I’ve noticed over the years that the quest for a ‘name’ Chef, or a Chef who has worked in the ‘right places’ by would-be restaurant owners — which seems like a sure-fire way to gain a marketing foothold and repeated reviews — can backfire badly; especially if the aspiring business owner is inexperienced. I see the same mistakes repeated over and over again.
To appreciate my point you might first consider what draws the media’s attention to a Chef. The media, in the quest to create entertaining reading, radio or television, concentrate on the food produced by a Chef; this is what the public want to hear about. It’s about selling newspapers or gaining ratings, and good food is of great interest.
What do I want from a Chef?
So far, so good. Why wouldn’t a restaurateur want good food? Good food is highly desirable, but if you stand back and view a restaurant dispassionately, good food is only a means to an end. That end is a profitable business that delivers a lifestyle for its owner — otherwise, why bother? If you want to work your ring off running an art house for no gain, good luck to you, but I fail to see the sense in this.
Most people enter restaurant businesses with the ultimate aim of making a reasonable return on their investment, not just running a charity for the dining public. Herein lies the problem: Chefs achieve a high profile for good food, not the overall business success of their employer; and a sensitive artiste can send you broke quicker than you can say ‘insolvent and destitute’.
Name chefs cost a fortune
To begin, name Chefs want high salaries. Generally they hold their hands out for higher salaries than most small and medium sized businesses can afford to pay, unless that Chef works 90 hours a week. Most Chefs are reluctant to do this and consider that they deserve to have a well-padded crew under them — result? Great food with unsustainable wage costs.
Next, most high profile Chefs want to do ‘their food’; after all, this is what you employed them for. If their food concepts are reasonable and they rein-in the tendency to purchase exotic ingredients, you could be OK; but if there is the tendency to order truffles, foie gras, jamon, caviar and other gastronomic ‘necessities’; and first grade produce for everything else, we can add food cost problems on to high wage costs.
Who's agenda are they working for?
Restaurateurs need to recognise that their Chef may be working to a completely different agenda to that which is beneficial to the owners’ interests. The Chef’s career has more to do with getting a listing in the Good Food Guide than the commercial success of the business they work for. This often creates a tremendous pressure to move the business upmarket, beyond the original intentions of the owners, and into territory where profits are thin or non-existent.
In the worst cases I have seen, egotistic Chefs have had a complete lack of concern for the owner’s interests. I have lost count of the number of restaurants that I have examined that were giving the public and the Chef a really good deal while the owner was moving steadily to the poorhouse.
Another issue that needs to be considered is that once your restaurant is associated with a name Chef, you will be forever locked-in to replacing them with another name Chef when the original one leaves, or the dining public will assume that your glory days are over. Replacing one commercially irresponsible Chef with another is to be avoided if you ever want to catch-up with your BAS payments.
Not all name chefs are a problem - but be careful!
At this point I have to clearly recognise that not all high profile Chefs are problem children. I have worked with some who are equally commercially realistic as they are artistically talented, but these are in the minority. There are quite a few who seem to drift from one business disaster to another, meanwhile holding the adulation of the press, just because they can cook good food.
At this point I can share some advice I normally give to my clients:
‘Be aware that your Chef controls the largest amount of money that flows through your business — if you add food and kitchen wages together.
A good Chef not only has to be able to provide consistent, appropriate food, they also have to do this within strict cost guidelines and maintain a stable team of motivated staff. They should be far more than great cooks’.