Advertisement

What a 22-Year-Old Server at a Michelin-Starred Restaurant Eats on $18/Hour in New York

Illustration by Maggie Cowles

Welcome to The Receipt, a series documenting how Bon Appétit readers eat and what they spend doing it. Each food diary follows one anonymous reader’s week of expenses related to groceries, restaurant meals, coffee runs, and every bite in between. In this time of rising food costs, The Receipt reveals how folks—from different cities, with different incomes, on different schedules—are figuring out their food budgets.

In today’s Receipt, a 22-year-old server makes $15 to $18 an hour working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, where she also studies regenerative farming and culinary experimentation as an apprentice.

Keep reading for her receipt.

The finances

What are your pronouns? She/her

What is your occupation? I work as an apprentice at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. This means I learn from and experience many sides of hospitality: I work in the restaurant as a server, but also study and research regenerative farming and culinary experimentation.

How old are you? 22

What city and state do you live in? Westchester County, New York

What is your annual salary, if you have one? $15 to $18 an hour. $15 for education hours, $18 for service.

How much is one paycheck, after taxes? Usually between $900 to $1,000. I work 55 to 60 hours a week.

How often are you paid? (e.g., weekly) Weekly.

How much money do you have in savings? Around $13,000. I was fortunate to graduate without student loans, so I have been able to save my past incomes.

What are your approximate fixed monthly expenses beyond food? (i.e., rent, subscriptions, bills)

  • Rent: $0. I currently live at home and am able to save money on rent, but I set aside $1,500 a month for moving out in the near future.

  • Apple iCloud storage: $2.99

  • Spotify Premium: $9.99

  • Film center member subscription: $8.00

  • Gas: $80

  • The New Yorker subscription: $14.99

  • New York Times subscription: $4

  • Bon Appétit subscription: $2.50

  • Total: $125.98

The diet

Do you follow a certain diet or have dietary restrictions? No.

What are the grocery staples you always buy, if any? I always have a collection of alliums: onions, garlic, and shallots to serve as the base or mirepoix of many recipes and soups, which have become a winter staple. I make stock often, so I keep a gallon bag in the freezer filled with a collection of scraps: allium and vegetable scraps, as well as cheese rinds and poultry bones. I treat myself to French salted butter. I always have hot sauce and some sort of leafy green or cruciferous vegetable, such as kale, broccoli, or rainbow chard. I’ve had local eggs and cottage cheese in the fridge as of late, which is how I get protein in the morning before a long day, and oranges and apples for breakfast. I always have plenty of roasted seaweed. Lastly, I usually have either raw or smoked salmon stored at any given time. Texas pecans and oats too.

How often in a week do you dine out versus cook at home? I most often cook at home. I adore cooking. I have loved kitchens and food for as long as I can remember, and cook so often that it has become quite intuitive and takes up most of my free time, which is deliberate. I dine out once or twice a week, because a weeknight dinner is the only time I can catch up with friends given my schedule. Anything more than that is dangerous because of what an expensive endeavor it can be to dine out in the city. I care a lot about cooking for and with people I love, so if my friends or partner are visiting from the city, we cook together. Lunch is provided at work, and by the time I return home after service, I admittedly opt for a quick snack and go straight to bed to squeeze in as close to seven hours of sleep as I can. I think this is a great irony of working in restaurants; despite constant closeness to finely prepared food, nothing sounds better than Lay’s potato chips after 12-plus hour days.

How often in a week did you dine out while growing up? No more than once a week. When I was growing up, both my parents worked full-time so I had a lot of quick and easy meals at home.

How often in a week did your parents or guardians cook at home? I remember my mom cooking for most nights during the week. She is unbelievably creative and resourceful and this translated well to the kitchen; my strongest childhood memories of food were the fascinating ways she could stretch leftovers. Take-out rice with brown sugar, butter, and milk for breakfast. Malt-O-Meal with chocolate Ovaltine. It didn’t lend itself well to the social jungle of the elementary school cafeteria, but it made for good stories.

The expenses

  • Week’s total: $146.63

  • Restaurants and cafés total: $101.56

  • Groceries total: $45.07

  • Most-expensive meal or purchase: Dinner at Sfoglia, $68.25

  • Least-expensive meal or purchase: Apple from Wegmans, $1.05

  • Number of restaurant and café meals: 3

  • Number of grocery trips: 4

The diary

Monday

I don’t know how some people make bone broth so often. I am planning my whole day around tending to this simmering pot.

9:30 a.m. I wake up late. I am dazed from my nightly 2 a.m. sleep-scare where I struggled to convince myself that I was safe in my bed, and no, I did not accidentally wear my pajamas in the restaurant kitchen. Mondays and Tuesdays are my days off. I feel burnt out, which I know to be true because it takes an alarming amount of energy to plant my feet on the floor and brush my teeth.

I have been planning to make bone broth today, and it needs 12 hours to simmer, so I get started. One of the butchers at work generously saved me a bag of leftover grass-fed beef bones, which I keep in the freezer. I roast the bones in the oven and chuck them in a large pot with mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery), and star anise and herbs. I fill with water and start the process. I don’t know how some people make bone broth so often. I am planning my whole day around tending to this simmering pot.

10:30 a.m. It is one of those mornings where I feel attached to my body by gossamer threads because I am still recovering from a long week. I don’t cook, but I open my winter CSA box from a farm upstate and cut and prep some of its vegetables. It has a beautiful bounty that reminds me some of the best harvests are during the coldest months: carrots, bok choy, yellow onions, garlic, parsnips, cabbage, purple potatoes. I don’t subscribe to this CSA; a few of us bought boxes at work because our restaurant collaborates with the farm. I bought one for $25. I would like to join a proper CSA but I would have too much food waste on my hands.

11 a.m. I head to a local specialty food store, June & Ho. I usually only buy a sandwich, eggs, French butter, or coffee here, but I love visiting often to chat with the owner. I buy a carton of a dozen eggs ($7.11) from Meadow Creek Farm and a bouquet of pink tulips.

12 p.m. I make stock from my frozen veggie scrap bag and a few chicken bones (thighs and wings, and part of a spine) that I have accumulated from the past couple weeks. There are high costs associated with food waste, so I have really loved using the most of my scraps for homemade stock. It digests well, tastes rich and savory, and I use it as a base in the majority of my winter meals. I sip a cup of it.

2 p.m. I have to drop off dry cleaning for work, which is right next to Oishinbo, a local Japanese market. I grab a shrimp onigiri ($3.50) and 9 ounces of salmon sashimi ($13.99). I love this place and shop here at least once a week. ($17.78 total)

2:30 p.m. I stop in at the Harrison Market, a grocery store by Oishinbo, and pick up a can of Pillsbury rolls ($5.29) for my soup tonight, a bag of Lay’s potato chips ($4.99) for a post-shift snack throughout the week, and an 8-pack of my favorite treat, Reese’s peanut butter cups ($2.99). I keep candy at home to take to the cinema because I have developed a costly habit of buying candy with my popcorn, in which one Reese’s cup might very well set me back $5. ($13.52 total)

4:30 p.m. Because my day had an unusually tired and wonky start, I haven’t eaten a proper meal by this point. My boyfriend is taking the train in to visit for the night, so I wait to cook dinner, but toast a Pillsbury bun to tide me over. I am reminded of how buttery and tasty these are.

6 p.m. I muddle frozen raspberries with native wildflower honey to make raspberry honey for my matcha lattes. I buy single-origin Hikari matcha when it is on sale at Whole Foods, usually for $33. The honey is from a local native plant preserve where I volunteer, and I’ve kept a jar from honey canning in October. I use it every day.

6:30 p.m. Before cooking, my partner and I snack on gluten-free rice crackers. He has celiac and is mostly dairy-free. I usually don’t take to gluten-free breads and crackers, but our bakers are culinary geniuses and these crackers are just so snackable. At the restaurant, we send guests home with a loaf of bread (crackers for gluten-free guests) and get to take home leftover loaves at the end of the day, so I swiped some on my way out the night before.

7 p.m. We use ingredients from my CSA box to make a vegetable chicken soup. In a pan, we sweat onions, shallots, and garlic. Then we throw in diced carrots and pour in a few cups of my homemade stock. We tear a small head of kale and shred chicken thighs I have just pulled out of the oven, and toss this in with green peas. This simmers for a while while we sip on Olipops (previously bought). These are fun drinks, but they run $2.75 each, so they’re a special treat. He drinks root beer and I drink strawberry vanilla. Dear reader, please do not dare think to compare our relationship to our Olipop flavors.

8 p.m. We each have a small bowl of gluten-free peanut butter cookie ice cream that I bought from a local ice cream shop, the Blue Pig, before it closed for the season. This place makes some of my favorite ice cream in the world, specializing in local flavors, and I am rationing my pint until March when it reopens.

10 p.m. Right before heading to bed, I salt and strain my bone broth.

Monday total: $38.41

Tuesday

He suggests we make a salmon crudo with orange and grapefruit juice with rice crackers crushed over top.

11 a.m. I heat two cups of yesterday’s broth, which we sip on while cooking rice. I also make each of us a matcha latte with oat milk and yesterday’s raspberry honey.

11:30 a.m. We slice the raw salmon I bought yesterday from the Japanese market. My boyfriend is a very creative cook, so I am not surprised when he suggests we make a salmon crudo with orange and grapefruit juice with the aforementioned rice crackers crushed over top. This turns out a little funky, but huge points for originality. I eat the rest of the salmon over sushi rice with furikake.

1 p.m. We both take the train into the city together. I was planning on catching a movie until I have dinner in Manhattan with my friend, but I decide against it last minute to save some money (I have had to strike a balance on how often I see movies in the city) and instead find a café where I can research and study.

2:30 p.m. My stomach is rumbling, so I walk to Wegmans in Astor Place and buy one slice of spicy pepperoni and sausage pizza ($4) with a generous drizzle of hot honey, plus one apple ($1.05) and one orange ($1.25) for breakfast this week. ($6.66 total) It is my first time in a Wegmans and I am pleasantly surprised by my slice. I eat it on my way to La Colombe a few blocks away, which is the same location where I took a free espresso class a couple summers back. Random. I order a $6 “oat draft latte.” I sip this until I get halfway and my cortisol levels are palpable and I have to stop. ($6.53 total)

6:30 p.m. I walk to B&H Dairy in the East Village to meet a good friend for dinner, with whom I share an appreciation for nostalgic, intimate food joints. Earlier, I had suggested a Mexican spot in Midtown but eventually got scared away by entrées over $40 and switched the meeting spot. I am sensing that this is a pattern. It pays off, though, because my Tuesday special of a cup of matzo ball soup and potato pancakes with applesauce only sets me back $13. I also order a strawberry milkshake that tastes a little too much like the Ensure protein shakes I used to drink as a tween. I am still searching for the best old diners in the city. If this wasn’t anonymous, I’d say give me a call if you have any tips. ($26.78 total after tax and tip)

Tuesday total: $39.97

Wednesday

We are in the greenhouse learning about turnip greens. I snack on one of the gigantic, slightly peppery leaves.

7:30 a.m. Back to work. I learned within my first week that I feel emotionally out of control if I don’t have a somewhat slow start to my morning, because of the level of intensity during service. After I stretch, I bake quick oatmeal breakfast cookies to bring to work to share with my coworkers, and I make one matcha latte with oat milk.

8 a.m. I heat up the rest of the soup from Monday night and eat it with a Pillsbury roll.

9:30 a.m. Wednesday is education day at work, and we don’t have service. At work, we are in the greenhouse learning about turnip greens. I snack on one of the gigantic, slightly peppery leaves.

11 a.m. At the weekly all-staff meeting on farm innovation, we learn more about the culinary experimentation we are doing with cover crops like ryegrass, and we sample a few leaves. It is so sweet it tastes almost as if it were dipped in sugar. This is a very clarifying presentation because my apprenticeship research project is on cover crops.

2 p.m. Family meal. Lunch is provided at work, though that time is a break in my paycheck. We have saucy chicken and couscous, pita, salad greens, and palmiers. The pastry is always my favorite part.

8 p.m. I ride a train into the Upper East Side for dinner with a friend at Sfoglia. I order a glass of white wine because I want to put my newfound wine knowledge—be it only a sliver—to the test. I find with the little bit of language I have developed around wine tasting that I enjoy it much more. I order “Cantina Fina” Chardonnay from Sicily (an $18 glass). On the palate, I get crisp orchard fruit and red apple, and it’s highly juicy at first but is mellowed out by a lactic quality. My friend decides on Sauvignon Blanc, and I am struck by how yeast-like hers is on the nose. We split spaghetti and scallops. It is a satisfying-enough meal, if I’m being generous; I have had much better here in the past. With tip, my side of the bill amounts to $68.25. It has been so long since I’ve drank alcohol that I am sufficiently tipsy from my glass of wine.

9:30 p.m. Tipsy enough that I board the wrong train at Harlem-125th station. I’m headed straight into Connecticut, the conductor tells me. I had sprinted to the subway in hopes of making an earlier train to get more sleep, and here I am on the wrong one. C’est la vie. I eventually get on a train going back the way I came and use the extra time to study our extensive menu call sheet since I’ll be running food this week.

Wednesday total: $68.25

Thursday

I am on family meal duty, so I brew two coffee urns and make 10 gallons of black tea.

7:30 a.m. I think I have found the culprit in my groggy wake-ups. I tried out a new alarm last night, finally caving to one of the $100-plus sunrise alarm clocks that feel very late-stage capitalism, but waking up without an absolutely piercing ring is game-changing. This motivates me enough to cook breakfast right away.

8 a.m. I roughly chop a leek and quarter two small purple potatoes from my CSA box. I decide to make an omelet; I tear a leaf of rainbow chard into two eggs, stir in the leek and a spoonful of cottage cheese, and cook on low and slowly with herby garlic compound butter I made the other day. I roast the potatoes in the toaster oven with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I slice half an orange and this completes my breakfast. Today I don’t have to be at work until 12 p.m., so I take my time and call my mom while cooking.

10 a.m. I toast a blueberry-banana muffin and spread on salted butter. I made these in December and keep them in the freezer when I want something sweet in the morning. I make a cup of peppermint tea with honey and walk to the public library to return a book and read the paper.

2 p.m. I am on family meal duty, so I brew two coffee urns and make 10 gallons of black tea, to which I add a few bags of chamomile tea, Pink Lady apple poaching liquid (from the walk-in), and a splash of lime juice (from the bar).

3 p.m. For lunch, it’s posole—or something posole-esque. Dessert is buckwheat brownies. I am still trying to gauge the right amount to eat at lunch, because it needs to carry me through service past midnight. On Thursdays, we have a lecture during family meal, and today we hear from a seed-breeder out of Wisconsin who bred a golden beet for a candy-sweet flavor. He is awesome.

4:30 p.m. After lineup, I have my first shot of espresso. Coffee is free.

5 p.m. I sample a cup of bread miso, which is an intensely savory “broth” that is a result of a series of chemical reactions and a lot of fermentation jargon that I am still trying to understand, like koji and inoculation and substrates. We make part of the solution by steeping leftover loaves of bread to reduce waste in the bakery. One of my favorite sides of working at this restaurant is experiencing the myriad ways in which we can preserve our food to honor the whole animal or plant.

7 p.m. I want to wait until 8 p.m. to have my second coffee, but I am stifling yawns during a high-intensity service, and it isn’t a good look. I make a second shot of espresso.

10 p.m. I am starving. Despite my best intentions, I clearly didn’t eat enough at lunch, so when I am cut for today’s side work (building silverware satchels), I tear into a test batch of levain from the bakery and eat half a loaf. Our flour is 100% whole wheat and freshly milled, so it is a very nutrient-dense loaf and never leaves me feeling heavy.

1 a.m. Speaking of freshly milled and whole wheat, I eat a handful of Lay’s potato chips when I get home from work and then head straight to bed.

Thursday total: $0

Friday

We try this ultralight fresh tallow, which is the rendered fat of our grass-fed retired dairy cows.

9 a.m. Breakfast today is ambitious. I build a breakfast sandwich out of a toasted dinner roll and a fried egg, Cholula, Swiss chard, and pork sausage. I find frozen blueberries in my freezer, let them break down in a saucepan to make a compote, and pour in steel-cut oats and oat milk. I let this simmer and top it with pecans, cottage cheese, sorghum syrup from upstate, and salted butter. I eat this with half an orange and a warmed cup of Monday’s bone broth.

12:30 p.m. Time for weekly wine class. These are taught by our sommeliers, and it is a real treat to bask in their depth of knowledge, even though it can be intimidating. Today, we learn about South African grapes, and we taste a white Chenin Blanc blend (on the palate: crisp, quince) and a Muscat dessert wine (peach rings, melon). I almost absentmindedly say aloud, “I am getting notes of white grape juice” before thinking through that one a little more.

2 p.m. I make coffee and tea for family meal and drink half a cup of coffee. We do a lot of pickling and fermentation at the restaurant, so it is always an interesting project to explore what leftovers I can use to flavor the tea.

3:30 p.m. At lunch, I pile rice, ground beef, salad greens, scallions, and pickled hakurei turnips on my plate. The dill and fennel and ryegrass in the salad greens and the pickled turnips offer a lovely brightness to today’s lunch.

4 p.m. At lineup, we sometimes taste new menu additions. Today, we try this ultralight fresh tallow, which is the rendered fat of our grass-fed retired dairy cows. Our sous-chef rendered the fat enough of a solid so that it is ever so softly spreadable, and it’s been swiped onto pieces of whole wheat levain. The food prepared here is in small quantities and with incredible precision and thoughtfulness, so while I don’t get to take home menu items per se, it is an ultimate treat to taste ingredients throughout the week. Besides, I think three bites provides enough satisfaction to explore a flavor.

6 p.m. When I can slip out to the service bar for a few moments, I make my first espresso of the night.

9 p.m. Second espresso. If I am planted at the polishing station, I observe the kitchen as much as I can, how they plate and mise en place and communicate and cook.

10:30 p.m. Sometimes there is extra food on the pass that is up for grabs. I tear off a chunk of an available gluten-free rice bread.

1:30 a.m. Right before I go to bed, I eat a handful of potato chips… and a Reese’s. I try to read before bed every night, but tonight I doomscrolled for a little bit and there is nothing that puts me in a worse mentality.

Friday total: $0

Saturday

I make a mental note to consume scallops with a little more intention.

9 a.m. I wake up dazed, again, because of another work dream. During service, we yield to a guest if they walk past. In my sleep, I dreamt that a guest had walked into my room and I recall myself sitting upright in my bed and nodding at the imagined guest walking by. I may never know peace.

9:30 a.m. I spread honey on half a grapefruit and give it a broil, which I eat with the rest of yesterday’s blueberry oatmeal that I had stuck in the fridge. I scramble an egg with chard and cottage cheese, and fry two sausages in the same pan. I warm a cup of bone broth.

12 p.m. Menu class, where we discuss food systems and our call sheet and the like. Our call sheet lists over 80 rotating menu items right now, each with its own rich story, so these classes are helpful in parsing through the details. We hear from chef about fish and how we source it. We delve into scallops, which is where I learn that most scallops are harvested with a trawl that scrapes up the ocean floor, and as a result, damages the extensive habitat that lives down there. I make a mental note to research this more and consume scallops with a little more intention.

2 p.m. Family meal. A very gamey ground meat, rice, cabbage salad. This one is a bit harder to fill up on before service.

3:30 p.m. Espresso number one. My legs are starting to feel the last couple days of many thousands of steps.

7 p.m. Espresso number two.

12:15 a.m. I snack on a couple Meyer lemon cookies from Trader Joe’s to end the night.

Saturday total: $0

Sunday

I have deep respect for how hard everyone can push on the last service of the week, which is consistently chaotic, but in a finely tuned and deeply methodical way.

8:30 a.m. Sunday is a “lunch service,” because we start at 11 a.m., though it spans the entire day. I eat half a grapefruit with honey, make one oat matcha, and cook a bowl of rice to crown with a fried egg and chili oil.

10 a.m. I make an espresso and watch one of the chefs run fresh pasta dough through the roller. It is colored a vibrant green from dehydrated cover crops mixed into the dough.

3:30 p.m. I make a second espresso right before I am cut for lunch. We take family meal at staggered breaks throughout the day since Sunday service starts at noon. I have deep respect for how hard everyone can push on the last service of the week, which is consistently chaotic, but in a finely tuned and deeply methodical way.

3:45 p.m. At lunch, I decide it’ll be a vegetarian day for me. On my plate is something akin to creamed corn, salad greens, broccoli florets, and roasted potatoes.

7 p.m. When service starts to slow down, I am put on linen ironing duty in a dungeon-esque room in the back of the basement. Before I leave the kitchen, I ask the meat line if they have any gluten-free rice bread left over (they use it for one of their plates) to bring to my boyfriend. I take it and a small square of leftover bread from the bakery for myself. While I’m down there, four separate coworkers walk in and I jump every time. There is no Wi-Fi. There is no sunlight. One iron breaks on me and I knock over a glass bottle used for refilling the steam tank. It may be a while before I am back on linens.

9 p.m. When I get home, I toast to my finished week with a handful of Lay’s potato chips.

Sunday total: $0

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit


More Culture Stories From Bon Appétit