Apr 292012
 

The most frequent dream job for an aspiring chef is working in a small to midsized restaurant owned by a visionary who cedes full control of the menu, concept and pricing, giving the chef full autonomy and the tools to gain the visibility that will lead to his own restaurant.

Sometimes it works..
When it does not, the greatest issue appears to be the question of the chefs’ autonomy. I love the quote from mostly Martha, “You are wrong. It’s your restaurant. It’s her kitchen,” even though it isn’t really accurate. The kitchen belongs to the restaurant and its expenses and practices draw from the bottom line. It, too belongs to the owner, which however by no means suggests that the chef cedes  responsibility or that the owner is free to override the chef in substantial decisions.

Actions by the chef – hiring an inappropriate person, ignoring labor laws or food safety standards, inadequate cost controls or low prioritizing of loss – come from the bottom line. Owners who call for new chefs complain that their current chef has hired friends without work visas or does not keep adequate time records because he does not consider them important. One chef who refused to note what he an apparently unimportant and trivial “sexual harassment” incident cost the restaurant $200,000 in damages.

Successful restaurateurs know enough to be cautious with menu autonomy, possibly the top item on any young chef’s wish list, so a lot of young chefs turn down promising positions for owners who keep control over their menus and concepts,  whether that means requiring a few well received items on the menu, or that all new dishes be approved before they are tried out at the beginning of the chef’s tenure.

“He keeps second guessing my purveyors,” says one chef, who doesn’t comprehend the owner’s desire to have a hand in the costs of the facility.

He has three sous chefs, sighs the plagued restaurateur. That’s one for twenty seats. Our food cost is great, but our labor cost is putting out of business.” “I have brought in great reviews,” says the chef, and raised the volume by 45%, not considering that labor or food costs may be resulting in lowering profits to an unacceptably thin or negative margin. Restaurants are not supposed to subsidize their guests.

“Visionary,” it has been remarked (often by me), “is a four letter word.” Grand ideas of new restaurant owners often collide head first with the economic realities and demographics of a location. There are of course those truly impressive first time owners who start on point and continue to run a successful restaurant for years with a strong vision and perfect chef interaction (I would mention Mark Pastore at Incanto here..one of the restaurant owners I most respect in the industry), but many face heart rendering challenges in their new ventures.

“This is not what I signed on to do,” sighs the new restaurant’s creative chef. They’ve changed the concept. They lied to me.” Well, actually they lied to themselves, following their dreams rather than the hard facts of who is willing to pay how much money for what kind of food on their plate. Once they figured it out, they told the chef to replace the basil scented vanilla bass with a burger or a steak, and he’s understandably ticked off. “This will ruin my career!” he moans. Actually it probably won’t but he has a point. Game changing is a bummer even when it is the only option.

Money in the restaurant business is a zero sum game. That would be simple, but the quest for kitchen/owner bliss is complicated by a number of factors including “culinary integrity”, prestige desires, ego on both sides and lack of communication on both sides of the kitchen door.  Often the chef sees additional value in press and recognition, which can only be achieved through more expensive food or a higher staffing quotient than the financials will bear. Owners appreciate the celebrity, but they still have to deal with budget questions. They also unreasonably expect to receive profit from their investments, as do their investors.

Chef’s with aspirations understandably tend to resent the consequences of these realities, which is somewhat like resenting rain.

Virgin restaurateurs, that is those with little or no previous restaurant experience, complicate the equation by lacking understanding of the boundaries between of the kitchen door. Many want to have a hand in everything. Others simply overstep their bounds. A dear friend was, for instance, known for demanding a hamburger in the middle or service. He went through a list of chefs before one slammed his fist on the table and said “No!”. Another, no longer a virgin, gives his generally very talented chefs full reign of the menu but makes up for the financial drain by shorting the dining room to the clear detriment of the kitchen. Good food needs to be delivered at the pre-ordained temperature without infuriating the diners.

First time owners and and some experienced restaurateurs, furthermore, tend to be more meddlesome than necessary. Stories abound of cooks fired for theft or other inexcusable behavior being hired back (thus undermining the chefs’ authority and necessitating his departure), of family members investors demanding special service on the busiest nights, of orders cancelled without the chef’s knowledge. When some lines are crossed,  irremediable barriers thrown up between employer and chef. Pity.

There should be a moral or an answer to all this. Instead there many which begin with decision making and end with communication.  And sometimes there is none. They will be addressed in the next post. In the meantime it would very interesting to hear your own experiences and solutions from either side of this, because you surely have plenty of them.

Please note that the verification for this site is a simple math question. If you can calculate food cost, you should be able to subtract five from six.  It should not stop you.