Are you aware of the cost/benefit of some ingredients?

The quest for obscure and expensive ingredients can cause unwanted issues for your business.
What is going into your stockpot?

In the eternal quest to control food costs in my clients businesses I’m constantly wandering into their kitchens and poking around looking for things the Chef and managers have missed. Sometimes I come across strange and inexplicable things — like the time I found a large stock pot full to the brim with roasting chickens, vegetables and water, and the Chef proudly told me that he was making a stock.

Now call me capricious, but I figure that chicken stock is going to taste pretty well the same, regardless of whether it is made from roasting chickens, old boilers or road kill. The mere fact that you boil the crap out of the chickens then throw the rendered bird away and then reduce the resulting liquid should indicate that prime quality in the raw ingredient is not a huge consideration.

Having read this, some of you are probably asking yourselves: ‘what is Eldred on about? My chef wouldn’t do that.’ Yep, possibly true; but there are plenty who do go overboard with ingredients. I call them the ‘ingredient groupies’. These are the Chefs who seek out the most obscure, boutique ingredients, no matter what the cost, almost as a matter of pride. Our fine dining restaurants have their fair share of them.

Are you cross checking your purchasing?

It’s not that I’m against innovation or quality; don’t get me wrong, but there’s a distinct difference between experimentation and irresponsible purchasing. Two recent experiences may illustrate this.

I was taken by a client to an excellent, new restaurant in Sydney which was recently opened by a well known chef, who has a reputation for exceptional restaurants that all go broke. The meal was quite fantastic but part of the way through, my attention was drawn to what looked like a piece of crisp pancetta on one of the dishes. To my annoyance I have forgotten what he called it, but my host pointed out that this was a piece of some specially cured, jamon-like product that was eye wateringly expensive — in fact three times the cost of a normal, similar product. He asked me what I thought of it and I had to admit that if I was not told I wouldn’t think it was anything special.

I regard myself as quite a sophisticated diner, being a lover of good food and having spent the last forty years dining in fine dining restaurants at least once per week. I also think I have a pretty good palate and can taste the nuances in the food I order. I couldn’t help but think that the inclusion of an unnecessarily expensive ingredient did nothing for my perception of the dish and certainly reduced the profit margin on it. The only reasons I could think of for doing this are ignorance or ego, and I suspect a bit of both were at play here.

More recently, I dined at a well known Melbourne restaurant and ordered one of the daily specials, a 300g Waygu rump steak for $30. Although it was good eating, if I wasn’t told I wouldn’t know it was Waygu and could have been any reasonable quality beef (I checked with the chef — who I know — and it was definitely Waygu), but how much extra profit would they have made if they had used a normal, good quality cut? They should have charged $50+ for the dish. Would the feeling in my happy valve be any different if they used a lesser ingredient? Although fashionable at the moment, Waygu is seriously expensive and I doubt that they would have made much margin on that meal. The fact that it was Waygu might have helped it sell, but what’s the point of selling it if you don’t make any money on it?

I’m reminded of my time at the Hilton Hotel, many years ago when one of the Sous Chefs used to camp in the delivery bay in the mornings to ensure all produce was A1 quality. It used to crack me up seeing raspberries and strawberries flown in from outer Mongolia or wherever which would subsequently end-up in a coulis or as a puree in a baked dessert. I asked them why they didn’t use frozen berries and the response came back ‘Are you trying to turn us into McDonald’s?’ Their whole attitude seemed to be: ‘Hang the expense; throw the cat another canary’.

Do you really need premium quality for everything?

Are you making an appropriate profit?

Obviously, if you’re making a good profit already this profligate attitude to purchasing is not going to be an issue for you; but if you’re not, then I’d become open minded very quickly and have a good, long look at what’s going-on in your kitchen. The key indicators of a problem (or major opportunity) are if you operate at the higher market levels and your chef does not maintain accurate, up-to-date, written costings on the ingredients in all dishes, including specials. Unfortunately, I’m describing a fair percentage of the higher profile restaurants in this country. The tendency of Chefs to ‘wing it’ and run the kitchen by the seat of their pants might have worked OK in years gone by, when margins were fatter, but it is unlikely to work now.

It is worth reminding yourself that your Chef probably controls the largest amounts of money going through your business, when we add food purchases, kitchen wages, energy and maintenance together. Their personal desire for exposure in the Good Food Guide, and their reputations as artists and innovators may be enhanced by using Nigerian Anteater eggs in the Caesar salad — but is it good business?

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