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How to reduce your kitchen wage costs

A look at a modern development in kitchen structure. Where does a chef's career path go?

I’m starting to see an interesting change in the structure of some commercial kitchens as economic pressures force business owners to become more innovative. In the quest to contain wage costs more and more business owners are choosing to structure their kitchens without the use of qualified cooks or an expensive Chef. We used to only see this in the lower levels of the industry but now I’m starting to see it happening among the ranks of the higher profile restaurants.

Before you jump to any conclusions about the wisdom of this, I’d better explain the full picture. It’s not that these businesses are doing without the skills of qualified Chefs — they still need them, but not necessarily on a full time salary.

How many qualified chefs do I need?

Ho many qualified chefs do you need?
Very expensive equipment

As one business owner said to me: ‘What do I need a qualified Chef on permanent staff for? Our normal day to day food production can be handled by well trained unqualified staff once the menu, costed recipes and food presentation standards have been defined. I get a top consulting Chef to come in two or three times a year for a couple of weeks to develop my menu and teach my kitchen staff. It works well and saves me a lot of money.’

This attitude all stems from a basic bit of mathematics and a willingness to think outside the square. You have to sell a hell of a lot of meals to cover the cost of a $80,000 Chef’s salary. It’s quite common for us to find the Chef in a hospitality business getting a higher salary than the General Manager (or indeed the owner). This tends to put them on the endangered species list in the minds of a number of the industry’s decision makers.

I can’t really blame the business owners and managers for taking this attitude. If your business was only producing marginal profitability I bet you’d be reviewing all your major expenses with a view to reducing them wherever possible. A target this big should not be ignored.

Better ways to structure your kitchen

Some clever restaurateurs have adopted a compromise. They still have some qualified cooks to handle the food production, but no expensive or high profile Chef at the helm, just a kitchen manager or supervisor to keep things organised and maintain quality. It makes sense to bring-in the expertise when you need and can afford it and dispense with it when it is not necessary.

It’s not all bad news for Chefs either. What this change really does is open-up a new and highly lucrative career path for those who have entrepreneurial flair and more than just basic cooking skills. If you can create good food within strict cost guidelines, document its recipe, make it look good, set-up supply lines where necessary, act rationally and sell yourself, you may be able to carve out rewarding career as a ‘Consultant Chef’.

I can foresee the day where a lot of Chefs will work freelance like building tradespeople do now. This offers benefits to both parties in the transaction. For the business owner it means jobs are quoted and payment is made for a predetermined result. For the Chef it means a much higher potential income without the requirement to work the killer hours and unsociable shifts.

More interestingly to me it offers the potential to provide a career step beyond the Head Chef or Executive Chef role, while still staying in the cooking profession. If you look at the choices for a Chef today, it’s not too clear where you go after you reach your late thirties — cooking is such hard yakka that its now a young person’s game. If you want to get off the tools what are your options? You could start your own business, but this has a huge failure rate attached to it.

there is a potential new career path for chefs
There is an opportunity for an innovative further career

You could teach in one of the colleges or work as a sales rep, but this may not be your style. The emergence of a self employed specialist role for these people to move on to would be a good thing. It has always disturbed me that we lose such a lot of expertise when people leave the cooking profession at a relatively young age.

If you don't change your direction, you end-up where you are headed . . .

While the kind of kitchen system I’m talking about here has been in existence for a long time in the formula chain restaurants, it is now reaching much higher into the more rarefied levels of the industry. To be honest I was doubtful that a system of ‘contract creativity’ would ever be appropriate for the top end of our industry until I saw a well known two hat restaurant in Melbourne using the kind of compromise I described earlier (no name chef, food designed by consultants). The food is very good while the wage percentage in the kitchen is quite low. I couldn’t help but think that this was the way of the future because it solved so may problems in one neat solution.

So, if you’re looking for a boost to your bottom line you might like to carefully consider the option to restructure your kitchen. If you assume you need an expensive full time Chef and you don’t really, you’re going to cost yourself a lot of money. As I like to ask to my clients: ‘Are you running a business, or an art gallery?’

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