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Yesterday, I read an emotional, well-written, soul-crushing article by Gabrielle Hamilton – chef/owner of Prune Restaurant in New York City. She spoke from the heart of her “all-in” commitment to her restaurant and staff over the past 20 years while addressing the countless challenges that face independent restaurateurs across the country. She is wrestling with the big questions: Why am I doing this and is there room for this and other small restaurants after the threat from Covid-19 is behind us? I felt as if I were sitting at a table in Prune with Gabrielle while she told her story. It was an emotional experience reading this article and knowing that thousands of other chefs and restaurateurs across the country could have written a similar one. Why do these people choose to open a restaurant when the daunting amount of work involved is a given, when the challenges of keeping the lights on and stoves operating are constant, and when even the smallest amount of profit is never a given? Here are my unsubstantiated beliefs:

[]         THE ART OF EXPRESSION

There are (although putting people in silos is always shortsighted at some level) three different types of people when it comes to the work aspect of life: Leaders, Followers, and Artists. Leaders can be nurtured into their roles as they build a skill set and experience different aspects of a career until they are comfortable with the responsibility of setting the stage for others to self-motivate and find their strengths through a leader’s example. Followers have a need to feel needed and be successful with their work, but seek to have someone else point the way and support their efforts in the process. Artists have an uncontrollable need to express themselves through whatever medium they choose to focus on. They often have little interest in the traditional measures of success as long as their ability to write, paint, play music, sculpt, act, or prepare beautiful food is present. They certainly feel the weight of critique, but as an artist that will pass – they need to do what they do, regardless of the cost to their personal or financial wellbeing. This is quite often a legitimate description of a chef/restaurateur.

[]         THE NEED TO BE OFF THE JOB GRID

Restaurateurs abhor the process of “selling themselves” to potential employers. “This is why you should hire me” seems to be demeaning and lacking in any self-awareness of ones potential. Thus, even those who happen to land a job with a great company and supportive employer seem to feel as if they copped out to on a desire to own their own. While they enjoy the benefits of a good employer they are always thinking about breaking off on their own.

[]         THE LOVE OF COOKING

Chefs – first and foremost – love to cook. They relish the work, the smells, flavors, textures, process, and challenges of taking raw materials and creating something that is aromatic, delicious and beautiful to look at. This is what draws people to the profession of cooking and keeps them coming back every day to the extended hours, and the physical, intellectual, and emotional demands of the work.

[]         THE DESIRE TO BE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR DECISIONS

Chefs have an overwhelming desire to be the decision maker and have a very difficult time relinquishing that responsibility to others. Even in the most chef-centric kitchen there is typically a level or two of management that can override the decision making of a chef. This, even if the override is appropriate, is frustrating to the chef and his or her need to be solely responsible and accountable to only the person seen in the mirror. The only logical answer is to become an entrepreneur.

[]         THE HOPE OF MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE’S LIVES

Chefs and restaurateurs enjoy the thought of making a difference in a person’s life through food and warm hospitality. After all – operating a restaurant is akin to inviting people into your home to break bread, share stories, and celebrate the importance of friendship – just on a larger scale. When we invite people into our homes we hope to make them feel special, welcome, safe, and offer a reward through food. Chefs intend to do the same in a restaurant setting. The reward is in giving to others.

[]         AN INNATE DESIRE FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

We are told from our earliest days on earth that we have the potential to be whatever we want. That with the right effort and commitment we can aspire to a lifestyle that fits our dreams, a job that suits our talent, and even own our own business if that is a path we choose to take. This is the opportunity that has drawn millions of people from around the world to American shores and a spark that becomes the driving force in many: the chance to be our own boss – The American Dream. This desire, if you are the type to dream in this regard, is what keeps many chefs up at night: planning concepts, working through menu ideas, and always being on the lookout for a perfect restaurant location.

[]         A TOUCH OF EGO

Of course – we can’t discount the ego. Chef’s have a tendency to push aside the reality of owning a restaurant that they are perfectly aware of. They know the challenges, the pitfalls, the impossible nature of the work, the failure rates, and the odds that are stacked against them – yet, that ego tends to step in and proclaim that: “I have the idea and the plan that will overcome all of those obstacles. I know that I can beat the odds and succeed where others have failed. I have the magic formula figured out, the one that has alluded so many before me. My success is all but assured.”

And there you have it – another chef who wants to become a restaurant owner. A person who will pour his or her heart and soul into this business for the opportunity to express what is churning inside their being, waiting for an outlet. A person who will pull out all the stops, tap into every penny that they have saved, seek out loyal customers who might want to invest in the chef’s dream, call on family members to contribute what they can, call up those former co-workers to leave their current employer and join the team, plead with vendors and salesmen to give them a credit application, and pour out their hearts to a local bank for an equipment loan and a line of credit. This is that chance the chef has been waiting for – to put his or her signature on a menu, to hang a sign out front with their name, to walk through a dining room holding his or her head high and stopping by tables to hear praise for the kitchens food, and to nervously read the food critics column every week in hopes that they will receive a positive review. This is the chef, like Gabrielle who now, during this mandated shutdown, gets on his or her hands and knees to scrub a floor or polish a stove top while the dining room rests with lights off and inverted chairs stacked on tables – waiting and wondering – is it worth it – is there a need for us to return?

It broke my heart to read her article just as it crushes my soul to see restaurants with the lights out or “for sale” signs in the window. This is someone’s life work, their dream, an extension of who they are – now deflated and unsure. We can only hope that the chef/owner will find that sense of hope, that renewed energy and passion to give it another try and make a difference in the world.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG

Gabrielle Hamilton’s article in the New York Times:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/magazine/closing-prune-restaurant-covid.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR1Yw_4QmzvNF0auAHeO70Old_PPaMuhP7Gj2gav6bcm8e4GENJOzkOQCs4