To be a chef one should…
…know the financial health of one’s restaurant better than the owner. You can cook like Ferran Adria, great. That smug sense of self-worth you have when your legion of Facebook sycophants calls you brilliant is all the paycheck you need. While your colleagues are fumbling around with fettucine Alfredo and crab cakes, you’re drawing the exo-foodies out of their self-important lairs with 24-hour sous vide lamb neck ossobuco with risotto air. The front page shot of you in your starched whites painfully bent over at a ninety-degree angle tweezing microgreens on an artfully arranged plate of mystery food is now an iconic image. Your neck beard and pig breakdown tattoo are prominently displayed in the shot too. You are the prototype of the modern American chef. You have also, in such a short amount of time, become a James Beard award nominee. Man, the sky is the limit. For you.
I have a question for you though, oh keeper of the Catalan flame: Did you know that Ferran Adria closed his zeitgeist-altering restaurant in 2011 because he was horribly, irretrievably in debt? Yeah, I know. You thought he closed to create the floundering El Bulli Foundation. Nope. That was a cover story created to save face. Weed through enough articles on the subject and the truth will surface. Do you want your restaurant to meet the same end? Maybe it’s time to forego another immersion circulator and Gray Kunz spoon and brush up on your profit and loss statement.
Chefs are, generally speaking, not equipped with an accountant’s brain. Otherwise, we’d probably have chosen careers in something more lucrative. Why do a large percent of new restaurants fail? Sure, overreaching or undercapitalized owners are definitely a huge problem, but the chef usually assumes most of the blame. Your signature is on the bulk of the incoming purchases. If you’re not careful, you could ring up so much vendor debt that it’d be impossible to pay it down with your current revenue projections. Did you mean to order two pork shoulders but clicked the wrong button and received two cases of twelve each? Is your first inclination to just pitch the extras in the freezer? You’ve got to watch your expenses like a vulture circling a mountain road. That lazy mentality will kill your dream in the end. Send those fucking things back to the warehouse and make sure you get your invoice credit.
Shop vendors against each other and haggle with them when a price seems out of line (I call it grid buying), make deals with local farmers, look at your product mix reports in the point of sale system and for God’s sake, cost out each of your menu items.
Here’s an example of how not looking at your costs can spell certain doom.
Even though the thirty-six-dollar beef tenderloin dish is selling like hot cakes, you’re purchasing a pre-cut, eight-ounce filet at thirty-eight dollars a pound (actually number from my current restaurant). So, if you do the math—which you must do—you’re paying two dollars and thirty-eight cents an ounce. Multiple that number by the number of ounces your serving (2.38 X 8oz.) and you get roughly nineteen dollars. That’s a fifty three percent food cost. And that doesn’t even include the sides and sauce. You can still keep the filet on the menu, but either learn how to butcher beef tenderloins (twelve bucks a pound currently) or balance the cost of the beef dish with other hot selling items like fried chicken (low costs, big seller). You can sous vide then fry it if that gets you all hot and bothered. This process of scalable menu writing called menu engineering, and it’s a constant game you must play. If you don’t understand this, you have no business running someone else’s kitchen. By the way, you’re shooting for a twenty-five to thirty percent food cost in most restaurants. Steakhouses are always higher but tend to make up for high food costs with low labor and high volume.
…know the ins and outs of the human resources department. You’ve got a cook on staff who is sowing dissent on the line. He changes your recipes, steals expensive proteins, infects the staff with his whining, yells at waiters and refuses to respond to commands during busy service hours. You want to fire him but aren’t sure how to do it. You’ve done the right thing and had a heart to heart with him, but it fell of deaf ears. Everyone knows he’s going to fuck you in the end. The car is racing faster and faster toward the cement wall, but there’s a huge obstacle keeping your from pushing him off the track. He’s a minority. And, in the recent past, he has told the general manager that he’s being singled out because of his skin color. Oh shit. What do you do now? He’s got you in checkmate. Once you’re branded a racist, your days are numbered at your current job.
After speaking off the record with his former employer, you realize this is a game that Cook X plays to get back at “the man” and score a couple weeks of hush money. You are trapped amigo.
Or are you?
Do you know what the human resources department at your restaurant would say? You don’t? You really are screwed. You’re going to walk straight into the minefield and blow yourself up. Let me tell you what I’d do.
First of all, as annoying and time consuming as it sounds, you’re going to need to start documenting his every transgression. Get a notebook and start scribbling away right there on the line in full view of everyone. Let him know his actions are being documented.
Next, you’re going to need to have a meeting with your staff. Make up a cover story. Tell them that management is cracking down and asking you to take transgressions more seriously. Tell them food costs are out of line or that there have been multiple complaints phoned in to the company HR hotline. After setting the trap, start writing everyone up who doesn’t fall in line. It sounds harsh, getting bycatch caught in the net when you’re trying to land the big fish, but believe me, this guy is trouble. To use another metaphor, Cook X is a tick and he’s burrowed deep into your armpit. You’ll need to get the lighter out and burn a little skin and hair to extricate him.
Invariably, what will happen is Cook X will be the first to flaunt the new rules and fall on his sword. Three write ups and he’s out of there in most states. The pantry guy who was written up for leaving his refrigerator open overnight by mistake will be ok once he sees Cook X collect his shit and exit.
If you don’t document? You’re going to lose the chess match, the car is going to hit the cement wall, the big fish is going to catch YOU and the tick is going to do backstrokes in your blood.
I’ve been there. This is your reality unless you bone up on your legal choices.