Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Forget the powders, we need a team approach to improving the nation's health

“Vanilla mushroom protein, super endocrine, Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca and Shilajit resin”….When I read Amanda Chantal Bacon’s food diary I had the overriding feeling that this lady was a crackpot.

An obsession for health that results in eating powders and concoctions rather than food is one side of the scale, the other is a diet of pizza, chips and processed food.

There is more evidence supporting that you are what you eat. Those who put in too much and make poor dietary decisions often end up obese with long term health problems. It isn't just those who are obese who will have health problems, you can be thin but with a poor diet you are open to the same risks. 

There is overwhelming evidence that we need to eat more fish, more vegetables and more complex carbohydrates. However, the trouble is that there isn’t a balanced view from the medical profession. 

When I found out that I was suffering from cancer, a life threatening illness, my first question to myself and then to the medic was “What caused it?”.  He responded that they don’t analyse what causes cancer, but rather try to find the cure. I don’t want to take anything away from the man who helped me recover, he is a fantastic practitioner, but I find this approach short-sighted.

In the aviation industry, if something goes wrong the attention is directed towards what caused it, something that is explained in Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking. While industries like aviation are committed to prevention - for obvious reasons -  the medical profession has a closed mind when it comes to finding out why the illness has developed.

Chemotherapy is both good and bad. It can eliminate cancer but ongoing chemo for a long time can kill you if a secondary illness develops. I have read of many successful cases of people prolonging and improving their lives with cancer thanks to natural remedies yet anyone who promotes these methods is viewed as a crank!

There is solid evidence that what we eat affects our health so why is this approach so wrong? 

How many doctors are trying to find a cure in the world? We are often told which foods can increase chances of cancer but surely if they got their heads together they could identify a balanced diet which could reduce our chances.

During my recovery from cancer, I’ve looked into high alkaline diets, good and bad fats and good and bad cholesterol but no one is putting this information together to create a more rounded approach. 

This leads me to question whether chefs could contribute to the nation’s health. Jamie Oliver might achieve some success with his sugar tax but how much more could he achieve if he had all the chefs of the UK on board? 

When you learn to cook you learn the basics of preparing and cooking food but you don’t learn about the impact of what people put into their bodies.  Unless you are working in hospitals, care homes and schools, you simply don’t have an appreciation of the nutritional qualities of food. During my classical training nutrition wasn’t even thought of - it was all about taste, pretty pictures and massaging egos. Once again it’s a closed mind set.

The chef’s curriculum focuses on how to do it but I think this should include what constitutes a balanced diet going beyond creating a dish with meat, carbohydrates and vegetables. 

Imagine what change we could bring about if we were to include health and nutrition at NVQ level 1, 2 and 3 and educate all trainee chefs in the nutritional benefits of the ingredients they use. It would mean more knowledge and awareness and healthier food on a lot more plates. I really believe that it could make a difference and any initiative will have my backing. 

When it comes back to Amanda Chantal Bacon, I don’t see how you can live normally eating such a diet but it’s her life and if her body tells her it’s good then I’m happy for her.  Amanda Chantal Bacon might have taken what she consumes to the extreme but until we have the research and education in place to prove her wrong, who are we to criticise?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

What we can learn from the World Cup....

And whilst I’m on the subject, it isn’t just the chef world that is struggling with work ethics.  What I saw of the England team this World Cup clearly demonstrates the issue there.

In fact, we can hardly call England a team, they play as individuals, earn too much and the highest earners only seem interested in their own little fiefdoms.  Unlike some other countries I’ve seen, our England players show no passion or acceptance of the reason why they’re there and they play without a game plan or work ethics. In contrast, the German team has been built and nurtured over many years. Its young players are humble yet passionate and play beautifully as a team.  It is a credit to German football training that they have improved at every tournament, peaking so triumphantly in Brazil.

The premiership is a great spectacle but it does nothing for English football. I’m not alone is saying that there’s far too much money at the top of the game and the infrastructure of the Football Association needs to wake up to training and nurturing talent.  A percentage of the wages paid to premiership players should be spent on training and paying the wages of the best youth coaches for the future of the national team. I don’t believe that I’ll ever see an England team win the World Cup in my lifetime unless these changes are made now. 

The sport has lost its way and is now far removed from its working class roots and for that I blame the vast number of sponsors for throwing too much money into the game. The education system also has to accept some of the blame, after all it is these establishments that should be producing the workforce of the future. The England football woes and the recruitment woes felt by chefs and restaurateurs stem from the same lack of work ethics in many young workers. Before they even consider which options to take, pupils should be taught the philosophy of work and have an understanding of why we should pay taxes and contribute to society. Unless young people appreciate the personal and social reward of working hard to build a career, we will always be up against those who believe that a comfortable life is deserved, not earned.  

Friday, 18 July 2014

Why we should act now to sustain our industry's future

In an ideal world this blog would provide advice about recruiting good staff but let’s face it, staffing is the biggest single issue facing our industry today. Having spent the last 30 years recruiting, training and promoting a number of excellent chefs, I’ve realised that these days you have to ‘grow your own’.  When I was young, training to be a chef involved an apprenticeship at a 5 star hotel in Mayfair, this would involve every facet of working in a big kitchen.  We’d gain experience working in hot and cold buffet, a la carte, banqueting, baking and patisserie.  We might not have excelled at everything but this provided us with solid experience which made us good all round chefs with skills that we would hone as our career progressed.  

As was reflected in the recent National Restaurant Awards, the trend for casual dining has had a huge impact on the UK restaurant scene.  However, my concern is that this is also impacting the skills available. Whilst passion, entrepreneurial skills and the ability to cook a couple of dishes very well might be enough for a successful street food business, the skills required to run a busy service in a large five star hotel are another thing altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I welcome the street food culture, it’s exciting and has brought new energy into our industry and I believe that it complements rather than detracts from the traditional restaurant scene. That said, with street food being hip right now, I worry that young people are choosing to follow a fashion rather than to train towards having a craft. What we could end up with is a generation of chefs with skills that are not transferable outside of the niche field that they work.

I also believe that many young chefs are looking for opportunities to be successful quickly, rather than to train to be the best they can be. They arrive with big ambitions but the first crisis blows them out of the window. When you leave college, you need the experience of working in a commercial environment, but young chefs are not always made aware of what this means. The first job in a professional kitchen takes a couple of months to adjust to, long days on your feet in a hot, noisy environment impacts the body and mind and the beginning is always tough.  However, once through that stage and with a good sound base in your training it opens doors and its also an investment in your future.

In my day, apprentices worked under masters who were highly trained, long standing chefs.  I was trained under Master Chefs in both Germany and Switzerland, it was tough and a steep learning curve but it was the best training I could have wished for straight out of college.  This has been happening since Medieval times and it’s a great system.

Unfortunately these days chefs with old fashioned work ethics and the necessary skills are difficult to come by.  It’s great to celebrate the dynamic culinary scene that we have, but if we want to build the UK’s reputation for great cooking we need to be seriously thinking about the future of training.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Establishing your restaurant

Before you even think about an opening date for your restaurant, you need to sit down and work out a meticulous plan - a military operation isn’t planning enough!

Here’s a checklist which I use to help me sense check that the right plans are in place:
  • Are there any clauses in the lease which might be prohibitive to what you want to do with your business?
  • Have you secured the correct building regulations?
  • Have you applied for your drinks licence?
  • Do you have the correct health and safety certificates?
  • Will there always be a first aider on site?
  • Have you and your solicitor checked and understood all the legal documents?
  • Plus many other eventualities that may arise!

Once you’re satisfied that you have these procedures ticked off, your most important consideration will be what is it all about? Ultimately, in my opinion it has to be about money and if you want to survive the first few years never lose sight of this.

Maintain a humbleness and clarity of thought at all times, keep to your vision and don't be side-tracked by anyone or anything. 

However, as I mentioned in my last blog, you need to be prepared to make compromises so identify the areas which you are prepared to be flexible about.  This could be anything from the price of the paint on the walls to the tableware to the wine list. Knowing in advance what you’re happy to sacrifice will help you to maintain focus on the important things. 

When we first purchased Simpsons in Edgbaston it could have been a wine bar, bistro, brasserie or restaurant. The main priority was to make a profit, which is a good way to test your decisions. Fortunately we fully believed in what we were doing and soon found our feet. That was 20 years ago at the back end of a recession. 

Your team is your biggest asset so think about how you would like to be treated as an employee and what kind of boss you want to be.  If you plan to lead by example be prepared to clean up the toilet after someone has chucked up!  Draw on your experiences of the good and bad times and use this to influence your management style. You’re only as good as your staff; each member of the team needs to be thought about and nurtured every day.  

As a chef or restaurateur you want to be the best, set out your stall based on your experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s a US-style diner or a Michelin-starred restaurant, you need to be confident in your abilities and focussed on excellence. In my view, it’s best to stick to what you’re good at, don’t over complicate things.
At the end of the day, restaurants are straightforward enterprises - food is delivered at the back door, prepared by chefs in the kitchen and served to customers who enter and leave by the front door and pay on the day! It’s people who can make it difficult - staff and customers.  By appointing good people and relying on your network of helpful and reliable contacts you are well on your way to making your business a success. 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Setting up a restaurant - striking a deal on your restaurant site

When asked what’s important when finding a new restaurant site, most people would answer with the three ‘Ps’ - position, position, position. However, I have a slightly different take...

If you’re offering great quality food and service and good value for money, people will travel to you.  For me, the most important consideration is whether the property fits within a prudent and conservative business plan. Ask yourself, ‘Is there a way out?’, ‘Can it be redeveloped for anything else?’ and most of all, ‘Can you make money out of the deal?’.  

Always stick to your guns when choosing a site, it might be a fantastic location but if the rent is sky-high then you’re going to struggle to make a profit.  Running a business is hard enough, without you being burdened by huge rent or a high mortgage. There are some great deals to be had in commercial property at the moment and you’ll be surprised by what you can afford.  However, if it’s your first purchase then it’s likely that the vendor will have more experience than you and you’re not going to out-fox an old pro, even in this market.  Call in the advice of friends and family and remember the building is not the be-all and end-all. If it doesn’t work out, then move on to the next one.

My most recent purchase is The Cross at Kenilworth, where I know the area well and I could see its potential as a business. For me, it ticked all the boxes; it was an existing restaurant in a good catchment area, had a lovely big garden and was at the right side of town for what we wanted to do.  At the moment, there aren’t any other businesses in the area offering the same style and level of food and service that we’ll be providing so the timing was good too. Let’s hope that I’m proven right. 

The Cross at Kenilworth which we recently refurbished
My first restaurant was a different story, I had my heart set on an old bakery in Kenilworth, however for various, mostly practical, reasons it didn’t work out and when we realised that it wasn’t going to happen we bought Simpsons in Kenilworth. The rest is history but at this early stage in my restaurant career, I learnt that you’ve got to make these decisions with your head, not your heart.  Making a bad property purchase early on in your career isn’t the end of the world but it will make your next deal more difficult.

When opening a restaurant, it’s fine to put your heart, soul and passion into fantastic food, quality drinks and warm service but make sure you use your head for all the business and financial decisions. If you’re confident that you have a bargain then you’ve made a good start. However, remember, you don’t need to have the best of everything.  As I’ll highlight in my next blog, getting a restaurant up and running will require a good number of compromises.  

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Setting up on your own? You might want to read this...

Phase 1 - Having a vision

I recently bought my first pub restaurant and teamed up with Purity brewery to launch a new bar concept.  It adds a couple of new hats to my portfolio and certainly keeps me busy.  On one day last week I was at The Cross in Kenilworth at 9am, at Simpsons for 2pm then in interviews for Purity Bar and Kitchen staff until 10pm. I get a huge kick out of all my projects, from talking walls with builders, discussing Champagne with suppliers to addressing HR issues - variety is the spice of life!

I’ve worked damn hard to achieve what I have and I’ve learnt plenty along the way. I’m hoping that sharing some of my own experiences might motivate a few fellow chef entrepreneurs to succeed in their solo ventures.

Not a week goes by without a new high profile restaurant opening and I most definitely understand why chefs want to run their own show.  However, in reality it takes more than great cooking to run a successful operation. Setting up your own restaurant requires heaps of admin, patience and determination and to be in with a chance you need to be very clear about why you are doing it. Your vision about what you are going to do and what it will bring are essential to your business plan and will impact your decisions at every stage of the journey.

My reasons for setting up my first restaurant were to make money and to be in charge. Starting off in my own gave me a sense of freedom, a fantastic feeling of the shackles being removed and the reassurance that I didn’t have to answer to any more idiots! My goal ‘to make money’ helped to inform decisions such as the size of the site (I wanted at least 50 covers) to how much initial investment I would need.

I truly believe that if you get the basics right, the restaurant will grow and it helps to accept that you don’t need to have it all to begin with. In my first restaurant I bought everything second hand except for the chairs because I couldn’t find any I liked.  Likewise, my ambition wasn’t to serve the best food in the world but to be good enough to keep the customers coming and to make a profit. I made sure that we had a great, well trained team who understood our vision and in turn passed the restaurant’s values onto our customers.

It might not be brain surgery but as a chef you don’t necessarily have the skills or the experience to address all the challenges that you’ll be faced with.  This is when your contacts, family and friends will come into their own; from finding a location to making introductions to the right suppliers.  A good network really is priceless and having the right people around you will help you to transform your vision into a reality.

Next month I’ll be sharing my thoughts on striking a deal and finding the best location - watch this space.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Have modern apprenticeships lost sight of our craft?

News that the National Apprenticeship Scheme is already over-subscribed caught my eye.  As a former stagiaire, I applaud any scheme which makes it easier for young people to enter the industry.  However, the cynic in me does question whether these schemes are a way for the government to massage unemployment figures or another short-term, ‘high profile scheme’ to make them look progressive.

I am lucky that as a stagiaire, I was trained by a ‘master’ - a chef who had himself undertaken a comprehensive apprenticeship scheme and had subsequently trained and qualified to develop upcoming chefs.  This training covered all the elements of cooking and meant that those undertaking the course would graduate with a good grasp of the craft and qualified to enter into any sector of the industry.  

Apart from the apparent shortage, one of my main concerns about modern apprenticeship schemes is that they only give chefs a limited taste of the profession.  Regardless of the industry, the introduction of NVQs did away with the structure and substance needed to give young people a proper grounding in their chosen career.  As a result, we have lost at least one generation of Masters and the legacy is a lack of quality control and further generations of inadequately trained apprentices. 

In this country we are lucky to have the likes of Chris Galvin, Brian Turner, John Williams and Steven Doherty who have trained with the best and who are sharing their know-how with up and coming talent.  However, there are many chefs now who have climbed up the ranks without gaining experience in the different elements of cooking and without being exposed to structured training.  Talented as these chefs are, I question whether they can deliver the same experience and mentorship as we received from the masters many years ago.  

I feel strongly about the importance of apprenticeships and believe that a good chef is a craftsman of the culinary arts. Like many chefs of my generation, many whom like me are Academicians, I want to make sure that this craft is properly taught to generations to come.  Call me old fashioned, but I do hope that after our generation, the true craft does not die out.