Life—and Pay—as Fritz Brenner
While the focus of the books is inevitably on the case and the investigation, and, of course, on the relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin), life in the old brownstone on West 35th St. centers on The Meals. And in giving consideration to them, we need to give consideration to the life—and especially to the working schedule—and compensation—of Fritz Brenner. In particular, I asked myself, was Fritz compensated as well as it appears he should have been—what would a chef as good and as experienced as Fritz reasonably have expected to earn?
Let’s try to answer that question. (Briefly, anticipating the answer, Fritz was doing all right.)
What can we say with certainty? That Wolfe and Fritz have known each other from long before Archie began working for Wolfe. That Fritz is (according to Wolfe, in Too Many Cooks), competent, if not inspired. That, at the time of In the Best Families (published in 1950), Fritz was making $1,000 per month. That Fritz does the shopping for the household. That Fritz is strongly opposed to having a woman in the place. And probably more. But we can also infer what his working schedule must look like.
Wolfe breakfasts at 8:00 (or 8:15); lunch is at 1:00 (or 1:15), and dinner is at 7:15 (or 7:30). Archie eats breakfast at somewhat irregular times, but usually around 8, and usually lunches with Wolfe. We don’t know when, where, or if Theodore eats.
If Fritz is going to prepare the food for that schedule, here’s what it seems to me that his day must look like:
7:00 – 9:30: In the kitchen to prepare breakfast for Wolfe and for Archie. At about 9 (after Wolfe heads for the plant rooms), he retrieves the tray from Wolfe’s room and finishes any after-breakfast clean-up. (At some time in this interval, he fixes and eats his own breakfast, and fixes breakfast for Archie.)
11:30 – 2:30: In the kitchen to prepare lunch. When Wolfe and Archie finish their meal (by about 2:00), he clears the remaining dishes from the dining room and finishes cleaning up. (At some time in this interval, he eats his own lunch.)
5:30 – 9:00: In the kitchen to prepare dinner. He finishes clearing in the dining room after Wolfe and Archie are done, and finishes up in the kitchen by 9:00. (Again, he finds time to heat his own meal.)
That’s nine hours per day to prepare and clean up after the three meals served. We’re not told when he shops, but my guess is that he spends two hours on Monday morning shopping, probably at multiple stores (in the European fashion). So, for Monday through Friday, we have a 47-hour work week. We also know that Fritz has Sundays off (or mostly off; sometimes it appears that he prepares breakfast, as is hinted at by Archie’s reference to his “Sunday morning crescents”). We don’t know about Saturday, but my suspicion is that he prepares breakfast, and leaves things ready for lunch and dinner, but also has most of Saturday off.
If all this is correct, then Fritz has a roughly 50-hour work week. How would this compare with the work week of an executive chef in a restaurant, on the assumption that the restaurant does lunch and dinner (as, for example, it seems Rusterman’s does). Suppose the restaurant opens at 11, serves lunch from noon until 2 and dinner from 5:30 until 10, Monday through Saturday (or, perhaps, Tuesday through Sunday—a fair number of restaurants in Chicago seem to be closed on Monday). The executive chef may not do all that much line cooking, but must determine the menu (especially weekly specials), order the food and supplies and attend to its delivery, schedule the rest of the staff, supervise the kitchen, and so on. This looks like a 12-hour day, 6 days a week, or 72 hours a week. So, in that respect, Fritz’s work week was perhaps somewhat shorter than that of an executive chef in a first-class restaurant.
But Fritz’s working day was longer, from 7 AM until 9 PM (with occasional later duties if Wolfe had clients and others in after dinner)—14 hours a day in which he would have, at best, 2 hours off between breakfast and lunch and 3 off between lunch and dinner. Having worked, long ago, the occasional split shift, I would argue that those 5 hours would not provide much time for personal activities.
And for this, let’s assume that the $1,500 per month figure noted above represented his compensation (adjusted, of course, for changes in the general level of prices). In current terms, this translates to about $15,000 per month, or $180,000 per year. But we need to take account of the fact that his compensation included two major pieces of in-kind pay: Housing and food. So we need to take account of the value he received from that.
For most of the time, Fritz had a large room in the basement (let’s call it the equivalent of a studio apartment, or a small one-bedroom apartment; it’s clearly more space than, for example, Archie had). Based on some speculation about the floor plans of the brownstone, I would put Fritz’s space at about 500 square feet, perhaps 25% to 30% larger than Archie’s. What I’m finding is current rents of about $2,500 per month for that sort of space in midtown Manhattan. So the value of his living space would be about $30,000 per year (that would be taxable income today, and was, according to the tax code, taxable income then—but it was basically ignored).
And then there’s the food. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that average household expenditures on food (both at home and away) in 2014 was about $6,000. Now, that’s for the entire household. However, the quality of food served in the brownstone would clearly be higher than that of the average household in the U.S., so I’m going to count the entire amount in estimating the value of meals-at-home for Fritz--$6,000. (Again, this would be now, and was then, taxable income, but it was generally ignored until sometime in the 1990s.)
So my estimate of the value of Fritz’s annual compensation, including the value of housing and food, would be about $216,000, or about $18,000 per month. Or, based on my estimate of a 50-hour work-week, and assuming that Fritz got 4 weeks of paid vacation, $90 per hour. Was Fritz well-paid, or was he underpaid?
Well, we know that at the time of Too Many Cooks, Philip Lazio was making $60,000 per year, and Jerome Berin was offered as much as $40,000 per year to replace him. In today’s terms, that would be about $1 million per year for Lazio and about $675,000 for Berin. That seems fairly reasonable for world-class chefs; one estimate suggests that Mario Batali makes about $3 million a year, and Bobby Flay makes $1.5 million (for both of them, that includes their earnings from television). (At least Lazio and Berin were being paid close to what one would expect.)
But cooking for 2 people (or 3, counting himself, or 4 if Theodore eats in the kitchen with Fritz) is not as demanding as running a large restaurant. So a comparison with private chefs is perhaps more relevant. A quick check suggests that the average annual pay for a private chef in the top 10% of private chefs in the U.S. is about $150,000. So, as I am rather pleased to discover, it appears that Fritz is being paid what he deserves—as much as the best and most experienced private chefs in America.
 We knew fairly well a couple who ran a restaurant in Chicago for about 15 years. They did not do lunches, but their work day was generally from about 2 PM until about 11 PM. She ran the kitchen and he ran the front of the house; she ordered the food and planned the menu and specials; he ordered all the beverages. She supervised the kitchen staff; he supervised the table servers, bartenders, and other front-of-the house personnel. The kitchen staff was usually 3-4 line chefs; the front was staffed, on weekends, with 5 wait staff, 5 bus, 2 bartenders, and 1 hostess. They were closed on Sundays. So their typical work week was 54 hours a week, and that was without lunch service.