The real kitchen nightmares: How consultants can show restaurants the recipe for success
They're not all as scary as Gordon Ramsay and the industry is booming in the UK, as Jamie Merrill discovers.
It finally happened. Last month, while filming Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay found a restaurant so unpalatable that he admitted defeat and stormed out. The owners of Amy's Baking Company in Arizona were just too belligerent – from firing staff for no reason to hurling homophobic slurs at customers – and their food so dire that they were beyond the help of the chef's expletive-laden brand of restaurant consultancy.
Ratings-boosting disasters like this aside, Ramsay normally comes away having transformed an establishment from a disaster zone to a foodie Mecca and viewers can't get enough of it. Last month, Fox announced it had commissioned another series of Hell's Kitchen, a reality-television spin-off of the show and the shouty chef has also been signed to give Hollywood star Bradley Cooper a "crash course in cookery" for his role in the upcoming film Chef.
Back in Britain, star of the London restaurant scene, Russell Norman, is the latest figure to get in on the action with upcoming BBC TV show The Restaurateur. In the show Norman, who has opened five successful restaurants in five years, will share his rulebook with six first-timers and make the case that many restaurateurs fail because they either don't know or choose to ignore the rules of the restaurant business.
This at time when our appetite for all things foodie shows little sign of being satisfied – last month, for example, a CBI survey showed the biggest rise in trade for hotels and restaurants in six years. Another survey predicts 1,000 new restaurants will open next year and television executives are clearly scrambling to get in on our demand for foodie news, culinary conflict and angry-chef tongue lashings.
The real world of restaurant consultancy is far less confrontational, though. "The restaurant-consultancy industry is booming," explains Derek Bulmer, former UK editor of the Michelin Guide, who now runs Martini Consulting. "But the real day-to-day of my job couldn't be more different to Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmare. That's made for TV so of course it has to be shocking. What I do is deal with degrees of how good things are, not how bad things can be."
Like many consultants, Bulmer offers an incognito dining service rather than an upfront dressing down. "I send out a detailed report on the whole experience, not just the food, but the whole thing, from making my reservation right until paying the bill at the end," adds Bulmer, who, while at the Michelin Guide, was feared by chefs for his ability to make or break a career with one review. "I'm not looking necessarily for anything different from a very discerning customer, but I know the potential banana skins a restaurant can slip up on."
Many other consultants offer more of a corporate outlook and concentrate on restaurant location, menu marketing and promotion. They follow the path set by early restaurant consultant Alan Crompton-Batt, who died aged 50 in 2004. He was the consultant credited with creating the concept of the celebrity chef, and, according to his Telegraph obituary, brought the chef from "behind the stove to appear as a personality in the glossy magazines and the gossip columns".
His most famous clients were Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White and, unlike most PR professionals, he also helped would-be restaurateurs find premises, hire a chef, plan a menu, launch their restaurant and charm the critics.
Today, planning a restaurant's menu is one of the most important tasks a consultant will be set. So much so that secret diners such as Bulmer will often be called in again for a special sitting to sample the entire menu. A successful (profitable) menu will often be divided between "stars" (popular items for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than they cost to make), "puzzles" (high-profit but unpopular dishes), "plough horses" (popular yet unprofitable) and "dogs" (unpopular and unprofitable).
The role of a consultant will be to nudge customers away from the less profitable items, while at the same time convincing them they are paying a reasonable price. Tricks of the trade include putting profitable items in the top-right corner (where diners look first) and removing columns so they don't just pick the cheapest item. Other items, normally expensive seafood or steak, are used as "anchors" in the middle of the menu with high-profit items around them, making them seem more affordable.
While Bulmer and other consults rarely get into shouting matches with their (paying) clients ("I'm lucky that I can pick aspirational clients who I want to work with") they do offer combative and constructive feedback. "One of the biggest areas I find where chefs fall down, particularly young chefs, is they over-complicate things," says Bulmer. "They don't know when to stop adding ingredients to the meal. It's a confidence thing that the best chefs who are the most confident know when to leave a dish alone. The less confident ones keep piling more and more on the dish, thinking wrongly that they are improving the dish, when in fact they are doing the opposite."
For a consultant, pointing out that "less is more" can increase profitability too. Many pop-up restaurants, from posh burger outfits to fried-chicken shops, are established to allow their owners to test their products and build a customer base before renting an expensive property. Fewer ingredients also mean less waste and increased buying power while keeping prices low.
At the same time, though, restaurants need to be careful to not just blindly jump on the bandwagon. "Trends come and go but the fundamentals that underpin good food don't change, and it's the job of a good restaurant consultant to make sure that their clients know that," says Bulmer. "So whether it's a trend for small plates, burgers or brasserie-style restaurants, I make sure that my clients always offer good products, that are well sourced and well prepared."
"Another area I warn against is going too far down the route of using one flavour or ingredient that just happens to be in vogue at one particular moment. Recently, it's been beetroot, which is great and under-valued, but you can go far too far with it. The same thing happened with kiwi fruit last year in London, and I for one never thought they had much of a flavour to them. I doubt they'll be back again."
James Ramsden, a food writer who runs The Secret Larder supper club, points out that the larger chains and names in the industry often follow these successes. "With Jamie Oliver recently, we've seen him go from arguably jumping on the barbecue bandwagon with Barbecoa to certainly jumping on to the diner/burger/hot dog movement with Jamie Oliver's Diner in the last month," he says. "So obviously these restaurant chains, like Jamie Oliver and Giraffe, keep an eye on London's foodie trends and jump on the bandwagon."
"That's not necessarily a bad thing per se and restaurant consultants wouldn't be doing their job properly if they didn't advise them to do this. For example, Strada and some of the other Italian chains started doing small plates a few years after Polpo started the trend in London. These things filter down. This is an inevitable thing and I find it funny when independent restaurateurs get their knickers in a twist about this sort of thing. If you've started a movement you can't get huffy when other people jump on the bandwagon."
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