Mar 192012
 

 

Think before you move. Start out in the right spots.

It’s no secret that Location and demographics are two of the main factors in determining the success of a restaurant. The same adage holds true for careers.

At some point in your career you will decide what you want from life, or your history will decide it for you. My advice would be to choose the former, although a lot of happy chefs have done very well with the life-as-grab-bag philosophy.

That means you figure what your priorities are: Family, Life beyond the stove, fame, artistic fulfillment, money – some of which are mutually exclusive. And you decide what concessions you are willing to make. If you shoot for the prestigious and demanding spots, your social life may be dysfunctional for a few years.

It also means that you need to take responsibility for choosing the actual demographics of the place you work. The best regarded restaurants tend to be clustered in a few places: New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles with various outliers. If your aim is to build a career based on the most current and rigorous techniques, you need to start in those areas or continue there at a fairly early point – no later than sous chef.

These locations support the most demanding dining culture because of the composition of their diners. They all serve both a large population of well-educated and demanding affluent local diners, international business travelers and destination tourists. Each of these three towns boasts exceptional food centered media. They also have in common substantial populations of young, aggressive professionals on the rise who work hard, play hard, and live in apartments with small to limited cooking facilities.

The cost of working in the hot spots is high: higher rents, igher prices, lower wages, stronger competition, greater stress and longer hours, but the return on that investment, assuming  you make the cut, is great: With a stint of three or four years a respected kitchen in a top location you write your own ticket or attract more investors.

If the citadel is where you want to be, citadel is where you have to start. You cannot easily move into the New York or Chicago big leagues from  New Jersey or Atlanta, no matter how great a chef you are. It’s been done, but it’s rare. You can’t get there from most locations in Florida – although you can take a good history and a strong attitude as a cook or at times a sous chef up to the next level in the most desired areas. If you don’t get sidetracked, it’s definitely worth the investment, but it’s not for everyone.

Less celebrated locations offer good demographics offer great careers and often better lives than the hot spots. You can expect better hours and less stress, although it is exactly that stress which creates the winners in the race to the top. There is no law that requires you to indenture to the exacting standards of the “top” locations. Hotels in particular offer highly satisfying careers in places where the food culture and the demographics are do not support a lot of international destination restaurants.

The word here, however, is “good demographics” – determining them is a bit of a challenge. Take for example Florida, an attractive state which sucked up chefs in the nineties and early 00’s – A population boom of refugees from New York and Chicago winters, who didn’t want to cook demanded more restaurants, and investors gladly built them. Disney  provided jobs and training for the hordes of aspiring culinary professionals.

Today my inbox is full of requests from chefs from Florida desperate for local jobs and, if they have been out of work for more than a year, willing but not necessarily financially able to relocate. What was the problem?

Apart from the financial disaster of the past years, or rather combined with it, demographics. The expanding population of Florida was composed to a great extent of 1) Retirees, 2) Military, 3) People looking for more bang for their housing bucks and 4) people living in other people’s investments. To that comes a low spending tourism, much of which stays in Disney, some ethnic corridors, whose inhabitants are most likely to stay within the dining culture they love, and snow birds.

Some of the characteristics of this demographic picture are: Fixed income, demand for large portions, a lower expectation of adventurous and cutting edge cuisine. The high end tourist population is likely to eat mostly in hotels, but note that many cutting edge chefs who have opened there have since retreated. Demographics rule.

That’s fine in good times, and there’s nothing wrong with the professional preparation of large portions of meat and potatoes – it’s the stuff of family chains and country clubs, a respectable part of the industry, but it doesn’t create the kind of career profile that will induce another restaurant to bring in a chef from out of state.  Private clubs usually flourish in this kind of climate, but in recessionary times, they let their well paid staff go in favor of merely adequate cooks. (Family chains thrive).

Of course you can’t predict economic trends, but the past thirty years have shown us that they happen too frequently, so they need to be factored in your considerations. The fact that Florida now has a lot of cheap housing is a sign that Florida does not offer a lot of good jobs. People who moved to Florida in its good years would hardly have asked is this economy sound, but they might well have asked themselves, “where do I go from here if there are problems.” Many wish they had.

Poor Florida is a good example, but it doesn’t stand alone.  I thought for years that Sacramento would be great restaurant territory, until I realized that the well-educated and moneyed carriage trade were all drawn from the Inland Empire, and Sacramento is the center of an agricultural rather than a trade and professional region. Farmers and Stock Brokers have different tastes. Sacramento is finally coming into its own (several IT firms have large locations in the area) Until a few years ago, though, all Sacramento diners wanted (like Florida diners) was large portions at a reasonable price.

Where are you going to grow your career? What do you look for? Areas with locations like Research Triangle Park will support more and more sophisticated dining than locations like Phoenix, which caters to a demographic similar to Florida. You need to choose what works for you, and Phoenix can be a terrific place, but it is not a way station to Manhattan. Denver, for instance, has many good restaurants and a fairly stable (non speculative) dining public – a great middle choice. Seattle, Oregon are highly respected and solid locations both for permanent careers and for interim positions, as graduates of their many good restaurant are welcome elsewhere. The industrial belt is coming back and is not likely to fail again, and the area will be needing professionals. The positions available will in all probability offer stability and better quality of family life – housing, time and economic benefits – than the Meccas. Unless you make it to the “top”, in which case the world is your Belon.

The problem (actually only one of them) with life is you can’t be everything.  The good thing (actually one of them) is that you have the power to choose.