How much time does a modern chef need to actually spend in the kitchen or on the pass?
Not far from the Sydney office of R&C magazine, a well-respected local chef is doing a cooking demo for TV cameras out the front of his restaurant. Which is unusual, because he’s not on Ready Steady Cook or giving a master-class to MasterChef contestants, which seems to occupy a large number of chefs. At the same time, half the chefs in town seem to be preparing for their annual trip to Noosa for the food and wine festival, while in Melbourne it seems every other chef is preparing to host some special event connected to the Melbourne Food Festival.
And while this flurry of interest in their wares is good for chefs generally, all the activity does beg the question—shouldn’t these guys be in their kitchens?
The question of how much time a chef should spend at the stoves has changed recently, especially with increased media and consumer interest in good food. Along with festivals and TV shows, there are specialist food and generalist lifestyle magazines, websites to maintain, and cookbooks to write.
We approached Scott Pickett, chef at The Point Albert Park, to discuss the issue—but the first time we called, he was out at a photo shoot for FHM magazine. The Point organised a couple of events for Melbourne Food & Wine 2010—‘Shop eat and cook with the chef’, which involved shopping trips with Pickett to Queen Victoria Market and Mecca, followed by a cooking presentation and lunch; and ‘Beast on a block’, a lamb-focussed tutorial and three-course meal.
When we did talk to Scott later, he agreed that being in the kitchen nowadays is only part of a chef’s job: “It’s tricky these days. Over the last four years I’ve probably done more publicity than ever, but I like being in the kitchen as much as I can. That’s a personal thing. But it’s harder to keep up with the Joneses, as it were, nowadays, and keep your profile on the go and balance it all.”
By contrast, he says, the chefs who taught him spent all their time in the kitchen. “They were old-school,” he says. “I worked for Peter Jarmer in Adelaide, and back in the 1980s when fine dining was huge, the media came to him. He didn’t have a PR agent or an assistant. Now, if you don’t tell people what you’re doing, you get lost. If you’re not flying your flag, out there attending functions, and networking, you get left behind.”
But to put that in perspective, according to Rabih Yanni, The Point’s general manager, “You can’t prioritise publicity over running the kitchen—there’s no point flying the flag if your ducks aren’t in a row. The production has to be at that standard where you can go out and market it, then back up the claim at the restaurant.”
Yanni believes he and Pickett have the balance right at The Point: “We’re a small business, and he doesn’t have to fly the flag for three or four sites. If it means two days are flying the flag and the other five are on the stoves, then so be it. You can’t forgo marketing over full standards.”
“There’s so much competition now, where 10 or 15 years ago there wasn’t. You’ve got to up your ante in all aspects of what you’re doing.” Scott Pickett, The Point Albert Park
But he and Picket believe the changing—and developing—role of the chef is the result of increased competition. “To keep the momentum going is important,” says Pickett. “There’s so many restaurants here now in Melbourne, and I assume it’s the same everywhere else. There’s so much competition now, where 10 or 15 years ago there wasn’t. You’ve got to up your ante in all aspects of what you’re doing.”
So part of what Yanni and Pickett do regularly is sit down and work out, every quarter, what they’ll be doing three months in advance. “We come out of the Spring Carnival/Christmas period—and you know that time is heads down, bums up—but in the down-time after that, you need to balance marketing time and production time,” says Yanni. “If the opportunity comes up and Scott needs to be out of the kitchen, that’s what needs to be done.”
For example, he says, their annual participation in the Melbourne Food and Wine festival has beneficial impacts across the entire business, as well as marketing to that festival’s target audience.
“It also does a bit for staff morale and food production standards,” he says. “If you’re showcasing your wares to foodies, you’re in the program amongst your peers, and you attract food and wine media to your event, I think the staff can gain a lot from that. Last year we had a two-star Michelin chef in the restaurant, and the staff gained a lot from that.”
So each year, he says, well in advance of the festival, “Scott and I will discuss what we’re going to do and what is going to set us apart from the other restaurants. A ten-course degustation dinner is a wonderful thing, but is it going to be different to what every other restaurant is doing? No. So we try to do something that ties back into our concept—which is, we’re a meat-focussed restaurant, so this year we’re doing the ‘beast on a block’ idea. But Scott and I discuss and develop the ideas, and then it goes through a longer process where it’s refined, and it’s finally executed to the consumer.”
The question is, does the marketing benefit of getting your chef out of the kitchen outweigh the benefit of his
presence at the stoves?
“I’m sure there are guys out there who never get into the kitchen,” says Pickett. “But that’s not how I was trained. The important thing to understand is that it isn’t always necessary for the chef to cook every dish to have complete control. In 2003 I worked for Donovan Cooke, and he was the last to leave the stoves. He truly believed he was the only one who could do particular dishes, and he was doing 11 shifts a week. He probably was too—although there may have been a small difference to the way he did a sauce and the way someone else did it, and frankly, I don’t know if the punters would pick it.”
And according to Pickett, it’s the punters that are the focus of all this activity. “It’s branding these days, isn’t it? Rabih and I joke that it’s now about the sizzle and not the sausage. But I think once you get them in the door, they’ll get hooked with the product. It’s an ongoing process.”
He says when he first started doing publicity five or six years ago, it was a very frustrating experience, but nowadays it slots in with the rest of his job.
“I spend two to three hours of my day on that kind of stuff, and I try to do it in my afternoons,” he says. “I’m in the kitchen in the morning, do lunch service, then from 3pm to 5.30pm I’ll work on those things like media and so on, then back in the kitchen at 5.30 for dinner, then I might spend another hour on other things at the end of the night.”
Such a process is unavoidable, he says, because the world’s getting more connected: “TV programs, the internet and so on have all opened hospitality up from a local thing to a global explosion of food. That’s why Gordon Ramsey is so huge—he was peaking at the time when it was all booming. And I do think that some people are getting more recognition than other, better chefs, simply because they’re better at telling their story.”