“I tell people what they’re doing wrong — isn’t that what we all need?”
Food Network star Geoffrey Zakarian jokes. Sort of. The legendary chef and restaurateur has spent decades perfecting his craft in the kitchen (making thousands upon thousands of diners happier and fatter in the meantime) and has poured his culinary genius into best-selling cookbooks, a restaurant consulting firm and unforgettable shows used like Chopped, Iron Cook and The kitchen.
Now he has a new show Big restaurant bet, who combines his hospitality and business acumen into a competition that has food entrepreneurs everywhere drooling. Zakarian is giving eight chefs a chance to win a $250,000 investment of his resources to advance their rising star in the restaurant world. “We really put them to the test,” says Zakarian. “We got them into real business restaurant relationships and not just telling them to cook, but cooking with a purpose. Cooking with many things in mind such as making a profit, running the front of the house and running the back of the house. It’s not easy and the winner brings me, my wife and our company to help them with all these things they don’t know how to do yet.”
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As the competition rolls up the Food Network airwaves (watch new episodes here), Zakarian took a few minutes to sit down and talk food and business on the latest episode of Get a real job podcast. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy your meal!
Being a restaurant owner means much more than just cooking
“Being a great chef doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good restaurant owner. If you’re a great chef – and all of these chefs on our show are really talented – you get a paycheck every week. And when your shift is over, you check out and bear no responsibility. You are not responsible for payroll, income statement, human resources, staffing issues, heating, utility bills, rental management, furniture, broken refrigerators, refrigeration, stoves, and maintenance. You are not responsible for all this crap. But once you open your own restaurant, you are in charge. For all of that. And you don’t get paid. So it’s something like that ridiculous equation 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’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time, but my passion for cooking has never left me. It’s like asking a musician if he doesn’t play the piano anymore. cooking is what i do. The area is my piano. I’m there every day with my kids and I cook for the family every day. I’m always working on recipes and projects and retailing things. Everything revolves around the table and the kitchen. My deep passion for food got me into this business in the first place.”
Why we need restaurants more than ever
“Whether you’re a lawyer or a programmer, you want to go to the hottest restaurant and have fun. You want to go out and drink. You want to go to a place where you can forget your stress and just enjoy. This is my job. And when I want to go out, I’m the same way. I want to have a good time, so I love helping these entrepreneurs. I love mentoring and have been mentored myself and pulled out of the mud many times and learned many valuable lessons. So I want to give back as much as I can, and what a great way to do that 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’d look to a guy like Danny Meyer — a real academic who’s done it a million times and can do it in his sleep. I would say, ‘Listen, I want to open my own restaurant. I’ll take any deal you’re willing to offer. Just do everything I can’t do. And if the first one is successful, we’ll change the deal on the next one.’ I would have done that. I advise people to do this because 10 percent wet is much better than 100 percent dry.”
Building a place where people want to be
“Hire people who are self-respecting, very well mannered and have a sense of urgency. These 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’s a much better statement to me than, ‘I worked at Le Cirque, I worked at Daniel, I was sous chef here and blah blah blah.’ Anyone can learn this business because hospitality is very basic. You learned it from your grandmother, right? When you go to your grandma’s, is there ever any doubt that you will be well fed and cared for? It will be warm, you are about to have a drink and everything will be perfect and ready when you get there. There is no doubt. And that, in short, is gastronomy.”