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    Too Few Cooks Spoil Spring Festival

    Keeping bellies full during the lunar new year holiday proves both challenging and expensive.

    It’s half-price night at Yasmine’s Steakhouse in Shanghai’s former French Concession, and the restaurant is packed with hungry diners eager to sink their teeth into juicy steaks and fat burgers.

    “Sorry for the delay, sir,” says a flustered waitress as she rushes from table to table. “We’re short-staffed because of the new year.”

    In Shanghai, as in other major metropolises around China, kitchen and wait staff are often migrants from out of town — so when the lunar new year rolls around, many take off their chefs’ hats, hang up their aprons, and head back to their hometowns to celebrate the festivities with their families.

    While the official lunar new year holiday is seven days, many migrants want to make the most of their often arduous journeys home by taking extended stays. In some cases, sojourns become full-blown sabbaticals, with key restaurant staff absent for weeks or months, leaving the food and beverage industry in something of a pickle.

    According to recent data from Baixing, an online portal that provides recruitment and other professional information, 7 out of 10 companies in the food and beverage industry in China’s largest cities will face shortages during the Spring Festival holidays.

    To entice cooks to stay longer at their stoves, companies in the sector are forced to temporarily hike up wages. In the period leading up to the holiday, a chef can expect an average monthly wage of 7,500 yuan (just under $1,100) — double the pay during the rest of the year, a hiring expert from Baixing told local newspaper Beijing Morning Post.

    At the same time, there’s bad news for those determined to cook at home with fresh ingredients: Food prices are also up this year. When Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, visited food markets in Shanghai recently, its reporters discovered that the cost of seafood, for example, had increased by as much as 40 percent compared to last year’s prices. Meanwhile, pork in the capital had increased from 28 yuan per kilogram earlier this month to 40 yuan.

    Even vegetarians could be down on their new year’s luck, as slower growth of vegetables due to cold weather and smog have caused prices in Beijing and other areas of northern China to jump by as much as 10 percent from December to January.

    Among the Chinese who will eat at home on New Year’s Eve, there are signs that more people are keen to take shortcuts for the complicated courses associated with Spring Festival. Data from the China Cuisine Association published early this month predicted that the market for preprepared dishes — packages of precisely measured ingredients for particular dishes, ready to throw straight into the wok — will increase by more than 10 percent compared with last year.

    With contributions from Lin Qiqing.

    (Header image: Customers line up outside a food shop to buy ingredients for their lunar new year’s meals in Shanghai, Feb. 16, 2015. Shen Chunchen/VCG)