Five experienced and award-winning Australian chefs reveal what they wish they knew when starting out in the restaurant and catering industry. Interviews: Sally Wilson
Jesper Hansen, Blond Catering, Sydney
“Make sure you do your research and due diligence when you’re starting a restaurant or catering business. Pick the right location, know your local market, tailor the menu, know your competitors and most importantly be price aware.
“Surround yourself with experienced, confident, loyal staff whom you can trust. Clients appreciate stability within your team and have confidence when they are working with the same people who understand the business’ catering requirements, expectations and the clients’ special needs.
“There are several organisations that can provide professional advice. It is worth the investment. Make sure you have enough financial support to cover the initial three- to six- month trading period—this will ease the pressure so that you concentrate on the operational side of the business. If it all adds up, go for it! But stick to the plan.
“People now have unlimited choices when it comes to catering services, from the local deli to large franchises. Online ordering has greatly impacted clients’ expectations with respect to budgets, delivery times and value for money. It’s always important to nurture the relationship you have with your clients to ensure that you are the first point of contact.”
Colin Fassnidge, 4Fourteen and Banksia, Sydney
“I’d tell my younger self to write everything down, every single recipe or idea. Work for other chefs not just for yourself, and do it for free so that you can learn different styles of cooking. And I’d always tell any young chefs to travel as much as you can so you can experience other cultures and food.
“I wish I had known about the physical toll that being a chef takes on your body; no-one ever tells you about that. You have to stay fit, especially as you get older— the modern chef is a fit chef.”
Frank Camorra, MoVida, Melbourne
“Most importantly, I wish I had known more about the business side of running restaurants. I’d recommend doing a small business course that teaches you about managing staff, cashflow, and reading and managing a profit-and-loss statement. Don’t assume that you can do it all, but you need to have that basic level of understanding.
“Don’t be in a hurry—be patient and find a way to evolve gradually with your career. When I opened Movida, I hadn’t cooked Spanish food in Australia before, so it was good to start small in a pub where I could make a few mistakes and try new things. Don’t go for the big headlines or try to revolutionise your menu too soon.”
Dominique Rizzo, The Urban Feast Cooking School, Brisbane
“I wish that I had been more confident in myself and my own skills when I started, as I held myself back a lot. Read lots of magazines and food books to keep you current with trends. Be part of as much networking as you can to put yourself out there and never stand for behaviour that you know to be wrong or makes you feel uncomfortable or disrespected. Stand up and speak up in all situations.
“There are so many opportunities in different areas of food and hospitality once you have a qualification. If you are looking to be a qualified chef, this doesn’t mean that you are confined to a kitchen—the limit to the opportunities is your imagination. I would have started more of an online video presence. I wish that I had written down all my recipes, too.
“I would definitely tell my younger self to upskill more in the financial side of the business, rather than just knowing the food and hospitality side—things like accounts and bookkeeping are so important. Overall, I would have liked to have been more business-oriented and smart about money, instead of just concentrating on cooking.”
Danielle Alvarez, Fred’s, Sydney
“Being a head chef or executive chef has less to do with food than you might think. Yes, our food is the basis and the fundamental from where our performance is measured, but in order to have a successful restaurant, your ability to manage other people is how you are going to get there. If you have vision and culinary talent, but no ability to teach and mentor and empathise, then you won’t get very far. However, I do think you can learn many of those skills.
Find the people you greatly admire and go work for them. Then, watch, observe and pay attention to all the details. The years you spend learning will define what kind of chef you eventually become when you are ready to lead.”