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Common Foodsense: Staying happily employed

Just the other day, there was a piece on the BBC about unprepared idealists making disastrous forays into the restaurant industry. Sounds familiar, I know. The stories ran along the usual lines: “My dream since childhood; always wanted to have my own restaurant; had a day job where I sold my soul for money; made beautiful food at home, everybody said I should open a restaurant; I’d never worked in one before, but I’d eaten in a lot of them… how hard could it be?” This, by the way, is a mantra that barely wakes Satan from his afternoon nap. Won’t need to push things along here; it’ll all take care of itself. 

Industry lifers can write their own epilogues. Operators can enjoy a moment of grudging respect for the difficulty of the job they do. Consultants can feel secure that they will always find a client. And the pathologists in academia can turn the autopsy results into another case study. 

What I’ve never read is the view of this trope from the wreckage. You hear of the dreams that go in the dumpster, the $80,000 credit card bill that came from assuming it was possible to pay for liquor with cash flow, and the chastened amazement anyone can survive in the industry—but does anyone talk about the newly jobless cooks, and how this looked to them?

The cooks do, of course; generally over beers. During the decline, we’ll have observed that the drivers now wait for cash before unloading their deliveries. We’ll encourage each other to spruce up our resumes when a paycheck bounces. One of us will recall a time she showed up for work to find the locks changed. 

After the third or fourth time through this routine, a guy begins to think about growing the hair back on the shaved half of his head, taking out the ear gauges, covering the tattoos and getting a job in sales. It is, however, possible to make a decent living in the industry. In general, it takes both time and strategy.

A common response to the industry’s capriciousness is to look for the presumed stability of a larger employer. Casinos, hotels, corporate feeders and chains share several desirable traits: regular hours, a clear path for advancement and sufficient cash to make the payroll. They tend to have a more conservative approach to menu, dress, and drinking on the job, and you don’t generally see their chefs featured in Food & Wine. Many cooks who begin in the crazy indies migrate in this direction sometime in their 30s, when things like family and sleep begin to look good.

For those committed to a more individual direction, let me offer some advice: The sooner you diversify your portfolio, the better. In our BBC episode, no one asked this guy if he could change a thermocouple or calculate a break-even point. Learn to do both. A thermocouple costs less than 40 bucks; the repair call including the part will be over $250. When you buy an oven, make someone in the shop show you how to replace that thing, and buy a handful. You’ll need one every year, at least.

And about that break-even: If you ever want to own your own place, you need to know how to do this. The principle is simple: here are my monthly expenses, both fixed and variable (do you know which is which?), and here’s how much I need to make to arrive at zero. If you present your break-even to a banker in quest for a loan, and you project that you’ll be breaking even within the first couple of months and making a profit from there, she’ll assume you’re high and show you the door. Learn how to make a cautious projection and how to support it. 

Even if you never want your own restaurant—and I never did; I’m the sort who wouldn’t have a life outside it—knowing this stuff makes you a more valuable commodity. Restaurants go broke because their numbers don’t add up; an ease with the arithmetic that underpins the business gives you better industry bandwidth and better job prospects. You’d be surprised at the number of chefs who can’t calculate a foodcost, and don’t know what beginning-inventory-plus-purchases-minus-ending-inventory equals. Or why it’s necessary to know.

Now, as for the fun stuff (I actually like the numbers, but that’s a relatively recent phase of my career. Took living through a few closings to appreciate it). You should know how to develop a recipe, and do it in a couple of ways. The most rarely used is the descendant of the oral tradition that our forebears bequeathed to us: Some portly old fascist stares at you, and tells you to put a duxelle in the trout, braise it in Riesling, finish with cream, serve with asparagus beurre noir, and you’d better understand what he’s talking about. Nowadays that generally happens in independent restaurants when you’ve thought up a special that is going to be served in a couple of hours. If it’s going to be around for a month or two, or you’re doing it for a multi-unit company, you have to cost it out in both food and labor. So learn to write it down … and include amounts that you’ve measured and procedures that you’ve timed.

Then you want to see what you can do with it. Jacques Pépin was drinking wine with my buddies Hadj, Sally and me one night years ago at the Barbary Fig, and giving advice to us youngsters. When he developed a recipe, he’d sell it to a magazine but keep the rights (they have two contracts; make sure you ask for the one that grants them first-use only) so he could use it in a book. Then he’d take it on tour for cooking classes. And incidentally, he consulted for restaurants and manufacturers, had a TV show, and never turned down an interview. He figured he’d make a decent career of it as long as he remembered to work at it like a line cook. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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