“I tell people what they’re doing wrong — isn’t that what we all need?”
Food Network star Geoffrey Zakarian is joking. Kind of. The legendary chef and restaurateur spent decades perfecting his craft in kitchens (making thousands and thousands of diners happier and fatter in the meantime) and has gone on to apply his culinary genius to best-selling cookbooks, a restaurant consulting business and unforgettable turns on shows like Chopped, Iron Chef and The Kitchen.
Now he’s got a new show, Big Restaurant Betthat combines his hospitality and business acumen into a competition that will leave food entrepreneurs everywhere drooling. Zakarian is giving eight chefs the chance to win an investment of $250,000 of his resources to help propel their rising star in the restaurant world. “We really put them through the wringer,” Zakarian says. “We put them in real business restaurant relationships, not telling them just to cook, but to cook with a purpose. To cook with a lot of things in mind, like making a profit, running the front of the house, the back of the house. It’s not easy, and the winner gets myself and my wife and our company to help them with all this stuff that they don’t know how to do yet.”
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As the competition takes to the airwaves of Food Network (watch new episodes here), Zakarian took a few minutes to sit down and talk food and business on the latest episode of the Get a Real Job podcast. Here are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity. Bon appetit!
Being a restaurant owner involves a lot more than cooking
“Being a great chef doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a good restaurant owner. When you’re a great chef — and all these chefs on our show are really talented — you get a paycheck every week. And whenever your shift is over, you check out and have no responsibility. You’re not responsible for the payroll, the P&L, HR, staffing problems, heat, electricity bills, rent management, furniture, breaking refrigeration, cooling, stoves and maintenance. You’re not responsible for any of that crap. But the minute you open your own restaurant, you’re responsible. For all of it. And you don’t get a salary. So it’s sort of like this ridiculous equation that you have to swallow. But here’s the thing: Entrepreneurship is a gamble, but it’s the best gamble, because you’re gambling on yourself.”
A chef never stops cooking
“I have been involved in the business of restaurants for a long time, but my passion for cooking has never gone away. It’s like asking a musician if they don’t play the piano anymore. Cooking is what I do. The range is my piano. I’m there every day with my kids, and I cook every day for the family. I’m always working on recipes and projects and retail things to sell. Everything has to do with what’s around the table and in the kitchen. My deep passion for food got me in this business in the first place.”
Why we need restaurants more than ever
“Whether you’re a lawyer or you’re a coder, you want to go to the hottest restaurant, and you want to have fun. You want to go out and drink. You want to go to a place where you can forget your stresses and just enjoy it. That’s my job. And when I want to go out, I’m the same way. I want to have a good time, so I love trying to help these entrepreneurs. I love mentoring, and I’ve been mentored myself and, you know, been pulled out of the mud many times and learned a lot of valuable lessons. So I want to give back as much as I can, and what a great way to do it with all these great American chefs.”
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His advice to young restaurant owners
“If I were just starting out as a restaurateur, I would go after a guy like Danny Meyer — a real nuts and bolts guy who has done this a million times before and can do it in his sleep. I’d say, ‘Listen, I want to open my own restaurant. I’ll take whatever deal you are willing to offer. Just do everything that I don’t know how to do. And if the first one’s successful, then we’ll change the deal on the next one.’ That’s what I would have done. I advise people to do that because, look, 10 percent of a wet is much better than a hundred percent of a dry.”
Building a place where people want to be
“Hire people who have self-respect, who are very well-mannered and who have a sense of urgency. Those are the best people. And you can’t teach that. Come to me and say, ‘I’ve never worked in a restaurant before. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I love this business. I want to kill myself.’ That is a much better statement to me than, ‘I worked at Le Cirque, I worked at Daniel, I was sous chef over here, and blah, blah, blah.’ Anyone can learn this business, because hospitality is very basic. You learned it from your grandmother, right? Going to your grandma’s house, is there ever a doubt that you will get well fed and taken care of? It’s going to be warm, you’re going to have a drink right away, and everything’s going to be perfect and ready when you get there. There’s no doubt. And that, in a nutshell, is the restaurant business.”