October 2, 2010

"To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction."

"What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone who has worked hard, saved money and often been successful in other fields want to pump his hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost purely prove dry? Why venture into an industry with enormous fixed expenses (rent, electricity, gas, water, linen, maintenance, insurance, license fees, trash removal, etc.), with a notoriously transient and unstable workforce and highly perishable inventory of assets? The chances of ever seeing a return on your investment are about one in five. What insidious spongiform bacterium so riddles the brains of men and women that they stand there on the tracks, watching the lights of the oncoming locomotive, knowing full well it will eventually run them over? After all these years in the business, I still don't know."

Wrote Anthony Bourdain years ago, offered up now for insight into the 2 suicides by a chefs who appeared on the TV show "Hell's Kitchen." Bourdain wasn't writing about chefs who try to make it via TV show, and back when he wrote that, Bourdain himself hadn't leveraged his cooking into TV celebrity. So what is it — cooking or reality TV — that's more dangerous to the will to live? I'd guess reality TV. I think there is more delusion there and less likelihood of getting what you want.


John Lynch said...


Restaurants are awash in booze and drugs. It's part of the job. Either you learn to deal with it.

MrBuddwing said...

If the goal is simply to get on television, reality TV would seem the likeliest way to go. (Sure beats committing a crime to get on the news.)

Word verification: oulam.

Jim said...

Small correction: one of the chefs was on Kitchen Nightmares, the other was on Hell's Kitchen.

The folks that wind up on Kitchen Nightmares are already "on the brink" to begin with: that's why they call the show "Kitchen Nightmares." They're all typically mortgaged to the hilt, behind on their bills, serving crappy food and have turned off most of the locals with poor service/poor management/surly staffers, etc. By and large, they all seem to suffer from some severe failing - either in training or temperament - which made them unsuitable to the task of restaurant ownership in the first place.

John Lynch said...

or it can kill you.

Lincolntf said...

The most recent suicide had nothing to do with "Hell's Kitchen".
The man who committed suicide last week was a restaurant owner/chef who was featured on "Kitchen Nightmares" trying to turn his (real life) failing restaurant around.
"Hell's Kitchen" is a standard reality/competition show.
Similar names, but entirely different concepts.

lyssalovelyredhead said...

The Food Network used to do a show about people starting up restaurants, and it was always awful. They would start by saving up some enormous sum of money, but the "happy ending" was almost always that they were living with their parents and had finally managed to start drawing a salary.

I'm a foodie, and I love to share my cooking, so I can see the draw (I even played with the idea of starting a catering/personal chef service a few years ago). But the reality is pretty twisted. Glad that other people do it, though.

- Lyssa

bwebster said...

Heh. My fantasy is opening a small cafe somewhere, but it's one that I recognize is somewhere along the lines of, say, taking a trip to the moon. Everything I've read about restaurant ownership says, in effect, "Don't dooooo iiiit!"

BJM said...

@John Lynch


The public thinks celebrity chefs swanning around in their whites, or the scrubbed cheftestants of Top Chef represents the profession. The reality of the line is more akin to stoking the boilers on the Titanic.

Professional cooking is a brutal, unforgiving profession, often in unspeakable conditions for crappy pay.

Front of the house sucks even worse as you watch your capital trickle away.

Trooper York said...

I used to have an accounting practice that speacilized in bars and restaurants. I would get tons of referrals and I would always ask why they were opening up a joint.

The responses were among others:

I want to share my cooking.
I want to get laid.
I want a place to hang out with my friends.
I want to bring the cusine of my country.

All wrong answers.

The correct answer?

To make money.

If they didn't say that I didn't take them on as a client. They would never survive.

traditionalguy said...

The best hope for a chef is to become a celebrity among the rich clientele who will hire them for special events to impress their friends. And you are only as good as the last meal you cooked.

Almost Ali said...

If you can stage a great Broadway play, you can create a successful restaurant.

But keep it off-Broadway, small in overhead, and it'll generate money for 30 years (that is, until your kids take over).

There are a few exceptions to "small," though. The greatest restaurateur I ever met was Warner Leroy. He was a true showman, building out from Maxwell's Plum, and culminating with Tavern on The Green.

Another was a little, nearly ego-less chef you never heard of; 60 seats, everything cooked to order. Stocks and sauces from scratch, whole afternoons spent extracting perfect gravies from over-ripe tomatoes. He thrived in the heat of the kitchen - until, like Leroy, he disappeared.

I once had a customer, a very good customer, ask me why I never offered him a complimentary bottle of wine. And him being a tire mogul, I responded; And how come you never offer me a free set of Michelins?

No moral here - except, you better know what you're doing.

Lincolntf said...

My first real job was as a dishwasher at a high end restaurant in MA. I was 14 (lied about my age for a few months, then the Chef asked me and I told him the truth, nothing came of it) when I started. I worked there for about four years, minus 9 months when they shut down for a makeover/change of direction.
A brutal workplace, but with a kitchen staff very much like the "pirate crew" Bourdain describes in his books. I learned to drink on the job at the age of fifteen (not a good idea) and saw cocaine for the first time when I walked into the locker room before my shift. That was interesting.
Every workday was different. Some were insanely taxing, and I'd walk home at 2 in the morning half-asleep and covered in slop. Other days (particularly Sunday brunches) were a pleasure. Ended up as a line cook/sous chef by the time I headed off to college. I've never worked in a restaurant since.
If times ever got really hard, I'd like to think I could still work in a kitchen, but I sure wouldn't want to.

Sixty Grit said...
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ndspinelli said...

As one of my relatives who was a restaurant owner for 40 years would say, "Every asshole who has ever eaten in a restaurant thinks he knows how to run one."

Donna B. said...

Like Trooper York said - you go into business to make money or you fail. Any other reason just doesn't work.

If you are lucky, the business will be one where you get to do something you love. My father was lucky that way. He loves machinery: building it, repairing it, operating it. He found out he could do all those things and make money by logging and sawmilling.

My first husband loved talking to people and being a host. He found out he could make money doing this by owning a restaurant. He was a lousy cook, but he could hire cooks and servers.

Chefs that don't make it owning their own restaurants forget that part of serving and pleasing guests - they want kudos for plate presentation or incorporation of exotic ingredients or... more simply, to be worshiped and admired for their "art".

Yeah... they're gonna fail.

Lionheart said...
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Almost Ali said...

Sixty Grit said...
I ate at Maxwell's Plum once, must have been around '81 or so.

In a certain sense, you can still eat at "Maxwell's Plum" just about anywhere. TGIF Friday's copied Maxwell's design concept and took it on the road.

Interesting, too, that the original Friday's, just down the street from Maxwell's - looked nothing like their road versions. Maxwell's concept was built on wood, brass, Tiffany, and multi-level seating. While the original Friday's was flat, plain, low-lighted, checkered table covers made of oil cloth, and featuring mainly 1/2 lb. hamburgers (good, too).

But it was the advent of Maxwell's that brought the huge crowds to 1st Avenue, especially nights and weekends - singles looking to hook-up. A glass of wine or a shot of whiskey, and it was off to the races.

That's when and where the Victorian Age ended in America, thanks essentially to "the pill." Virtually overnight, sex was in and taboo was out. Suddenly people were carrying on in taxicabs, elevators, restrooms, just about anywhere they could find a little space.

Largo said...

Plus insane hours and no vacation.

My wife (Hong Kong born) were once offered a chance to take over a Chinese restaurant.

She disabused me of that notion very quickly.