplish, the more that I realized that NYC just wasn’t the right place for me,” he tells us. A year after his announcement, Kaysen is now running the critically acclaimed Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis — and has no regrets. “It was the right decision for me, made for the right reasons. And being near my family doesn't hurt either.” Earlier this year the restaurant was the first in Minneapolis ever to be nominated in the Best New Restaurant category at the James Beard Foundation Awards. 

Gabe and Katherine Thompson

An obvious theme with all of these departures is also a desire to improve quality of life, which means more space for raising children and less stress when it comes to financial survival. More recently, chef Gabe Thompson, longtime exec chef at Epicurean Group revealed that he was moving to DC, after helping to grow the Group’s family of restaurants from dell’anima to now a total of five different concepts along with his wife, pastry chef Katherine Thompson. “Katherine and I started thinking about leaving New York a couple years ago,” Thompson tells us. “And I think it had a lot to do with having a second child. When you’re looking at your life and what your future looks like, there’s a point in time in your life when you're like, 'I want to be able to buy a house and have a yard.”

In addition to the prospect of increased space and more affordable housing, there’s also the added enticement of being more likely to make a splash in a less saturated market. Robicelli described her “aha” moment about Baltimore after a recent visit.  “I’ve had a firm view my whole life that New York is better than everywhere else. But the New York I knew isn’t here anymore. In Baltimore, I’m seeing that creative spirit that we came into Brooklyn with. Maybe New York’s been hogging everything a long time. That’s why this country is full of P.F. Chang's and Applebee's. But chefs are starting to spread out. What’s happening in these secondary markets over the next few years is going to be really interesting.” (You're telling us.) 

Spoon & Stable's reception in Minneapolis has been a wild success, much to Kaysen's surprise and delight. He credits an impassioned staff for making it all possible: "They actually believe in the principle of why we’re here, the food we’re creating, the service that we’re providing. They believe in it so much more that it makes me believe in it even more."

gavin kaysen
gabe thompson