Taking the Time to Appreciate What We Do

To some it may be a job, a means to an end. Yes, there are those who work in kitchens simply to pay the bills. This is not true of the people who I strove to work with and hired for the kitchens that I was privileged to work in.

When you stop to think about it, there is something truly magical about working in a professional kitchen. I have often said that most serious cooks are frustrated artists – individuals who have this innate artistic ability that is simply looking for a vehicle of expression. Some are writers, painters, sculptors, bloggers, musicians or even poets. Few are outgoing enough to have an interest in the live performing arts, so their goal is to find a place where they can be expressive behind closed doors. Ah…the kitchen, what a perfect place.

Once they find their way into that cross between the cleanliness of a surgical room and intensity and heat of Dante’s Inferno, they are hooked. Just think of the advantages for the artist: an environment where every day you get to paint on your canvas (the plate), use a plethora of exciting raw materials, appeal to every human sense simultaneously, earn a paycheck, work with other driven artists, learn from a teacher (the chef), and receive instant feedback for your work (although many cooks could care less as long as they feel that the work is an expression of who they are).

What I have enjoyed the most, is working with such a unique cadre of characters over the years. Every employee has a story, every kitchen employee has some type of issue, every kitchen employee will put their coworkers up against anyone they know and support them no matter what, every kitchen employee understands that as talented as they might be personally, it is the team that allows the whole thing to work.

Of course I know there are exceptions, but we usually weed them out.

I love the diversity of the kitchen. I have been honored to work with every ethnic background, every religious belief, small, tall, young, old, novice, seasoned professional, humble cook and egotistical pain in the butt, white, yellow and black, straight and gay, republican and democrat,male and female and it all works. Sure we banter back and forth about those issues that are in the American mindset, but we all come to agreement on food and how important the team is.

The days are long, the heat can be unbearable at times, the pressure of timing the food can create a frenzy, the disappointment of a returned steak can ruin a night, the temporary friction between front and back of the house can certainly be trying, and in the end the pay never seems to meet our expectations, but I would not trade it for anything.

I love the people of restaurants, I am most at home in a kitchen, I relish working with local farmers and producers, I get excited when that shipment of extraordinary fish comes through the door. The smell of onions, garlic, veal stock, roasts in the oven and fresh baked bread will truly make my day. The 12 cups of half-consumed coffee strewn about the kitchen is comical, but necessary.

As a chef, it is inspiring when that new menu comes together after soliciting the ideas from enthusiastic cooks. Sitting down for 10 minutes before service to a staff meal is a place and a time like no other – even if it takes place standing at the pass on the line. When those first tickets start coming in, the feeling is always exciting, a bit tense, and a call to arms but once the rhythm begins, it is like an orchestra hitting that perfect balance of notes in a score.

In the end, we exist to express ourselves, learn and work together as a team, produce some amazing art that people in the dining room will eat, smell and enjoy. We can make their day if the formula is right and cause them to want to return as soon as possible. What could any artist want more.

I, for one, appreciate what I do in the kitchen. I look forward to every day of learning, thinking about food, teaching, training and occasionally cooking for others. I am humbled by what we do.

I think it was Charlie Trotter who said: “A career in food is not something you choose, it chooses you.” For all who want “in”, this is what chargers our batteries and keeps life in the kitchen exciting.

Post your kitchen thoughts and memories on this blog if you so choose. Check out my company, a labor of love at:
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

IF YOUR GOAL IS RESTAURANT SUCCESS…..

IF YOUR GOAL IS RESTAURANT SUCCESS.....
WIN A FREE IPOD SHUFFLE!

I am so convinced that any serious restaurateur, manager or chef MUST attend a Deep Dive Seminar on the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls of restaurant operation in this difficult economy that I am providing additional incentives: At each location (providing we meet our minimum number of attendees) I will be giving away a Apple iPod Shuffle and books that should appear on any professional chef or restaurant managers shelf.

SIGN UP TODAY for one of the following locations:

April 15: Woburn, MA – Dole and Bailey plant
April 17: Albany, NY – Taste Restaurant
May 24: Lake Placid, NY – Howard Johnsons Restaurant and Conference Center

TO REGISTER: visit our website: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com and click on the “Seminar and Event” page. Fill out the simple form and “submit”.

ONLY $99/person for a full day including lunch

You Can’t Afford to Miss This!

You Can't Afford to Miss This!

Harvest America Ventures presents Deep Dive Seminars for Restaurateurs, Managers and Chefs. This all day event will focus on the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls associated with operating a restaurant in the current economic climate.

Paul Sorgule, president of Harvest America Ventures and a veteran chef, manager and educator will present this seminar in two different segments: In the morning the focus will be: “The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line” while the afternoon session will continue with a look at “Controlling Costs”.

Sessions are currently available at the following locations:

April 15: Woburn, MA – Dole and Bailey Provisioners
April 17: Albany, New York – Taste Restaurant
May 24: Lake Placid, New York – Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and Conference Center

This Highlight Program is offered for $99/person including lunch.

Sessions start with Registration at 8:30 a.m. followed by the seminar beginning at 9:00 and ending at approximately 2:30.

Space is limited so make your reservations TODAY!

To REGISTER: visit our website: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
CLICK ON: Seminars and Events and fill out the brief information section.

Preferred payment on location is check or cash, however, we can accept MasterCard and Visa on site.

WE HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE.

How Important is Food Cost

Lets be realistic – the primary job of a chef is to make money for the restaurant. Now the ways to get there are through creating a product that drives sales, exceeding customer expectations so they return, training the staff to be consistently great, and controlling costs. To this end, YES, food cost is important, however it is critical that chefs and managers understand that it is really contribution margin that holds the key to making money once the guest arrives.

Contribution margin refers to what the individual menu item contributes to the overall profitability of the restaurant. This can be tangible (the amount of money remaining after the expenses associated with making and serving that item are subtracted), and/or intangible (the item encourages the complementary sale of other items that are more profitable or helps to bring in future sales). Although I am not a great fan of “loss leaders” (items sold at or below cost to help generate volume), I do understand and support using certain menu items as a marketing tool.

Let’s first look at the tangible nature of contribution margin. Here comes the basic math…..
A menu item using chicken breast on your menu sells for $12 and costs the operation $4 to prepare. $4.00/$12.00 = 33% cost of goods. This falls within the normal range for food cost in full-service restaurants. Everyone is happy and the menu item contributes $8.00 to cover all other expenses in the restaurant (CONTRIBUTION MARGIN). A Veal Chop entree sells for $32.00 and costs $17 to produce. $17.00/$32.00 = 53% cost of goods. This is far beyond normal “acceptable” food cost for full-service restaurants. Management is not happy. Now here is the kicker: $32-$17=$15 CONTRIBUTION – much greater than the $8 from chicken, yet the other costs of operating the restaurant remain the same whether you sell chicken or veal. The veal is a greater contributor to the financial success of the restaurant even though the food cost % appears to be unacceptable.

The intangible is even more interesting: it is not always fair to make generalizations, yet if you were so inclined to build a statistical study you would probably discover that the person buying chicken is less likely to buy expensive wines, appetizers and desserts than the veal guest. So, one could assume that there is a greater likelihood of selling high profit “extras” with veal orders and contribute greatly to the overall profitability of the restaurant even though the food cost % seems out of whack.

One last measurement: as stated in a previous article: “The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line” – it is very important to convince your servers to up sell and increase sales volume. The 53% food cost veal chop is a natural tool to help sell all of the extras and raise the top line. For the server, the base for gratuity also increases: End of story – everyone wins!

Back to the original question: How Important is Food Cost? There is a case to be made for effective menu planning leading to better contribution. In either case, control to any budgeted percentage is essential for long-term success.

Do you need help with sales and cost of goods? Contact Harvest America Ventures for assistance. Look for Harvest Deep Dive Seminars for restaurateurs coming to a city near you. Coming to: Boston, Albany, Lake Placid, Burlington, and Rochester.

Visit our site for more specifics:

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

“Go Big or Go Home” The Evolution of Tannins and Hops on Our Palates.

“Go Big or Go Home” The Evolution of Tannins and Hops on Our Palates.

“Go Big or Go Home” is a phrase that is usually associated with sports, however it has crept into the food and beverage world as well, albeit unintentionally. About two decades ago California wine makers began making high alcohol and muscular wines. The intention behind the combination of high alcohol and tannins was to give the wine enough muscle to mature in a cellar, mellow over time and hopefully be compared with the great wines of Europe. Tannins are the astringent substance found in seeds and stems of grapes and one of the essential elements in the aging process of wines.
One of the consequences in this shift in philosophy from wine makers was that the wine was very limited and very expensive. Restaurateurs quickly recognized the downside of this philosophy, having a tremendous amount of cash tied up in inventory. So, rather than the wine simply sit and mature in the wine cellar, out of necessity for cash flow restaurateurs put them on their wine list while they sat unnoticed in the cellar. Consumers on the other hand having read about the pedigree of the wine and the talent of the wine maker began to purchase them. Who would have thought? Surely not the traditional “Francophile”!
Fast forward to 2013, we now have artisan craft beers with high alcohol and super hopped! Hops, are a dried flower that imparts a bitter flavor to the beer and ale. (Bitter and astringency are both perceived the same on our palates) Having tried many varieties of these over hopped beers, I just kept saying to myself…..gosh I just don’t like this overly bitter taste and feel in my mouth. The experience of drinking these types of brews was just so unpleasant I had to understand why. (At least from an intellectual standpoint) And let me be clear here I’m not suggesting these are not quality beers, what I’m saying is my palate prefers less bitterness.
After doing the research it turns out that hops are just like tannins to wine, and come across as bitter in your mouth. We all know the four taste buds, sweet, salt, sour and bitterness, and when food and beverages are consumed our brain identifies and associates either pleasure or disdain based on what these taste buds tell us. Now enter the “Umami” effect, Japanese researchers have discovered that there essentially is a fifth taste bud, which effectively tells the brain that all the traditional taste buds are in harmony with each other, and we experience pleasure. Certain foods naturally demonstrate this umami effect when eaten: an example would be bacon.
The realization of hops and tannins reacting as they do was a small revelation for me, and it is no wonder why I have this aversion to overly hopped beer, I never liked the high alcohol tannic wines as well, simply because it felt like I was chewing on nails and the tannins overpowered my palate and my brain just screamed pain not pleasure! Again, let me be clear, this is not any criticism to the quality of the products it’s simply my palate telling my brain that something is not “umami” in my mouth! And knowing this has allowed me intellectually enjoy many of the new emerging beverages of this generation, but my brain keeps it real.
The moral of this blog however, is to listen to your mouth, be your own critic and drink what feels good! Life is too short.
Cheers

NOTE: Kevin O’Donnell is the author of this blog. He is a seasoned hotelier, wine and beer afficiando, and educator. Kevin is currently the Vice President of Restaurant Operations for the New England Culinary Institute and lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

More of: The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line

The hardest task for any restaurateur is convincing a potential customer to walk through the front door for the first time. This takes considerable effort in the form of image building, identifying target markets, use of social media, advertising, building an effective website, selecting the right physical location, etc. Convincing a customer to make that leap means that they are willing to take a risk, sit down and spend some money. After all of that effort how much time do you spend on convincing customers to buy and set the stage for a return visit?

Keep in mind that your service staff are your ambassadors and sales force. Have you taken the time to train them how to sell and have you provided them with the tools that they need to be effective in that role? Your job is not to simply make a sale, it is to build a relationship that will result in steadily increasing sales, check averages and return guests. Your service staff holds your future in their hands.

That initial customer visit will likely result in “safe” purchases until your operation is able to demonstrate trustworthiness. The server is the portal for information, the front-line expert on your menu, the friend who can make great suggestions, the connection to others in the restaurant and the gatekeeper to your profitability.

Yes, the top line drives the bottom line and the server’s primary job is to sell, however, to accomplish this they must be able to provide exceptional value for the guest. Does you service staff known the menu, the ingredients, the source of those ingredients, the methods of preparation and the flavor profile of every item on the menu? Does your service staff have a working knowledge of wine and can they make great pairing suggestions for the novice wine consumer? Is your service staff comfortable communicating with the chef about special requests and can they offer those to a guest with confidence that the property can deliver? Is your service staff willing and able to sell the bookends: appetizers and desserts? If not, the fault lies with management and ownership.

The average restaurant in America spends less than 1% of its budget on training, yet it is training that will result in greater sales, higher check averages and return guests. The top line does not happen simply because your marketing efforts have led customers to walk through the door.

Are the tools in place to allow servers to up-sell with confidence? Is the dining room comfortable, is the menu attractive and user friendly, is the wine list understandable, do you offer on-going training to keep staff informed about the menu, do you require daily pre-meal information sessions, do you have a sommelier or a manager with a strong understanding of wine and the ability to build a list that works well with food, do you have the right glassware and china to complement the wine and food, do you take advantage of customer profile systems such as Open Table so that your server can track the preferences of return guests? The answer to each of these should be YES.

The top line drives the bottom line, but the process of setting the stage is the only thing that will allow this to become a reality.

Watch for information on “Deep Dive” Seminars by Harvest America Ventures coming to a city near you. Learn about the opportunities and pitfalls associated with restaurant operation.

Visit our website at: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Coming This Spring

Coming This Spring

For restaurateurs, restaurant managers, chefs and professional cooks, and for those contemplating a restaurant start-up – this seminar will help to set you on the right path and provide you with some important operational tools.

Look for seminars this spring in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Plattsburgh, Saratoga and Albany New York; as well as Burlington, Vermont and Boston, MA.

A full day with Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures. Includes a working lunch and interactive exercises that bring the information to life.

Look for details in the near future. In the meantime, visit our website and blog:

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line

The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line

This is a first post in a series demonstrating what Harvest America Ventures does to help restaurants reach their goals.

The restaurant business is quite simple on paper, the challenge is transitioning some simple rules into effective processes and great results. The first rule of thumb is that “sales rule”! All the cost controls in the world cannot compensate for a lack of business and customers who are not given the opportunity to spend more than they had anticipated.

How to reach and eventually exceed your sales goals is a complex mix of contemporary marketing, understanding and tracking customer expectations, producing consistently exceptional products, providing breakthrough service, and setting the stage for return guests. Simple isn’t it?

Let’s look first at the production of a consistently great product. There are a handful of restaurateurs and chefs today who have ruined it for everyone else. They are creating that WOW factor with their product every time a guest arrives. They are obsessed with a constant state of improvement. They are, without a doubt, their own worst critics and act not too dissimilar to obsessive artists.

I remember reading that in his later years Picasso was not allowed to walk, unaccompanied, through a museum that carried his work. His obsession with constantly critiquing his own work would lead him to try and correct his paintings on display. I know chefs and restaurateurs with a similar outlook. The customer is head over heals in love with the food and the experience, but the chef and owner are already trying to figure out how to fix it.

Steve Jobs was an obsessive character that drove his staff crazy with getting everything beyond right. He wanted perfection and realized that he would likely never get there. Even so, the best always strive for that goal.

There is little question that the pursuit of excellence in restaurant product development, production and service will always be a door for those few operations to be successful.

Good restaurants are able to develop menu items and produce them at a level of consistency that makes people comfortable. Great restaurants are constantly looking at pushing customer expectations higher each time they choose to spend money.

How good is your product? Do you obsess over it? Are you familiar with what the spoilers are doing to make your life more difficult and challenging every day? Do you follow David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Rick Bayless, Marcus Samuelsson, Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, and Grant Achatz to see what they are doing next? If not, you had better start.

Is your staff fully versed on what your food is, how it’s prepared, how it tastes and which wines form the perfect complement? Do they know how to up sell and build that check average?

Filling restaurant seats is critical, but developing a product that is fresh and always new and designed to draw people back in time and again is the key.

The top line drives the bottom line.

Stay tuned for more quick tips. Harvest America Ventures is a consulting and training company focused on the restaurant business. We are here to help you reach your goals.

COMING SOON: Deep Dive Seminars in an area near you!

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Building Your Food Memory

Building Your Food Memory

What does a fresh, seasonal strawberry taste like? How about apple pie, a Georgia Peach in July, A Prime Steak just off the char-grill, or even a cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon whipped cream? We would likely answer: it tastes like a strawberry, apple pie, a peach, a steak or hot chocolate. We know what they taste like from experience. Somewhere in our subconscious mind we can envision the texture, smell and flavor or each one of those items only because we have enjoyed them before. Without previous experience it would be impossible to describe those items and even with that experience it is very difficult to describe those items to someone who is lacking a previous experience themselves with that food.

We can make comparisons in an attempt to describe items that someone else has not enjoyed, but they generally fall short on accuracy. Case in point, how many different proteins are simply described as tasting like chicken (alligator, frog legs, rattlesnake, etc.)?

Now comes the interesting part of food memory from a cook’s perspective: You really can’t cook unless you have experienced taste, aroma and texture. Recipes are great, but they lack the flexibility to adjust for seasonality, size, maturity of raw materials, the impact of terroir, brand, or process. Tapping into food memory allows a cook to truly understand how to prepare an outstanding dish and if necessary, adjust to reach the correct end result. Additionally, one must always remember that food memory takes into account the environment in which those tastes, aromas and textures were experienced. When the context of the experience changes, so will memory of the food. That prime New York Strip grilled outside on a patio overlooking the vineyards of Napa Valley will taste differently when you try to replicate the food experience in an employee cafeteria. Food memory becomes the benchmark by which all other experiences with the same food prepared in another location and at another time are measured.

Why is a baguette so different when produced in your local bakery than in that boutique boulangerie on a side street in Paris? Some will claim it is the flour or the water, but is it that simple? Maybe it is the centuries of history behind that Parisian baguette, maybe it is the way that the baker kneads the dough, or maybe it is simply because it is Paris after all. I know chefs and bakers who spend countless hours, days and months trying to recreate that perfect loaf of French bread, Robuchon whipped potato, or Italian pizza crust to no avail. A restaurant in New York once determined that the flour and water for their pizza crust had to be imported from Italy. It was the only way that they would be satisfied with the results that compared to their memory.

The importance of this rambling is that every serious cook or for that matter, lover of food, must dedicate the time and effort to building food memories. Create your benchmarks by tasting everything you can, in every ideal location possible, with the right companions. Without this data in your subconscious, great cooking will alway allude you.

The Difference Between a Restaurant Meal and an Event

The Difference Between a Restaurant Meal and an Event

On Saturday, January 26 I was reminded of why I still remain so excited about being a part of the restaurant business. Together with many friends I presented a tribute menu event at the Left Bank Cafe in Saranac Lake, New York. This quaint cafe, reminiscent of a typical Parisian Bistro was host to a dinner entitled: “Monet’s Table – a tribute to this great impressionists love of color and life.

I love to create dinner “events” and find that the difference between such an undertaking and simply presenting a great quality restaurant meal rests in the design of a complete package. The following list defines the difference:

[] An Interesting and Relevant Theme: The Monet dinner theme provided us with an opportunity to tie the concept of the Left Bank French Cafe with the underlying theme of art, color, and creativity. The result was a warm and inviting restaurant designed to engage the guest.

[] Community Support: the concept of the neighborhood restaurant where people from the community actively participate in bringing the meal together was alive and well. Forty-four guests stretched the capacity of the Cafe so other restaurants allowed us to borrow china, glassware, flatware and even chairs to insure that the event took place. Thanks to all who helped and then participated as guests.

[] A Sense of Purpose: There were two underlying objectives supporting this event: first to bring the community together and secondly to promote the Left Bank Cafe as the type of place where neighbors can collect, enjoy a glass of wine and a light snack and for just a moment feel like they are watching time go by at a corner in Paris.

[] Working with Friends: Whenever I promote an event of this type I always bring in a friend or two to help and to share in the real joy of cooking and the fruits of the labor involved. I want to thank Chef Tim McQuinn from the North Hero House in Vermont, Anne Alsina from the Left Bank Cafe and her staff, and Kristin Parker from the Whiteface Club in Lake Placid for the fantastic photo memories.

[] Setting the Stage: I always enjoy the process of setting the stage to support the theme of a food event. Colorful Monet paintings brought life to the menus, painter’s palettes on the table, guest paint brushes that allowed them to try their hand at painting sauces on their plates, Monet prints scattered throughout the Cafe and the complementary colors of food on each plate contributed to the warm feel of the event.

[] Gathering of Friends and Breaking Bread: Of course, the most important element of an event is the opportunity to gather friends, enjoy the food, catch up on each others activities, clink glasses when the wine is poured, talk about the food and reflect on their own memories of trips to France and the importance of the Left Bank to the Saranac Lake Community.

Doctor’s, restaurateurs, educators, chefs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and artists all gathered together for this fun and inviting meal. Even the owners of the Cafe (Kenneth and Noelle Weissberg) flew over from Paris to share in the meal. A great time was had by all, but no-one enjoyed it more than me.

Thanks to all. I can’t wait till the next one.