RESTAURANTS NEED TO GET PAST THE EARLY ADOPTERS

RESTAURANTS NEED TO GET PAST THE EARLY ADOPTERS

We oftentimes depend on the complexity of marketing principles to build our business. These principles have created a new generation of chef’s and restaurateurs who are consumed by innovation and pushing the envelope, simply because they misinterpret the statistical data that is behind what is known as the “customer bell curve”. The concept of the bell curve is built on five categories of customers (applicable to any industry): Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards or Late Adopters. Statistically, it breaks down like this:

Innovators: 2.5% of the customer base
Early Adopters: 13.5%
Early Majority: 34%
Late Majority: 34%
Laggards: 16%

**from an article by: Morgan Gerard in Idea Couture: “Noodle Play”
http://www.ideacouture.com/blog/innovation-early-adopters-beyond-the-bell-curve/

Innovators are typically people who jump at the chance to try whatever is new and proclaim: “I was first”. Early Adopters are close behind and believe that their role in life is to define what is fresh and start the next trend. Most businesses would agree that attracting this audience is important if you are interested in creating a “buzz” around your business. Buzz does equate to new customers and many feel that the Early Adopter is the key to getting close to a new audience. Morgan Gerard dispels the belief that Early Adopters are the opinion leaders. He states: “this is only true if the Early and Late Majority actually follow their lead.” This points to the premise of this post.

As a consultant for restaurant operations I am constantly faced with the dilemma of the chef’s need to be creative and “test the waters”, versus the need to create a business model with staying power. Now, I personally love to try new restaurant concepts and unusual dishes. When I travel I tend to seek out those unique experiences and check them off my list. This is the challenge with Early Adopters (I consider myself to be one). Once they have experienced something new the need is to move on to the next breakthrough. Restaurants that have the ability to survive and thrive must appeal to the Early Majority (they don’t usually jump at new things until they are truly proven) and the Late Majority that move to a new concept kicking and screaming. These two categories of consumers represent nearly 70% of the potential customer base. To be successful, long-term, this is where restaurants need to be.

The challenge, of course is getting to that point. Certainly, restaurants need to evolve at some level and try new things, but it is imperative not to stray too much from what works: well prepared food, great flavors, consistent outcomes, attentive service and stellar hospitality.

I just finished filling out the annual ACF/NRA survey of “what’s hot” that will become a benchmark for chefs as they plan the next iteration of menus for their properties. What was interesting is how many niche (what I might consider short-lived) products or preparation concepts were offered as choices. There are restaurants, in large urban markets, that can take on the role of “innovator” and do well for a long time, but they are few and far between. I will leave this role to Grant, Ferran, Rene and Heston. To try and emulate these unique, highly sophisticated concepts, would be dangerous for most restaurants to attempt and likely lead to business failure.

Attention to ingredients, serious cooking, building on great flavors and beautiful presentations with the right amount of friendly service will always trump those restaurant concepts that come and go. If restaurants and chefs used the parallel of investing 2.5% of their menus and time to pushing the envelope and stay focused 97.5% of the time on cooking well, serving well, paying attention to customer needs and building a base of return guests they would have a much better chance of weathering the storm, surviving and thriving for the distant future.

Keep the innovation going, watch what the highly creative few are doing, experiment cautiously with your own operation, integrate ideas when that Early Majority feels compelled to “buy in”, build on constantly improving the great food and consistent overall experience that 70% of consumers are seeking, and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The picture attached is of Duck Confit resting after a few hours in duck fat. Serve this with flageoulet beans, or polenta, sautéed kale and a robust glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. All the innovation in the world would have a tough time competing with this flavor profile.

ATTRACTING CAREER LINE COOKS

ATTRACTING CAREER LINE COOKS

In most cases credit for a great restaurant meal goes to the chef. At least that is what most guests believe to be true. There is no question that the vision for a menu, oftentimes the recipes and plating design are a result of the chef’s experience, planning and direction, but what many guests do not realize is that the chef is probably not the person who actually prepared their meal. Unless the restaurant is a very small, mom and pop operation, the meal was probably prepared by a line cook.

There is a difference between building a menu and executing that same menu. There is even a greater difference between creating a dish and replicating it under pressure, with a hundred or so guests ordering different items simultaneously and working through a battery of service staff to deliver the message to the kitchen. Those who have never worked in a quality restaurant kitchen have absolutely no idea what goes into the facilitation of that meal they so enjoy.

The pre-preparation of a line cooks station as he/she gears up for the meal period to start involves speed, dexterity, significant planning, math, science, mental exercises, organization, and a razor sharp memory. Cooks refer to this as mise en place (everything has a place and everything is in its place). Just think of these critical steps: mincing shallots, chopping parsley, clarifying butter for sauté, slicing mushrooms, portioning center of the plate meats and seafood, softening butter for monte au beurre, julienne petite salads for garnishes, frying leeks and onion rings, marking steaks ahead in a busy restaurant, scrubbing down counters, sanitizing knives, positioning items in precise locations so that the cook can find them without even looking, burning off sauté pans so that they don’t stick, counting out plates for a stations dishes and setting them under heat lamps, folding a pile of side towels in preparation, setting up your seasoning pod, filling wine bottles and oil for cooking, heating foundational sauces for the bain marie, blanching and shocking vegetables to aid in the finishing process, and hydrating and pounding down a few espressos to get the adrenaline ready for an onslaught of tickets. This all takes place in the 2-3 hour period that cooks have to get ready for the tickets to start flying. The pace is intense.

Once service begins there will not be enough time to focus on more prep. Your mise en place MUST be ready for anything. If you run out the ship will begin to sink and that spells disaster for that cook, his/her teammates, the chef, the servers and the restaurant as a whole. It is a delicate balance that you don’t want to mess with.

Each line cook will respond in those last few minutes to the pre-tasting of ingredients by the chef and a response to the question: “Are you ready”? The answer had better be: YES CHEF! The tickets start coming in slowly at first, but by 7 p.m. the point of sale machine is ticking them off in a steady stream.

The chef (keep in mind that most chefs will admit that they would have a tough time working on the line at their age) has now moved to the role of expeditor. In this position the chef will call out orders, wait for acknowledgement from each station cook responsible for each dish, serve as a liaison between front and back of the house staff, monitor the timing of dish preparation, inspect plates before they leave the kitchen and help to keep the stress level high enough to channel the energy, but in control so that cooks don’t crash and burn (literally). Very soon “the board” is full, plates are cluttering up “the window”, the clatter of voices is deafening, pans are clattering on the range, plates are sliding down the pass, the heat has risen to an even 130 degrees on the line and hotter when they stand over a char-grill or French top, hands and arms are being burned but everyone works through it, and great line cooks start to feel the synergy of working as a team. When it is working, it is amazing to watch. When it falls apart you can feel the tension in the air.

In today’s kitchens many line cooks are interns or recent graduates from culinary schools. This is a great learning environment for them, but typically they have their eyes on bigger fish. The money they spent on a culinary education drives them to believe that they should only be satisfied when they reach the chef position in a kitchen. There are rarely thoughts of making the “line” their career.

Any chef worth his or her salt will tell you that a goal must be to find, somehow, a core kitchen staff of line cooks who love doing just that, who are great at what they do, who relish the opportunity to work in that type of environment, and who would not dream of doing anything else. So who are these people, where can they be found, and what do they want?

It is probably not wise to generalize people, however, time has demonstrated that certain types of positions attract a very distinctive profile. Great line cooks, career line cooks, are oftentimes those who are perfectly content to follow someone else’s lead. They are deeply proud individuals who find that they feel best about themselves when they can make something with their hands. The plate is their canvas and they take the set-up of each dish very seriously. Great line cooks are night dwellers who are more often than not – single and content being that way. After work they cannot turn down the adrenaline so you will likely find them seeking out some late night food at another restaurant and usually with a drink or two in their hands. They sleep late and start the cycle all over again. Great line cooks may seem rough around the edges, but are usually pretty fragile. Much of their self-worth is tied to how well they did tonight on the line. Returned meals may seem to agitate them, but they really crush their self-confidence. They don’t always seek compliments, but are content just not to have any complaints. Unless you really screw up as a manager or chef, the great line cook is usually quite loyal and only concerned about money when they have no choice but to be concerned.

Where do you find these individuals? This is a tough question, because they are few and far between and likely already working for another chef who is glad to have them. Be there to catch them when a chef does them wrong, but never try to pirate them. This is part of the chef’s code. What do they want: they want the tools to do their job, they want food they can be proud of, they want other people to stay away from their mise en place, they want a chef to listen when they have something to say (rare), they don’t want to have to deal with anything other than their station, and occasionally they want a thumbs up at the end of the night. Not too much to ask.

In the end, know this: if the restaurant you are dining in is great, if the food is consistently superb, if the steaks come out perfect – every time, if the plates are spotless and beautiful, it is the vision of the chef but the precision of the line cook who made it happen.

HOSPITALITY: BE THE REASON FOR THE RESERVATION

HOSPITALITY: BE THE REASON FOR THE RESERVATION

There is an old statement that still holds true for restaurants that are consistently successful: “The handshake of the host determines the flavor of the roast”. As a chef by career choice, I certainly spend a great amount of time focusing on the value of food in creating a restaurant buzz. As a person who oftentimes had responsibility for the successful operation of a restaurant business I am acutely aware of how the sincerity of service and the commitment to making people feel at home is critical to the overall financial success of the restaurant.

I have been a part of training thousands of students and entry level cooks who aspire to be the next great chef and find it frustrating to note that very few of these “next generation” restaurateurs really get it. The FoodNetwork, a plethora of beautiful cookbooks, trade magazines and culinary schools continue to focus, almost exclusively, on the product. It is rare to find any serious talk about hospitality and the role it plays in building that next great restaurant.

Drew Nieporent talks about this as a contributing writer in “The Art of the Restaurateur” by: Nicholas Lander. Drew infers that the days of the restaurateur have come and gone with the focus on the chef. The shame of this is that the restaurateur was, for decades, the reason for the reservation. People wanted to go to that person’s operation, to meet them, shake their hand, laugh a bit and feel like they were uniquely welcome to dine. The new generation of restaurant that is chefcetric, can be successful “if” the chef is also the visible, gracious host. Guests will come initially for the opportunity to try the food, and may return a few times if the food is special, but they will only become loyal return customers if the operation is a mecca for unique hospitality and a personality who personifies this trait.

“Why isn’t my restaurant successful?” I hear this statement so many times from people who have dedicated their hard work, time, family life and talent to building a vehicle for presenting their special food. “The food is great, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, the location is perfect, but the tables are half empty.” Look to that secret ingredient: what are you doing to make people feel like they are the most important guest; guests who are have a perceived unique relationship with the owner/operator. Make everyone feel like Norm entering Cheers to the unified greeting by employees and guests at the bar. This “hospitality” always trumps price, and can even rank higher that the food. It is the experience that keeps people coming back.

This is not to say that the food, somehow is not important – it certainly is! Great food today is really the price of admission. It is the expectation of guests who know more about the product than ever before. The food must be great at any level, it is the hospitality ingredient that will make your restaurant unique.

The whole package is critical if your restaurant is to thrive in a highly competitive market. Bring back the hospitality of the restaurateur. If the business is chef owned and operated, then make sure that the chef provides the “handshake of the host”.

FULL-FLAVORED FALL and RESTAURANT PROFITABILITY

FULL-FLAVORED FALL and RESTAURANT PROFITABILITY

Well, it is definitely fall. To most people this is the beginning of close family events and memories. A time when we begin to hunker down for a winter season and start to fill our pantry with those ingredients that are unique to the season. From a chef’s perspective it is the time for “real” cooking and the best opportunity to earn a profit.

In a previous post I talked about the challenges surrounding profitability when so many restaurants focus on high cost, center of the plate ingredients. Steaks, chops and premier seafood items are not only difficult to make money with; they are also those items that truly take the least amount of cooking skill to prepare (no offense to all of those exceptional grill cooks that work in restaurants).

Fall and winter bring out opportunities for roasting; braising and poaching that require an acute understanding of seasoning, development of stocks, broths, braising liquids and marinades. Slow cooking gives a cook ample opportunity to draw out the flavor from a dish whether it is protein, vegetable or even fruit. Chefs begin to integrate compotes and chutneys as complements to the dishes they place on menus and introduce rich flavors that have been missing since the beginning of spring.

Root vegetables and squash are not prevalent so restaurants can introduce butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash; parsnips and turnips; red, golden and candy cane beets. These full flavored fall vegetables take on robust flavors when roasted, braised or stewed.

Chefs are now able to work with other cuts of meat and game as well as lesser-known varieties of fish that work extremely well with roasting, poaching and braising. These slow cooking methods of cooking are too hearty for the spring and summer months. Briskets, shoulder, and shanks have a significantly lower price point than center cut steaks and chops, and these colder month methods of cooking allow accomplished cooks to work with oilier fish, whole fish for roasting, and fish stews like bouillabaisse and cioppino. Moving away from higher cost lobster, scallops, swordfish, and tuna will open the door for restaurants to generate a higher rate of return without sacrificing quality and flavor.

The profitability of a restaurant does evolve around menu and chefs who understand how to work with the seasonality of ingredients and coax flavor and value from them is a chef who positions the restaurant for ultimate financial success. This is the chef’s job.

TO BRAISE:

*Sear the cut of meat that you choose to use. This caramelization enhances the flavor of the protein and adds depth to the fond in the pan – a flavor enhancement for your braising liquid.

*Roast a mirepoix (2 parts of onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery) and add to the seared protein in a deep rondo or roasting pan.

*Deglaze the pan used for searing the protein with a dry red wine.

*Add enough braising liquid (appropriate stock) to cover the meat half-way.

*Season with salt and pepper, add fresh herbs (thyme and bay work for most meats, sometimes rosemary and mint – especially with lamb), cover with silicon paper and foil and braise in a slow oven (300 degrees F.) for typically 3-5 hours depending on the size of the protein, until fork tender.

In a restaurant, this can take place a day or two in advance. The line cook would simply re-heat the protein in a small amount of stock and finish with a sauce derived from straining and thickening the liquid from the original braise.

**NOTE: The picture in this post is of Osso Buco prepared by Executive Chef Christian Kruse from Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes, Vermont.

MY OCTOBERFEST – MEDALS BEFORE BEER

MY OCTOBERFEST - MEDALS BEFORE BEER

The Culinary Olympics were over. Our team was exhausted, yet numb from exceeding our own expectations. It certainly felt good to walk away victorious, but what would take some time to sink in was that we were successful because we came together as a team. It had much less to do with individual talent, it was all about a group of chefs with a common purpose. A team of people who understood and supported each other. We had become the “cinderella” team to many back home and a model for each of us and others who worked with us for the years to come.

After the final award ceremony we headed down to the Saxon House district of Frankfurt (one of the only historic sections of town that survived the bombings of WWII) to a Brathouse that had been rented by Michael Minor for the various teams that represented the United States. A restaurant full of chefs eating German sausages, Sauerkraut, Pigs knuckles and toasting with tankards of German beer. It was incredible and such a wonderful release. Thank you Michael!

After our first decent nights sleep we boarded a bus for Austria. We were to be the guests of the Austrian Team that shared the kitchen with us in Frankfurt. Driving at night on the autobahn hid the wonderful scenery that we would encounter the next day. We checked into a pension later that evening and awoke to the most spectacular view of the Alps surrounding us. That day we were given the key to the city of Innsbruck by their mayor and toured this Winter Olympic community. In the evening we traversed through the woods to a Hanzel and Gretel style restaurant owned by one of the Austrian Team Chefs. We enjoyed tremendous ethnic food and were honored to be the first Americans to ever set foot in the chef’s private wine cellar. We toasted with schnapps, drank more wine and claimed our friendship for life.

It has been twenty-five years since that date in October 1988. Our team members have gone on to pursue their individual goals. We will always share in that experience that changed our lives. Charles Carroll (the youngest member of our team) has gone on to receive international recognition as one of the most accomplished chefs from the U.S. He served on subsequent ACF Regional and National Culinary teams, left the Balsams, his employer in 1988 to now serve as Executive Chef at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. He is the author of two books, frequently serves as an inspirational speaker at conferences, conventions and graduations and most recently has taken on the role of facilitator for culinary and entertainment events for our troops in Afghanistan. Michael Beriau moved on to become the Executive Chef for Dole and Bailey out of Boston and now serves as the Executive Chef for White Cliffs Country Club on the Cape. He returned to competition to serve as a team advisor for the U.S. Culinary Team in recent years. George Higgins is now one of the most revered pastry instructors at the Culinary Institute of America and turned out to be quite an accomplished drummer with a band comprised of other chefs from the CIA. Walter Zuromski founded Chef Services Group, a firm that works with foodservice companies to develop gold standard product formulations. Danny Varano continued teaching in the Connecticut School system and recently retired. Varano was inducted into the Order of the Golden Toques for his accomplishments as a chef. Lars Johannson eventually retired from Johnson and Wales as the director of the pastry school. The college named their retail bakery after this incredible pastry chef. Joe Faria left the Ritz Carlton in Boston shortly after the team returned. He is now Executive Chef at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach, Florida. I stayed at Paul Smith’s College as Dean until 2005 when I returned to industry as Executive Chef of the Four-Diamond Mirror Lake Inn. In 2008 I returned to education as Vice President for New England Culinary Institute and in 2012 formed Harvest America Ventures, a consulting company for restaurants and culinary schools.

We lost three of our team members and a dear friend supporter over the past few years: Anton Flory, our team manager and certified master chef; Roland Czekelius our team captain; and Neil Connolly a pastry chef member of our team. Bud Matheson was the owner/operator of Dole and Bailey. Without Dole and Bailey’s help, our team would have never raised the funds to support our efforts. Bud accompanied the team to Germany and Austria. What we did not know at the time was that on the way to Austria the team was out of money. Bud pulled out his checkbook and donated additional funds for the team so that we could enjoy our accomplishments in Innsbruck. A great man.

In the years that followed, I worked with many students and tried to relay the joys of teamwork and the challenges of competition. I am always proud to note that two of my former students represented the United States on teams over that period of time. Jamie Keating as a member of the U.S. Regional and subsequently a member of the U.S. National Team and David Russ (one of my first students) who represented the U.S. as a member of numerous Army teams competing in the Culinary Olympics.

That call from Anton Flory in 1986 changed my professional life. If it were not for that moment, I would not have had the opportunities that I have thoroughly enjoyed over the past 25 years. I am sure that each team member feels the same way about their opportunities.

Twenty-five years later I tip my toque to Anton Flory, Roland Czekelius, Neil Connolly, Bud Matheson and all the suriving team members and advisors for a life-changing opportunity. Happy Octoberfest!

In January of 2014, the remaining team members will gather at Joe Faria’s shop in Vero Beach to share stories, and cook for charity.

MY OCTOBERFEST 1988 – A TEAM EFFORT

MY OCTOBERFEST 1988 - A TEAM EFFORT

After the day one results in Frankfurt, the New England Culinary Olympic Team was truly energized. Mickey Beriau and Danny Varano had set the bar very high with their gold medal performances. This now became everyone’s goal and the team would rally behind each chef preparing to show.

We were not free of issues that would throw us a curve ball. I had mentioned how easy it was to get through customs on our way into Germany. That changed when they apparently read our manifests and realized that our team had brought in some proteins that were banned in Europe. We were, of course, unaware of this until they threatened to confiscate our supplies and maybe even hold us in custody. Thanks to our team manager – Tony Flory and team captain Roland Czekelius (both born in Austria) and their diplomacy we reached an agreement. Some items were discarded and customs assigned an agent to insure that each day after judging we would discard everything from our presentation tables. Additionally an important part of our pastry displays was to be sugar work under huge, custom made glass domes. These domes arrived in Germany from the manufacturer cracked. Another adjustment was in order.

Despite these set-backs the team continued to work 20 hours a day executing our programs and doing so with high expectations.

Each day brought more excitement as chef after chef was awarded a gold medal for his performance. Joe Faria worked through a stomach bug, a few items on our programs didn’t work out as planned so the team rallied to help with solutions, sleepless nights began to take their toll as evidenced by the state of the kitchen we were using each morning (the chef of the facility was beginning to regret his generosity), and it appeared that a few of our finished items in coolers found their way on to platters presented by the Austrian Team with whom we shared the kitchen. Through this, the team continued to exceed everyone’s expectations.

In the end, the team walked away with 19 gold medals, 1 silver, 1 bronze and recognition as the overall best team competing in the Culinary Olympics that year. The day that the team walked onto the stage to receive this recognition was, by far, the most exhilarating accomplishment of my professional career. Each chef: Roland Czekelius, Mickey Beriau, Danny Varano, George Higgins, Neil Connolly, Lars Johansson, Walter Zuromski, Charles Carroll, Joe Faria and myself would be changed forever.

What was most satisfying was how the team evolved from a group of individuals to a cohesive team. We respected each other’s abilities, complemented each other’s weaknesses, supported each other’s efforts, honestly critiqued each other’s work followed with help and advice on how to improve, took great joy in each other’s accomplishments but most importantly placed the team before the individual.

I have, over the years, used this model of unity and performance in everything that I have attempted, with every organization that I have worked for and with every individual who has worked beside me.

The picture on this post is that of Anton Flory, Certified Master Chef and manager of our team who set the tone for our accomplishments, mentored each of us, and supported our work in any way that he could. Whether we needed someone to brunoise a vegetable, slice a terrine, polish a platter or wash a pot, Anton was there.

Tomorrow’s post will complete the story and reflect on 25 years later for Team New England.

MY OCTOBERFEST 1988 WITH TEAM NEW ENGLAND

MY OCTOBERFEST 1988 WITH TEAM NEW ENGLAND

It was October 1988 at Logan International Airport when we were waiting to board a Lufthansa airplane to Frankfurt, Germany. As we (10 team members, spouses, apprentices, manager and coaches) lined up with our tickets I started to reflect on the last 18 months of preparation for this moment. We had gone through a great deal together: learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, losing one team member due to his work requirements but gaining an excellent replacement; Charles Carroll (the youngest member of the team at 23) struggles to raise the money to support our efforts, nearly disbanding after a dismal performance at a Boston Show, re-energizing after a training session in the Adirondack’s, coming together as a true team and now waiting to show the world what we could do. I put nearly 20,000 miles on my car going to practices over the past year and a half, and was ready to see if it would pay off.

Arriving in Germany, along with hundreds of cooks from around the world was energizing. We passed quickly through customs (only to return in another day) as the German security guards seemed very anxious to host this onslaught of chefs. Arriving at our kitchen (home for the next 7 days) we were met by the chef who welcomed us and turned over the keys. We could have the kitchen every day from 2 in the afternoon until 6 the following morning for the next 7 days, but had to share the space with the Austrian National Team. In total, there would be 15 chefs, 4 apprentices, 2 team managers and various advisor/coaches occupying the space. It would get very crowded, very quickly.

What we had learned over the past 18 months was that at this point we could only execute what we knew, we had practiced our food programs many times so we knew what to do, let’s just do our jobs and try to have fun. Easy said when we were fully aware that a panel of chef judges would scrutinize our work over the 5 days of competition, many sponsors had gone out of their way to raise the funds to support us, and we were representing the New England States and the U.S. as well.

Since this would be our only day without kitchen time, we traveled to the convention center to see our display space (paid for by Michael Minor and Minor Foods) and would sit down to a traditional game dinner as a team with our spouses and supporters. It felt right, but we were all nervous and ready to unpack and start cooking.

The team stayed at Bed and Breakfast and had the entire building to ourselves. Nice accommodations, but the owner had a tough time understanding our schedule (we would be working from 1 in the afternoon until 7 a.m. each day, needed to sleep for a few hours and wanted breakfast at 12 noon each day). It took her some time, but eventually accepted our strange hours of operation.

In the kitchen we were like a machine. Each day two chefs of the ten member team were showing in the competition. The two who were on the schedule for the next day were assigned to work on their own programs while the remaining six were assigned to help the show chefs for that day. Everyone had their assignments, we had drilled through them many times over the past 18 months, and we started to unpack, set-up our mise en place and rock the food. At 4 a.m. each day, the van was packed with the show chefs program and off they went with the advisors and our team manager. Everyone else stayed behind to clean and organize for the next day. We only had a mile or two to drive, but at 20 miles an hour (didn’t want to upset the food platters on board) it was a long ride. We entered the convention center each day and proceeded to our show table. The chefs displaying that day would supervise the final placement of platters and plates, touch things up, and direct the advisors on making sure the whole table was pristine. Judging began at 7 each day and show chefs and the manager would stay until the judges had been through our table. We would not know the results until later in the afternoon.

Off for 2-3 hours of sleep, a shower and some breakfast – we were back in the kitchen to start on day two preparations. The show chefs from day one along with the team manager would return to the convention center to get the results. We had just sat down to a family meal prepared by our advisors when the call came in. The team captain took the call and returned to the table. We waited for his news. He raised his glass and said: “can you think of anything at this point better than a gold medal?” We waited for a few seconds while he took a drink. “How about two perfect scores”! The room erupted! If we were energized before, the energy level just increased ten fold. Now the message was clear, we all had gold in sight.

Michael (Mickey) Beriau and Danny Varano had set the bar very high. It was everyone’s job to keep that momentum going.

On Wednesday and Thursday I will post the completion of this story. Stay tuned for the balance of “My Octoberfest”.

OCTOBERFEST AND THE PHONE CALL THAT CHANGED MY CAREER

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As we approach October I am always reminded of my time in Germany back in 1988. This year marks the 25th anniversary of my involvement with the 1988 New England Culinary Team competing in the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany. Octoberfest, of course, means beer and celebration to many, but to the 10 member New England Team and its advisors, it meant sleepless nights in a Frankfurt kitchen, putting together the show food program that we had planned and practiced over the previous 18 months.

In 1986, I received a call from Master Chef Anton Flory (Anton was one of the first 5 chefs to be certified as master in the United States). Tony, who at that time I had only spent a few days with at American Culinary Federation events, suggested that I try out for the first ever, New England Culinary team to represent the United States in the Culinary Olympics. Honored and nervous, I agreed and spent a few weeks planning and preparing for the tryouts in Boston. Feeling that I held my own, but not expecting to earn the honor, I was floored when Tony called back a few weeks after the competition to congratulate me and offer a position on the 10 man team.

We met for the first time at a reception at the Ritz Carlton in Boston to introduce the team. The guest of honor was Julia Child. After a few warm toasts and words of encouragement the Team Captain was announced (Roland Czekelius from the Park Plaza Hotel) and the first planning meeting was scheduled. Over a period of 18 months we scheduled cooking sessions in Boston twice per month, worked through individual programs and assignments, critiqued and re-invented, strategized and argued, and eventually wound up a tight team of chefs that were hopeful, confident that we would not embarrass ourselves, and seasoned enough to not take ourselves too seriously.

We packed up at the Dole and Bailey plant outside of Boston, loaded two cargo containers full of food and equipment and our able bodies on a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.

The competition was held at the Convention Center in Frankfurt that would house over 1,000 chefs each of five days through the competition. Over 60 countries that were members of the World Association of Cooks were represented. It was simply amazing. In the second blog in this series I will give more details of the five days of competition and our results, but for now let’s talk about Germany in October.

The picture at the lead of this post is a corner of the Kleinmarkthalle in Frankfurt. This enormous hall is where we went to select our ingredients every day. I have been to many markets, but this was by far the most expansive, filled with extraordinary ingredients, helpful people, produce, charcuterie, fresh meats and seafood. It was Disneyland for chefs.

What struck me about the Germans was their attention to detail. Most parts of the city were very clean, the kitchens were spotless, the hotels were white glove clean, and the people were a mix of very friendly and stoic professionals. The food in the restaurants was very good, not terribly imaginative, but always fresh. The beer, of course, was exceptional.

We shared a kitchen with the Austrian National Team and became very good friends with them as well as the chef of the kitchen that we borrowed (later to his dismay).

The streets of Germany are filled with history of dedication to exactness, a commitment to industry, and stark reminders of the remnants of two world wars. As a competing team our only exposure to Germany was from the inside of our kitchen, set-up in the Convention Center and occasional trips to the Kleinmarkthalle. Fortunately, our spouses took plenty of pictures for us to see afterward.

Whenever October comes around, I always reflect on our experiences there in 1988. For those who may be interested, another post will follow next week that details the team and our time in the kitchens of Frankfurt. My reflection is especially relevant this year since the remaining members of our team will be meeting for a fundraiser in Vero Beach Florida this coming January. Sadly, three of our original members have passed away since 2009. We will be celebrating our friendship, sharing remembered stories, drinking a few German beers, and toasting our lost friends.

IS YOUR RESTAURANT STRUGGLING TO MAKE A PROFIT? LET’S LOOK AT THE MENU.

IS YOUR RESTAURANT STRUGGLING TO MAKE A PROFIT? LET'S LOOK AT THE MENU.

The restaurant business is built on very narrow margins. We are constantly faced with decisions that nip away at the pennies that operators try to make on every dollar in sales. Let’s look at some basic facts that have placed us in this position:
* We deal with highly perishable raw materials
* Many restaurants have succumbed to the feeling that bigger is always better
* If we are concerned with quality, then labor cost will be looming very large
* Many restaurants have also fallen victim to the belief that in order to satisfy customers they must adhere to a list of menu items that are extremely costly to the operation
* With rare exception, there is a ceiling to what we can charge for the items we produce
* Waste, theft and spoilage are curve balls that seem to always cross the plate (no pun intended)
* Even with a plethora of culinary school graduates on the market, the majority of restaurant cooks are technicians trained to follow steps rather than express themselves through cooking. This requires the operation to plan menu items that are easy for technicians to execute consistently.

So, all of this being said, even the noblest restaurateur must realize that they are in business and will only remain in business if they are profitable. I have been around so many chefs and restaurant owners who work incredibly hard, producing very good food, keeping customers happy, only to lose money. This is so discouraging to those involved and ultimately results in closure. How can restaurants make money?

The formula is not easy and the guarantees are never very solid, however, it would make sense to look at the menu first. The menu is the center of the business operation. Everything else: staffing, equipment, facilities, advertising, vendor selection, table top appointments and decor, marketing and advertising, and operational image are all based on the product design and delivery. How many restaurant menus are flush with items such as: Angus Filet Mignon, Foie Gras, Morels and Fresh Chanterelles, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lobster, Crab, Pacific Halibut, Rack of Lamb, Fresh Berries in February, Asparagus out of season and Twenty-year old Balsamic Vinegar? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love all of these items and thoroughly enjoy eating them with reckless abandon. The fact is, they make it very difficult to make money. How many restaurants, after all, can charge the $45 they should for the 8 oz. Angus Filet or $30 for that Lump Crab Cake appetizer? There is a ceiling in pricing (with rare exception) and most restaurants are unable to price those items for profitability – yet they continue to put them on their menus, fill their dining rooms with eager guests who have come to expect that Fillet for $19.95 and would raise hell if the restaurant charged what they should.

As an aside, these items are built for technicians who can be trained to produce an item as expected, time and time again, but who more often than not are not trained to really cook. Please don’t take offense, I have great respect for that seasoned broiler cook who can grill steaks perfectly throughout the night, or the saute’ cook pan frying that beautiful crab cake to a crisp, golden brown and artistically placing it on a plate with remoulade and frisee. The problem is that neither item is destined to make a healthy profit unless you are buying sides, hanging them in your temperature/humidity controlled meat lockers, cutting your own steaks and grinding the beef, making gallons of stock every day, buying your shellfish dockside, picking the meat from shells and reducing the stock from shells for beautiful fumet.

Think about the restaurants that are consistently profitable (and delicious) and look at their menus: homemade pasta (flour and egg), braised meats (shoulder and shanks), artisan pizza (flour, water, salt and yeast), roast whole chicken (still a very reasonably priced product), sustainable, regional flat and round fish restaurants (haddock, cod, smelt, anchovies, bluefish, catfish, trout, flounder, etc.) that offer delicious fish broiled, sauteed, pan fried, and baked en papliotte. All of these restaurants plan menus that are driven by great raw materials that are seasonal, reasonably priced, and that beckon the talents of a person trained to cook and make in-expensive items taste expensive.

Look at your menu. Is it designed to use all of the ingredients that you buy (Chef Marc Meneau once told me that restaurants don’t make money on onions, they make money on the onion skins)? Are the items on your menu seasonal and only used when they are at their peak of freshness and lowest in price? Are your listed items driven from recipes that challenge cooks to draw flavors out from an understanding of proper cooking techniques? Is your staff trained to properly promote these exceptional items to guests who are typically focused on the high cost items that you cannot afford to sell? Are your plates balanced with a variety of vegetables, flavor accompaniments, and proteins that can stay within the 4-6 ounce range rather than 12 ounces or more? If the answer is no – then begin there. Profitability in restaurants is a science and an art, but it is most importantly a reflection on your understanding of the product and how to make flavor sell above familiarity and portion size.

More than 2/3 of the restaurants that open today will be closed in a year and the vast majority that survive year one will likely close in the next five years. Don’t be a statistic – start with a plan for profitability, select and train staff to nurture flavors, buy right and educate the guest through their palate.