There is no question that dining is a sensual experience. A perfect meal will always address the full gamut of senses as it is prepared and presented: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Chefs who focus on just a few of these senses truly miss the opportunity to build something special, memorable and replicable.
The business side of operating a restaurant must always focus on ways to create customer traffic, but restaurants with longevity find that it is even more important to focus on ways to create return visits and guest loyalty. The typical business-marketing model refers to five different types of consumers: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and late adopters. The big splash for a restaurant usually comes in those first few months of operation and is focused on those innovators who like to try something new. The upside to appealing to innovators is that the initial rush that they provide can result in positive buzz for the restaurant, good press and potentially more stable customers to follow. The downside to innovators is that they grow quickly tired of your product and jump ship when the next “cool thing” arrives, typically somewhere else. Successful restaurants strive to attract the early majority and late majority of consumers that account for almost 70% of potential buyers. These guests want the whole package and are drawn to those operations that can provide consistency in all areas.
So, why am I mentioning all of this? Although I consider myself fairly open minded when it comes to food and adventurous enough to try new things, I, like many will return time and time again to those restaurants with a real understanding of the five senses and the necessary skills to address them each and every time I dine. I like to be able to predict and depend on excellence. The food press is always spouting about the new and sometimes radical approaches that some chefs are taking towards food flavor profiles and preparation methods. I always find these interesting and usually dig beneath the surface to find something in these new approaches that I might use. The real question to me is always: “is the experience of this food enjoyable enough to create a concept with longevity?” If the answer is “no”, or “maybe not”, then I wonder why that chef has chosen to drift so much from the center.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that creativity is the basis of many new products or services that we only know are necessary and a “must have” until someone dares to make it known. I applaud all who take the chance to move us forward, however, I always reflect back on the long-term impact that these moves will have on the business and the chef. The foundations will never do you wrong! Restaurants that consistently attract the early and late majority are those that understand and practice the foundations. I would also dare to say that those chefs who are experimenting with new products, flavors and processes have, at some point in their careers, embraced and practiced the basics.
Cooks and chefs who have a passion for their craft, who have a desire to pursue a long and fruitful career in the kitchen, who yearn to some day have their own place or at least own the freedom to do what they desire in a kitchen must understand the importance of the foundations.
There is no question that as we learn more about the science of cooking we can develop a better understanding of how to approach ingredients. This scientific approach is fascinating and intellectually stimulating, but in the end we are part of the service business and are charged with pleasing customer palates and developing consistently enjoyable experiences. The gratification that comes from preparing a meal that stimulates all of the senses and makes people want to return is the best reward that a chef can receive.
Young people today are often drawn to the kitchen because they have seen or read about these new breakthrough processes for creating visually inspirational dishes, using technology that a decade ago was not on anyone’s radar. What I have seen too often are students of cooking who want to jump right to the sizzle of creativity without first understanding the foundations of cooking and food handling that have made it possible for experimental chefs to do what they do. There is still very little that can replace a well-made stock or a perfectly braised lamb shank. The methods that many others before us have developed and passed on will always stand tall under the scrutiny of return guests. A tell tale sign of the importance of this can be coaxed out when you ask those same chefs where they go out to eat and what foods are at the top of their preferred list. I would bet that most would focus on those operations that know how to use the foundations to their advantage and draw out flavors that make them close their eyes and savor the essence of solid cooking.
The lesson here is simple: walk before you run. Learn the foundations, make this the blueprint of your style, spend the years that it takes to master what others for generations have perfected and then you have the ability to truly take those basics to new places, adapt the technology that is rising to the surface and put a fresh signature of the food that people love. In the end, it is all about satisfying guests, creating ambassadors and return clients. This is our charge from an artistic and from a business perspective.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting, Training and Coaching