The perils of hiring a high-profile head chef

Image courtesy of Alibi, Sydney

Notable chefs bring media attention and more bums on seats, sure, but at what cost? As a business owner, hiring a big name to run your kitchen comes with a slew of hidden expenses that Tony Eldred argues may not be worth it in the long run.

I’ve noticed over the years that restaurateurs’ quests for ‘name’ chefs has amplified. It seems like a sure-fire way to gain a marketing foothold and repeated reviews, but it can backfire badly – especially if the business owner is inexperienced.

Firstly, consider what draws people’s attentions to a chef. The chef’s impressive resume, innovative approach, sheer celebrity status, or the guarantee of good food?

But if you stand back and view a restaurant dispassionately, all these things are just means to an end – a profitable business that delivers a lifestyle for its owner. Otherwise, why bother?

Most people enter restaurant businesses with the ultimate aim of making a reasonable return on their investment. So herein lies the problem: chefs achieve a high profile for good food, not the overall business success of their employer, and a creative genius can send you broke quicker than you can say “insolvent and destitute”.

To begin, name chefs come with high salaries. Generally they hold their hands out for pay checks bigger than most small or medium sized businesses can afford … unless that chef works 90 hours a week. Most name chefs are also looking to work in kitchens where they have a well-padded crew beneath them. The result? Great food with unsustainable wage costs.

Next: most high-profile chefs want to do their food their way. After all, this is what you employed them for. If their food concepts are reasonable and they rein in the tendency to purchase exotic ingredients, you could be OK, but if they order truffles, foie gras, jamon, caviar and other gastronomic “necessities” every week, you can add food cost problems onto high wages.

Restaurateurs need to recognise that their chefs may be working to a completely different agenda to that which is beneficial to the owners’ interests. That chef’s career may have more to do with getting a listing in the Good Food Guide than the commercial success of the business they work for. This often creates tremendous pressure to move the business upmarket, beyond the original intentions of the owners, and into territory where profits are thin or non-existent.

I have lost count of the number of restaurants I have examined that were giving the public and the chef a really good deal while the owner was moving steadily towards the poorhouse.

Another issue that needs to be considered is that once your restaurant is associated with a name chef, you will be forever locked-in to replacing them with another name chef when the original one leaves, or the dining public will assume that your glory days are over. Replacing one commercially irresponsible chef with another is to be avoided if you ever want to catch up on your BAS payments.

At this point I have to clearly recognise that not all high-profile chefs are problem children. I have worked with some who are equally commercially realistic as they are gastronomically talented, but these are in the minority. There are quite a few who seem to drift from one business disaster to another, meanwhile holding the adulation of the press just because they can cook good food.

So in the end this is the advice I normally give to my clients: Be aware that your chef controls the largest amount of money that flows through your business, if you add food and kitchen wages together. A good chef not only has to be able to provide consistent, appropriate food, they have to do this within strict cost guidelines and maintain a stable team of motivated staff. They should be far more than good cooks.