SAY IT'S NOT SO..........

I guess we all have our heros – people who in our professional or personal lives have helped us to set a course and continue to inspire us on a daily basis. To some it may be a musician, a painter, an athlete, a teacher, an inventor, or a parent, friend, or sibling. To thousands of chefs, including myself, it has been, and always will be the great chef Escoffier.

Escoffier, afterall, defined the organization of a kitchen (called the brigade) that is still used nearly 100 years after his prime, he introduced service a’la russe (service by course), brought dignity and professionalism to the kitchen and wrote Le Guide Culinaire, the chef’s cookbook.

I remember one of my first trips to France when I was fortunate enough to visit the Escoffier museum (his former home) in Ville neuf Lobert, near Nice. When I came across the great chef’s desk I placed my hand on top and felt the electricity of his influence. The following year I was honored to represent the United States at a conference that focused on the future of culinary education in Escoffier’s home town with his great-grandson, Michel Escoffier. I will never forget the experience.

In my office I have proudly hung a portrait of Escoffier to remind me every day of the importance that he placed on cooking and those who choose to make a career in the kitchen.

So, naturally, while visiting London last week I had to get my picture taken in front of the Savoy Hotel where Escoffier and his front-of-the-house partner: Cesar Ritz once held court and re-defined cuisine for the British.

Upon returning to the States I undertook a bit more research on the Savoy and Escoffier’s tenure there only to find an article pertaining to a BBC documentary that was prepared on the chef’s life. The writer had apparently completed some research that, taken at face value, is quite disturbing. He claims to have proof that Escoffier and Ritz were fired from the Savoy for misappropriation of funds that they used their positions to wine and dine and convince investors to set them up in the Carlton Hotel for significant personal gain. According to the writer, their is proof including signed confessions by both parties. He claims that the British Royalty ignored the incident and subsequent punishment for reasons of probable collusion or fear of public outcry.

“Escoffier and Ritz were sacked by the Savoy on February 28, 1898. the reasons were that the pair had been dining – and especially wining – potential investors in the new Carlton Hotel that they opened that year at the Savoy’s expense. ……Escoffier, moreover, cofessed to taking “commission”, gifts or kickbacks from the Savoy’s suppliers amounting to a (sizeable amount of money in today’s terms).”
by: Paul Levy
June 2012
The Telegraph

Escoffier is my professional hero and as such I choose to deny the validity of this story. His work and standards have been my searchlight as well as a beacon for thousands of chefs over the decades, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and turn a blind eye, at least until more is revealed. 🙂

In France the Fundamentals are Strong

Bread, Cheese and Wine – all products of fermentation, products that require an artisan to prepare properly, products of passion and commitment and products that represent the foundations of a great cuisine.

Having just returned from a far too short week in France, I relish the experience of realizing that no mater where you travel in this country, the people are fully committed to these foundations. They understand them, appreciate them, live by them and communicate every day using bread, wine and cheese as the common denominator representing not just a country’s cuisine, but the core of its culture as well.

Paris, of course, has more than it’s share of great boulangeries, wine shops and cheese vendors, but it is the countryside that serves as the bounty for a country defined by great food foundations. Even the smallest town in Burgundy will have at least one if not two or three excellent bakeries. Look to the left, look to the right and you will find wine vines producing sometimes exceptional, but always great local wines. Finding world class cheese is not difficult, in fact it is so essential to life in France that it is as much a staple in shops and homes as eggs and milk are in the United States.

The most impressive thing is that the French are serious about their food. As America enjoys a food integrity metamorphosis, we can look to the French countryside for inspiration. The French have been buying local, using grass-fed animals, avoiding the use of chemicals, enjoying the work of artisans and planning their menus based on the seasons for as long as time.

Bread in particular is simply extraordinary in France. From petite dejunier to late night dinner, cafe latte with baguette or croissant and confiture to croustades with your rillette- bread plays a central role in the meal.

Drinking wine is not reserved for those who have the resources and wine knowledge to purchase from the best wine shops; wine in France is all about knowing the vintner, visiting and touching the vines, breaking bread with the wine maker who is your neighbor, and clinking glasses while tasting in their private wine cellars. In the country, every home has a wine cave – the most treasured part of the family estate.

To truly understand the foundations of cuisine (bread, wine and cheese) you MUST visit the countryside of France. This is a right of passage for any serious culinarian and food lover.

Each time I visit France, it is time in the country that leaves me truly appreciative of the impact that food can have on culture. It is so wonderful to see Americans turning back to an understanding of this and an appreciation for the foundations.

I can hardly wait to return.

Beginning in the fall of 2013, Harvest America Ventures in conjunction with the Weissberg family of France will be offering educational wine vacations in the Burgundy Region. Stay tuned for more information soon, but visit our website in the meantime at: and click on “Food and Wine Vacations” for a sampling of content. If you are interested simply send me an email: and I will place you on the information mailing list.


The National Restaurant Association recently released their 2013 version of the Top Ten Trends in Restaurant Menus. Five of the Top Ten are directly related to buying local and regional or focused on sustainable practices, while four additional focus on better nutritional practices. This is the third year in a row that buying local directly or indirectly played a role in menu concepts.

The survey is driven by responses from 1,800 chefs nationwide and is built from a cross-section of the restaurant spectrum. There is no question that America is moving in a new direction, one that gives respect for the source of food and addresses the concern that chefs have for the integrity of the food supply.

The first thing that came to mind is an old saying that has been passed down from generation to generation: “What goes around, comes around”. For far too long we (most chefs included) have bought into the comfort that it was possible to buy any ingredient, any time of the year, delivered to any property as long as we were willing to pay the price. Of course, the “price” turned out to be more than just money.

Farmers and distributors, in order to meet the unlimited palate that Americans had for anything and everything, resorted to a centralized approach that required farms to focus on one or two products, use of chemical fertilizers, and renting genetically modified seeds that would ward of insects and maximize yield. Farms became mechanized with machinery the size of a small house, product grown with minimal touch from the farmer, distribution systems that required farmers to pick product before it was mature to insure that it shipped well, and a product in the hands of the chef that sacrificed taste and wholesomeness for availability and consistency.

Over the past few years we have been bombarded with the information that points out the price that we are paying for a system that has taken the farmer out of the farm and integrity away from the product.

We ship lettuce 3,000 miles to get to a restaurant loading dock, we put our oranges in jeopardy from freak weather conditions, we cram out cattle into pens that resemble the worst prison setting and pump them full of antibiotics to ward off too much disease, feed them genetically engineered corn and pump them full of growth hormones to increase yield for the insatiable appetite for more and more beef. The list goes on and on.

Chefs and American consumers are beginning to say, “enough is enough” and do what can only be done from the bottom up: change what has gotten out of control.

Due to Mother Nature’s cycle it would be close to impossible to buy only local, but it is so refreshing to see so many restaurants doing what they can. It is encouraging to see more and more chefs building relationships with farmers and supporting their effort to grown quality, organic and sustainable crops. It is fantastic to watch the American public begin to demand food that is fresh, ripe, seasonal, reflective of the local terroir, healthy and incredibly flavorful.

Supporting your local farmer who has as much love for the ingredient as chefs have for the prepared meal, is the right thing to do and as it appears now, the profitable thing to do for restaurants.

I had the privilege of working four years in Vermont and witnessing how a decentralized, farmer focused system works. Vermont has taught us all a valuable lesson on returning to a way of life that supports health, local economies and to respect the farmer/producer, artist in their efforts to pay tribute to Mother Nature and the natural balance that we had lost over the past few decades.

Let me know what your thoughts are.


Paul Sorgule
Harvest America Ventures

Most Restaurant Meals are Disappointing

So…I just had an epiphany and as a result am writing this blog post that some people might not like. It might simply be because I am traveling on business right now and had a rough trip, then again, I have been feeling this for a while and just refrained from expressing it. The reality is that most restaurant meals are disappointing (I am refraining from saying they suck because some might think that that is too abrasive a term) and these meals pale in comparison to what any reasonably attentive person could prepare at home. Furthermore, the value of these restaurant meals is simply not there.

Now, when I say value, many would think that I am referring to price vs. product, but in fact, it is not always about price. Value has much to do with how you feel about your purchase. Value includes quality, perceptions, service, presentation, nutrition, freshness, ingredient source and yes, price. Personally, a great meal is never diminished in my mind because of price. I would rather save up for a high priced meal that is exceptionally prepared, appropriately portioned, beautifully presented, flavorful and exciting than simply buy something to fill me up that is inexpensive.

I get truly excited about visiting great restaurants and when I do it is after considerable research. In most cases, these well researched restaurants care for their food, appreciate the source of ingredients, have a solid understanding of good cooking technique, and treat their customers like family. That is the description of value.

Why do people get into the restaurant business if they fail to understand the basic principles of a great food establishment. Don’t misunderstand me..I am not talking strictly about fine dining. Any restaurant, focused on any demographic, with any price structure can follow these principles. Unfortunately, so many do not.

As I sit in yet another restaurant for a weary traveler I look around at fake environments, menus that are ill-conceived, food that is not cared for, a lack of real fresh ingredients, portions that are ridiculously large, dining rooms and kitchens that are not as clean as they should be, inattentive servers who obviously would rather be doing something else, managers who don’t have a clue, and customers who for some reason accept it all as being OK.

What is most frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be this way! A little bit of training, a large splash of caring, a pinch of interest in the quality of ingredients, a sprinkle of focus, a large portion of pride and the whole scene could change.

Going out to eat should always be viewed as something special, even if our lifestyles dictate that we spend a larger part of our food dollar in restaurants. Dining out has become mundane and this is criminal (from someone who has dedicated his life to the restaurant business).

We have thousands of culinary and restaurant management graduates coming out of schools every year and yet the larger portion of restaurant operations seem to get less and less exciting, more and more mediocre, and very light in “value” delivery.

There are over 900,000 free-standing restaurants in the U.S. and far too many don’t really deserve a steady flow of patrons. This is sad, but true. THIS CAN BE FIXED.

Cooking and service are HONORABLE PROFESSIONS. There are few things in life more gratifying that breaking bread with others and preparing for those who do.

When the REAL VALUE is not there then price is the most important factor in people’s minds.

I just want a meal that is an expression of caring, that reflects a commitment on the part of the chef, cook, server and manager. Is that too much to ask?

For those who are ready to make the leap towards value and invest the time to be great – contact me for help. This is what I do and I can coach you through the process.

Contact me through my website at:

Posturing, Politics, Trust and How Not to Become a Putz

I found the following article by an anonymous source that really seems to hit the nail on the head. Regardless of what business you are in, this type of leadership “misdirection” seems to take place. This is a call to those with integrity to stand up and do what is right.

“In business, a lack of leadership and vision leads to dysfunction, poor morale and the general failure to meet goals and objectives.

How does this happen? In organizations, similar to athletic teams who on paper have the most potential and never deliver, if there is a lack of unified vision and shared, consistent goals – negativity and power stances most often take center stage. Usually the void is filled with personal gain for those who profess to be providing leadership when all they do is add a whole new layer of chaos and negative politics.

When leadership is lacking it takes a strong, ethical person to rise above such chaos and take control. All too often ambition is not the strongest trait of an ethical team player’s personality and therefore this rarely happens. What typically occurs when this void exists is that chaos leads to a lack of confidence among employees and eventually trickles down to the customer. Ultimately, this environment can undermine the success of the business and lead to the potential for business failure. It is the ancient myth of “Hubris” being played out time and time again.

As Sun Tzu points out in his centuries old treatise on the “Art of War”:

When your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take the challenge of your extremity. Thus no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

How does a company avoid such a scenario?

While I have simplified this concept, we have all experienced this, to some degree, and to delve into the intricacies of failure seems of little use. How to avoid such pitfalls is the real challenge.

It takes a diverse group of personalities to make a company successful, but one trait, above all is the most important….TRUST.

*Trust in knowing that everyone is committed to the same vision
*Trust in knowing that leadership has it’s employees best interest at heart
*Trust in knowing you have that same interest for those who report to you
*Trust in knowing success is a shared value and one that can only be achieved through failure without retribution
*Trust in knowing all your peers have high ethical standards and understand the meaning of “what is right” regardless of personal gain

A company cannot invest enough in developing an infrastructure based on trust. To skimp in this endeavor only leads to chaos. Again, as Sun Tzu expounds upon in his “Art of War”:

We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors.

If you cannot trust someone, how can you work side by side with this person knowing that his/her motives are different than your own? It is no wonder that Asian cultures strive to get to know the person before they ever do business with them.

Define your own values and that of the company you work for – be transparent. Don’t engage in backroom politics, trust and be trusted, work toward a shared goal without thought of ambition and most of all….don’t be a putz about it. Long-term business gain comes from an environment of trust.”

Thanks to the author of this article for defining a key issue that leads to success or failure in business, on the athletic field, in government, or even in the home.

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:



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: 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:
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.


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:

“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.

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.

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