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The Great Debates The SuperChef

Original Article:

The New Chef
By Ron Gorodesky, Restaurant Advisory Services

Of all the trends in the restaurant industry over the last decade, the 90's have perhaps been most noted as the "Decade of the Chef".

In the past, the Chef was for the most part an obscure position, with those in the field relatively unknown by the public, underpaid and often unappreciated. Then the public relations experts figured that by marketing the Chef, the independents would have a leg up on the chains that couldn't market specific personnel. This ploy worked so well that some of these media darlings became SuperChefs, and grew their newfound fame into chains and even retail food lines.

The result of all this is that the public now seems more interested in the movement of known Chefs than in new restaurants. Restaurateurs are all vying for the same known Chefs, and committing huge free agent dollars to acquire these superstars. Hotels and casinos are paying dollars well out of proportion to economics just to gain affiliations with a Chef who will not only drive restaurant revenue, but hotel occupancy and casino handle as well.

So how does a restaurateur compete? How does an independent restaurant with a single 150-seat upscale take advantage of this trend? Some of you probably don't care to compete on this basis, and there are lots of reasons to avoid making your Chef the centerpiece of your restaurant. (I'll discuss this later.) But if you do, you have two basic choices: Hire the Name or Grow Your Own. Before we explore these options, we must first determine the proper ingredients for a SuperChef.

To become a SuperChef, an individual must of course have the culinary and management skills, but must also have creativity and personality. Creativity goes beyond presentation skills, to a willingness, desire and ability to innovate in preparation, flavors and textures. And to be attractive to the media a SuperChef candidate must have a distinguishable personality and be relatively well spoken.

So that's the basic recipe. To make it happen, you can:

Hire the Name. Chefs can of course be bought. Such a move can bring instant acclaim and hordes of new patrons to your door. However, aside from the expense, this type is prone to leaving for a better offer at any time, or spreading him or herself too thin over several projects. Best advice here: Make the Chef a partner in the business and have an ironclad employment agreement.

Grow Your Own. This is the preferred route if you can do it. You can usually get someone who is more loyal and besides, it should cost less. If you have a Chef who could grow into a SuperChef, then go for it. Do the following:

- Hire a PR firm to get the Chef in the media as often as possible
- Internally market the Chef at every opportunity (name on menu, presence on the floor, showcasing original specials). - Enter (and win) food competitions
- Get James Beard Foundation recognition
- Volunteer food items prepared by the Chef at hi-profile charity events
- Contribute recipes to the media whenever possible
- If you plan do the above, get an employment agreement first and consider making the Chef a partner in your business

Some restaurateurs get a chill going down their spine when they think of affiliating with or creating a SuperChef. With very good reason. As an example, consider the plight of a restaurant that hires a Chef, puts his name on the front door, builds their entire marketing campaign around him, and then watches him leave. Or the restaurant that develops a menu around a chef's capabilities only to see him walk out the door with the kitchen staff and all hope of recreating special menu items.

However, despite many restaurateurs' distaste for such a SuperChef, the public loves them. They will flock to their restaurants on Tuesday nights, and gladly wait an hour on Thursdays. Best of all, the named Chef is an independent restaurants best offense against a chain's clout. It is a rewarding yet treacherous road, yet isn't that what our business is all about.

Reader Feedback:

Page One  (Ralph, David Farkas, Joan Stewart, I.S., Benedikt Morak)
Page Two  (SP, Oliver Weber, Martin CJ Mongiello, Gordon Anderson, David Braun)
Page Three  (Maren L. Hickton, Michael S. Fishberg, dc, N/A, Brad)

Your Turn:
If you've got something to say, we would love to hear from you. Please visit the Great Debates Feedback Page to send in your comments.

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