Italy has a proud culinary history, but its present-day chefs can't afford to work there

Italy's food is famous the world over, but many talented young chefs, hoping to make a career in their country, find themselves frustrated by low pay, lack of labour protection and scant prospects.

Facing low pay and poor prospects at home, young Italian chefs are seeking better opportunities abroad

Chef Davide Sanna works in the kitchen of Piccola Cucina in New York's SoHo area.
Chef Davide Sanna works in the kitchen of Piccola Cucina in the SoHo area of New York City on Nov. 22. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Like many young people growing up in Sardinia, Davide Sanna loved Italian cuisine and wanted to have a successful career as a chef.

To do so, he had to move to New York City.

Sanna worked in kitchens on the Mediterranean island and in northern Italy for four years, starting when he was only 19. But he was toiling 60 hours a week to take home just 1,800 euros (around $2,650 CAD) a month.

During the busy summer season, he'd be at the stove every day for two months, without a break.

Then a fellow chef put him in contact with a restaurateur looking for cooks in New York. 

For the past year, the 25-year-old has cooked at Piccola Cucina, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan's glitzy SoHo district. In New York, he can pull down $7,000 US (about $9,500 CAD) a month, working a 50-hour week.

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Italy's food is famous the world over but many talented young chefs, hoping to make a career in their country, find themselves frustrated by low pay, lack of labour protection and scant prospects.

Star chefs like Massimo Bottura, who runs the Osteria Francescana in Modena, are reinventing Italian cuisine.

But, given its rich culinary tradition, Italy arguably finds itself under-represented by top-class restaurants. It has 13 with three Michelin stars — the prestigious guide book's highest ranking. Japan, meanwhile, has 21, and France boasts 29.

A long-term trend

The outflow of Italian chefs due to difficult conditions at home is not a new phenomenon.

Italians began taking pizza and pasta to the world during mass emigration in the late 19th century. The popularity of Italian cuisine in Europe and the United States grew as more immigrants arrived after the Second World War.

A man is seen eating pasta at a restaurant in Milan, in a file photo taken in June 2023.
A file photo from June 2023 shows a man eating pasta at a restaurant in Milan, in northern Italy. Given its rich culinary tradition, Italy is arguably under-represented by top-class restaurants. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

The number of young Italians again leaving to seek work in faster-growing economies has been steadily rising for decades — though the trend was briefly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Emigration, and a low birth rate, has contributed to a mounting demographic crisis: Italy's population of 59 million is shrinking.

Much of the emigration has come from the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia, as well as Italy's economically underdeveloped south.

Roberto Gentile, a 25-year-old chef from Sicily, has worked for the last two years cooking French food at Le Suquet, a two-star Michelin restaurant near Toulouse, France.

Despite his passion for Italian cuisine and his sentimental desire to go back to what Italians call the Bel Paese  — the beautiful country — Gentile said the economic disincentives are too strong to consider returning.

"After gaining experience abroad and reaching a high level, you would hope to go back to Italy and find a suitable role and salary, but that doesn't happen," he said. "Where do I see myself in five years' time? Not in Italy!"

Falling wages

Giorgia Di Marzo, 36, decided to return to Italy in 2018, after working in Britain as a chef and restaurant manager for eight years.

But an offer of just 1,200 euros ($1,770 CAD) a month to work 50 hours a week in a Milan restaurant didn't work for her. Wages in Italy have declined over the past 30 years, when adjusted for inflation.

Instead, Di Marzo opened her own eatery in her native Gaeta, a seaside town between Rome and Naples.

She soon ran into trouble: Rising costs forced her to close for three months last winter and she couldn't get a loan from her bank for a sector considered at risk post-pandemic.

"I stay afloat, but I can only offer seasonal contracts," she said.

Eating out is part of everyday life in Italy. It has 156,000 restaurants and takeaway food outlets, the second most in Europe after France, data from international industry research group IBISWorld shows.

Yet the ratio of new restaurants opening to existing ones closing has been negative for each of the last six years in Italy, according to the sector's business lobby FIPE, amid high taxes, endless red tape and the difficult economic backdrop.

A waiter pours a glass of wine to people dining at a restaurant in downtown Rome, Italy.
A waiter pours a glass of wine for diners at a restaurant in downtown Rome, in a file photo taken in October 2022. Eating out is part of everyday life in Italy, which has 156,000 restaurants and takeaway food outlets. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)

For many restaurateurs, the answer is not to declare their workers at all — the restaurant business has a large "shadow economy." A peek into the kitchens of even the most traditional Italian restaurants shows local dishes are often prepared by low-paid immigrants.

Undeclared work accounts for around one-fifth of the Italian private sector's output, according to European Labour Authority statistics. 

More opportunities elsewhere

Francesco Mazzei, 50, trained as a chef in his home region of Calabria, and then in Rome, before leaving 27 years ago for London.

He honed his art for two decades and in 2008 opened his own renowned restaurant, called L'Anima, in London's financial district.

Mazzei has gone on to open other eateries and establish himself as a restaurateur and consultant.

"I could never have done any of this in Italy," he told Reuters.

Francesco Mazzei, an Italian chef and restaurant owner, poses for a photo near London's parliamentary buildings.
Francesco Mazzei left his native Italy three decades ago and moved to London, where has built a career as a restaurateur and consultant. He said his achievements would not have been possible if he had stayed in Italy. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"In England, you have a chance to do business; a cook does not cost you twice as much as you pay him," he said, referring to high Italian social charges and taxes on labour.

Partly for this reason, young chefs in Italy take home half the salary of their peers in Britain while working longer hours, Mazzei said.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's government has set up a ministry for food sovereignty as part of a drive to boost national pride.

The minister, Francesco Lollobrigida, proposed establishing a task force of tasters to monitor quality standards in Italian restaurants around the world, to avoid chefs getting recipes wrong or using ingredients that aren't Italian.

But the government has also facilitated the temporary and informal work arrangements that blight Italy's restaurant sector. 

It opposes calls for a minimum wage.