Looking back at my 30 odd years in the hospitality industry, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today if it weren’t for the mistakes I made and lessons I learned from them. I also owe my success to the mentors who took me under their wing, the partnerships I made, having a bit of grit and a pinch of good luck.
We didn’t have access to information and mentoring opportunities back then like we do today and so I thought I’d share with you some of the important lessons I learned and the advice I wish I got when I was a young chef and entrepreneur.
I got my first job at 15 as an apprentice at Herman Schneider’s Two Faces in Melbourne, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I loved cooking (have mum to thank for that) but working 85-hour weeks washing dishes and peeling potatoes wasn’t what I expected.
It’s well known now that it’s a tough industry, long hours, low pay at the start but it’s very rewarding if you’re in it for the right reasons. Chefing was never glamorised like it is today through cooking shows on TV and I see some young foodies getting into chefing just to get to the top in a hurry.
Don’t get me wrong, anything to get young kids interested in quality produce and the restaurant industry is great but you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards. This is just one of the reasons why we’re losing over 50% of young chefs before they finish their apprenticeship.
Do you know how I spend my 21st birthday? Working a 7am-1am shift for Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn. I was earning 100 quid a week. Not pretty! But you know what? I’d do it all again tomorrow.
If you have stars in your eyes but are concerned you won’t survive the gruelling years in the kitchen. My advice to you is to be persistent and patient.
I’m not a patient person and I don’t think I was when I was young, but for some reason, I got through. I was determined, never took no for an answer and set goals, that was really important for me. I wanted to open my first restaurant before I was 30, stuck to my guns and made sure this happened.
As well as having grit, it’s also important to make sure you nail the basic skills in whatever field you choose. Whether its chefing, carpentry, marketing or whatever… You can’t go off on your own without having the necessary foundation on which to build on and be creative with.
Five years with Hermann Schneider taught me discipline in the kitchen. Three years with Mr Roux in London gave me good classic French cooking techniques and John Hemmes taught me the basics of business when I worked at Hotel CBD in Sydney. Together, these three pillars gave me a solid base for me to branch out on my own and ultimately become the restaurateur I am today.
This is where mentoring is so important. I am forever grateful to my mentors and those who believed in me and my skills when I was an apprentice.
I thought I knew everything back then and never really appreciated the mentoring I got until I got a bit older and matured. My advice for young people in the workforce who might have a lot of confidence when starting out, it’s important to accept that people who have been in the industry longer than you know more than you and to learn from them respectfully.
Another thing that got me to where I am… not being shy to ask questions! No question is a silly question and if you never ask, you’ll never know!
I’m always asking questions. Why is business down? What’s the market like? How can we improve?
Whether you’re a chef creating a new menu, restaurant manager or owner, with so much competition out there, it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse and stay ahead of the game.
When we opened Salt in Sydney in 2000, I was on the floor all the time, talking to customers and asking them what they did and didn’t like and why. We had a smashing first year and opened up a few more restaurants after that and because of this I wasn’t around as much as I could have been.
Revenue started to drop, I had a bit of an ego, thought it was all about the food and didn’t think much about figures. Unfortunately, Salt closed its doors after 5 years.
Since then, I’m constantly travelling between Sydney, Singapore, Japan and Indonesia to visit my restaurants and get customer feedback, because at the end of the day, they’re our bread and butter.
If you’re opening a restaurant, my advice to you is to have a point of difference, be consistent in service and food quality and constantly interact with your customers to get feedback.
Oh, and one more thing… make sure you have a sustainable business model… Something I had to learn the hard way.