Tuesday, December 28, 2010

No Chef...No Clue...No Shit!

So there I was: no chef … no clue … no shit! I was handed a restaurant with no papers signed, had just fired my drunk chef (with no replacement) and really had no clue as to what I was supposed to do moving forward. Anyone with even a small amount of restaurant knowledge would have said I was doomed … period. Fortunately for me, my one really good attribute is my ability to make things work under pressure. The more pressure there is, the better I seem to perform. Just to be clear, I am not saying that living a stressed-out life, always being two steps behind and doing daily tasks that have to be done because they were yesterday’s priority is a smart way to live. But I will say as a small, independent restaurant owner who wears many, many hats and is very involved in his business … this is just the way it is.

So new restaurant owners, be wary, because you’re going to be weary. With that being said, and the pressure on, I set up a kitchen meeting. In my meeting I learned that one of the line cooks had worked at Le Bec Fin, a nationally acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant run by legendary Chef Georges Perrier. The line cook was made the sacrificial lamb and given the reins for that night’s service. I told him to continue to execute the same menu while I interviewed for a replacement chef.

My ignorance was already showing through loud and clear. Could I have been more insulting to this cook? I didn’t think to offer him the job or, at the very least, give him the opportunity to interview. Because of my lack of restaurant experience, I didn’t realize that someone working in a Georges Perrier kitchen for over two years would learn 10 times more than he would have learned at a culinary school. Ironically, now, eight years later as a self-taught chef, I prefer applicants who have not attended culinary school. Now, when I am interviewing chefs, I am more interested in where they worked and what chef they worked under. And, I am always impressed when I see that someone has stayed at one place for more than two years. I, quite possibly, had the perfect diamond-in-the-rough with this kid and because of my ignorance as a restaurant owner, I never offered him the opportunity to shine.

After several very disappointing interviews, I decided to ask a local chef/owner if he knew of anyone. He said his girlfriend had been running his catering business for a couple years and he thought she was ready. I liked these people. I frequented their restaurant and used the catering services and although I was a meat and potatoes guy with an extremely limited palate, I enjoyed their food. For the interview, I asked the girlfriend to come to the restaurant to cook three plates for four of us-- the former owner, his sister-in-law, my wife and me. I can’t remember what she made, but I do remember the meal was hit-or-miss. At the end of the meal she said she didn’t feel good about what she served. She claimed that the ingredients in the kitchen were not high quality and that she would like the opportunity to cook for us again at her boyfriend’s restaurant on a night he was closed.

As we have since learned watching cooking reality shows, a good chef could walk in a 7-Eleven and make a decent meal, but we agreed to the rematch and set a date for the following week. We invited six people. On the morning of the tasting, the former owner called me and said he would like to bring four more guests and told me I should ask if we could increase the tasting from six people to ten people. I finally was able to get in touch with her sometime mid-afternoon and she politely said she would not be able to accommodate the request because she was already preparing everything and didn’t have enough food. To me, this seemed very reasonable… but the former owner was outraged. “If she can’t bend for four more people, how could she possible run your kitchen?” he said. “I wouldn’t even bother going to the tasting - it would be a giant waste of time.” Once again, “Svengali” had spoken and his restaurant experience trumped my lack of. Feeling horrible, I made the call and told this poor girl that if she didn’t make the dinner for ten we were not coming. Now she was outraged and basically told me to go &%$# myself. Eight years later, we’re only just back on speaking terms.

With no hope of finding a good chef and no real contacts to reach out to, I was relieved when the kid running the kitchen came to me and said he had a friend I should talk to. The following week, I met with his friend and did a tasting. His food was very good. I particularly remember a dish of figs wrapped in prosciutto, grilled and served on a bed of greens drizzled with balsamic reduction. The plates looked stunning, and eight years later, I still remember that he came empty handed and utilized only the products in my kitchen. He was hired on the spot.

Interviewing staff is one of the hardest parts of owning a restaurant. Looking back, I think we handled the situation poorly but in the end in it worked out -- at least for that moment. You’ll have to wait for my next posting to see what happened next.

1 comment:

  1. MAN, I really enjoy reading about your blundering. Because I blunder _all the time_, of course, so it's a lot of fun to read about how you bit off WAY more than you could chew, made all sorts of rookie mistakes, but made it nonetheless. I'm not involved in restaurants all, but I feel like I can totally relate. Great posts, please keep them up! I can't wait to see what happens next! :)