Portland's Most Eligible Cook for Hire

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Interview by Caroline Hatchett | Illustration by Jordan Johnson
Chef Roberto Almodovar
Chef Roberto Almodovar

Freelance restaurant work has long been the realm of cater waiters and bartenders, but in Portland and other major urban centers, a new type of restaurant worker has emerged: the mercenary cook, cook for hire, or freelance cook. Take your pick of nomenclature. These cooks are filling open positions in restaurants where traditional methods are failing, and they’re part of growing number of American workers dependent on the gig economy, which represents thirty-four percent of the U.S. workforce, according to Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax.

In some cities like San Francisco and New York, the effort to recruit industry freelancers is organized with apps like Pared and JitJatJo, respectively, connecting job seekers with restaurants. In Portland, the market for cooks for hire is still largely driven by word of mouth. That’s how we found Roberto Almodovar, who was chef de cuisine of Clyde Common and Rue, before embracing the life of kitchen nomad. He’s even part of a burgeoning collective of freelance cooks dubbed the Wild Rice Boys. His dream job is in butchery, but until then, he’s a mercenary.

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get into freelance cooking?
Roberto Almodovar:
I left Clyde Common in September 2017 and started working at Rue, which closed in December. When I didn’t find a permanent job, I started working part time with at a pub, T.C. O’Leary’s. It’s money in your pocket. Now, I’m working at several places, picking up shifts at Clyde Common, and doing private events. I’m working 25 to 30 hours at the pub, and another 20 hours freelancing.

CH: What do you do in your free time?
RA: I go on hikes. I go to the coast when I can. My girlfriend and I leave the city and try to get outdoors. That’s why I moved to Portland in the first place. And now I have more motivation to cook at home, to feed myself.

CH: How long do you envision keeping up the freelance life?
RA: There aren’t many places in Portland I want to work right now. At this point, I’m picky, and the freelancing is doing it for me. I just met with a friend whose company, Rushmore Baking, is doing all the pastry for Stumptown in Portland. He asked me to stop by and do prep for them—it’s kind of awesome. It’s another gig, three to four hours a day, a few days a week.

CH: What are the benefits of the work arrangement?
RA: You get to make your schedule, you have free time, and you get to work at a bunch of places. Working at the same resta urant, you can get tired of the day-in-day-out routine. Cooking at different places prevents me from getting into a funk, and there’s always the option to find a better job, if the opportunity arises.

CH: What are your biggest challenges?
RA:You don’t know if you can pay rent, and I think it’s a little harder in Portland to find freelance jobs. There are days and weeks when I can’t fi nd anything, and I think I should fi nd a job that’s going to pay me the money I need to survive—even if I’m not completely happy. But then I remember that I would rather struggle for a week or two, maybe not eat as well as I usually do. I want to work at my own pace and be who I want to be. It’s a mix of emotions for me. In the back of my head, I know I need to fi nd a real job. Then again, when I was working as a chef de cuisine, I was making a lot money. But making money and working a lot wasn’t what I wanted it to be.

CH: What’s the going rate for cooks for hire?
RA: Generally $15/hour. If I do a 10-hour shift, it’s a pretty good day.

CH: What types of restaurants are more likely to hire freelancers?
RA: Family-owned and neighborhood restaurants, places that have turnover. Definitely not chains.

CH: What’s your advice for employers who hire freelancers?
RA: Be specific about what you’re looking for and give a job description of what the cook will be doing. Just put everything up front, including the compensation. It’s a big piece, too.

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