Chef talk: Chefs, it’s a numbers game

What is it about chefs, management and everything in between that is so complex? What makes cooking such a different trade to the others? I’ve got two words: Pressure and theatre. Simple, almost. 

And yet so not simple. Pressure is a given in any restaurant or food outlet. It’s the pressure of high standards, a picky public and maintaining consistency in a world where produce, staff and circumstances can change daily.

Theatre is now the expectation of the public at any medium to high dining experience. It’s the pressure of theatre-seeking diners weaned on explosive and entertaining cooking shows. And open kitchens that are as much about audience entertainment as the food they produce.

For restaurants, opening hours are just the window through which the public view the long process of chefs making that picture the public sees, the best they can.

But what I see missing in the chefs’ journey is manifold, and complex, if a chef is to reach the heights so many now aspire to.

Erasmus, in 1530 said, “No one can choose his own parents or nationality, but each man can mould his own talents and character for himself.” Erasmus was talking about civility and manners, but he hints at a greater goal – that of creating one’s own life, regardless of circumstances.

A restaurant is a beast, and it takes a strong and wise hand at the helm to keep control, and stay on track. The failure rate of new restaurants is a hefty 60% in the first year, with 80% hitting the dirt after 5 years. There are a multitude of factors for this, with some favourites being location, rents, or owners with no hospitality experience. The latter is something I face often as a consultant, being asked to help someone open up a restaurant, or tea room, or burger house without there being any experience in the industry amongst the would be owners.

My response? Take a jump. Go away. Go work in the industry for ten years and know what it is you’re doing. Save yourself and your money and your family. Do a business you know and know well, please.

And then there is the chef. It’s here I’m focussed for the purposes of this post: the chef who really, desperately wants his/her own business, own platform, own stage to share their passion and/or genius with the public.

The trouble is, I’ve found, that so many chefs are not savvy business people. Most often, they’re creative, driven, hard working and skilled cooks, but business? The boring accounting systems that reduce even the most high flying creative outlet to a numbers game, are the building blocks of any idea, and a knowledge of those numbers is die hard essential to any owner/chef.

hospitality talk-balancing-act-justthesizzle

Chefs are principally trained in cooking, not business, and I’ve had cooks and staff work for me who actually thought that every dollar that came into our till was mine to spend. They didn’t see me sitting up late at night paying bills, checking accounts, calling suppliers trying to negotiate better deals, and thinking, thinking, thinking how I could get the waste down and squeeze my miserable 10% net profit up a few digits.

While hospitality business courses are now available at culinary schools, (they weren’t in my day) most chefs are too busy working to make a living – long, hard hours – that precludes them the luxury and cost of expanding their knowledge in a much needed area.

And now it’s even harder to make that 10% net. Rents have gone through the roof on the back of the property boom and way too many food outlets have opened up creating a sea of competition that makes my head spin.

What’s my point? To all chefs who have a dream of owning their own place I say:

The obvious, as in do your homework. Get yourself a deep understanding of the business side of your business so you go in with a plan, a feasibility study that backs up your ideas, and research in the marketplace that gives you proof of concept.

The not so obvious? Look around for alternative ways of funding your dream. I’ve seen most partnerships that start in a glow of honeymoon enthusiasm, crash land later in a haze of pain, spite, anger and regret. Watch any television shows about Marco PW and how he got his start? He had backers. And that was after he’d slogged for years – often doing stages (unpaid work) – and had made a name for himself.

Most of the really big celebrity chefs have fans who are moneyed, and happy to invest in their culinary darling of the moment. Often it’s an ego thing, with the investors basking in the shared glory of a great chef. That of course, is a two edged sword, but at least it leaves the chef as head of his kingdom, with the freedom to call the shots without having to consult on every small thing with partners who have equal say. Or not, depending on the agreement.

But back in the real world, most would-be chef owners don’t have wealthy clients throwing money at them, and the cost of setting up a place from scratch is massive, and daunting.

So what do I ask of you, who might be considering setting up your first business? Be real.

Be honest, with yourself and those around you.

Know your strengths and weaknesses and be cautious.

It may take you 6-12 months to set up, but if it goes pear shaped you could be paying for your mistakes for the next ten to twenty years. Ouch!

Road test, market test your ideas and food so you know there’s definitely a market. Again, make sure you have proof of concept before you start looking around for a premises.

And most of all?


Put your ego away and LISTEN to others, to advice, seek the wisdom of seniors who’ve been where you are now, and stop talking and just listen. The universe will tell you if you just open your ears.

And I wish you all the best of luck. Chrissie ☺