Matthew L.’s Answer
Hi Carlo. Great question.
I really like to cook too and managed a restaurant for a while. I've also had lots of clients who own and work in restaurants and also in the hospitality business. I've represented clients in court who gave food poisoning to their customers as well. It's not pretty and learning the profession the right way, from the ground up, is really important and the key to success.
You are incredibly lucky to be living in the San Francisco area which has just about the best collection of restaurants in the world.
Above all, pursue what you love in life. Obviously you love food and cooking, so it's great you've figured that out at an early age. This love will sustain you through the tough periods--and their will be tough periods. The restaurant industry is difficult. The pay can be low (average executive chef pay is about $41,000 per year, but much less for support staff like sous chefs or line cooks), the hours can be long (often 12 hours or more a day), staff can be temperamental and sometimes the customers can be jerks and you'll go home wondering why you went into the field at all. But it can also be very rewarding. There is nothing better than serving a great meal to a grateful customer.
It's probably not a good idea to start a restaurant before you learn the vital skills necessary to be a chef and business owner. Here is what seems to work for most successful executive chefs.
First, Learn Your Craft - Much of running a restaurant and being a chef is about knowing how to cook. Cooking is a craft and you get good at it by studying with people who are the masters at it. Most executive chefs (the people who run the restaurant) seem to take one of two paths to get to the top and stay there. Either they (1) Get a job in the restaurant industry and work their way up over the course of years, or (2) They go to culinary school. The only way to get really good at something is to work at it with other people who are really good at it. Work at it a lot.
If you decide to go the experience route, plan on working in restaurants for a number of years to learn what you need to so you can run a restaurant. Seven to eight years is about average. If you go this route, make sure you work at really good restaurants for really good executive chefs. If you can, try to work all over the world and become exposed to as many different cuisines as you can.
Many chefs also go to school to learn some of their craft (but you still have to work in a lot of restaurants to become a real master). There are a lot of 2 and 4-year culinary programs out there. Here is a list of the top 30 or so programs. The advantage to going to school for it is you are guaranteed a well-rounded education, which you may not always get working your way up. For example, you will learn the business side of restaurants, including things like food handling, inventory control, budgeting, and so on. Getting into a reputable program will help you if you want to go into fine dining. You don't necessarily need to go to a top program, but you can compare the curriculum at the top schools to the schools you are looking at to help you pick the best option: Top 30 Culinary Programs
The American Culinary Federation also offers a "Certified Executive Chef" (CEC) designation. This shows prospective employers that you have a certain minimum number of years' experience and have passed a test. Not necessary, but if you want to work for a hotel or casino or cruise line this can help.
Come up with a Detailed Business Plan - Opening and running a restaurant is a risky business. But it is a business. Your restaurant has to make money and be profitable. Statistically about 60% of restaurants will fail in the first three years. You have to do a lot of things right to make it work and make money at it. You can have the best food in town, but if you don't understand the business side you will fail.
Below are some of the most common reasons restaurants go out business.
- Low/Insufficient start-up capital
- Poor knowledge about competition
- Wrong Location
- Poor restaurant promotion
- Inconstant offer
- The bad partnerships relations
- Poor inventory, accounting and staff management
- The lack of original ideas
- Poor execution (bad food, bad service, poor quality control)
Now, as you can see, most of these problems can be eliminated by better planning and good management. By creating a really solid business plan you can maximize your chances of success. At some point, when you're ready, you may need to approach a bank for financing. They will want a business plan and proof that you have executive management experience. So make sure you have it.
There is a reason that McDonald's, PF Chang's, Morton's and other major chain restaurants rarely close. They have a proven business model, good management AND they only open in the best locations.
Start Small - School is not necessarily for everyone. And after a few years of working in restaurants, you may feel you're ready. Opening your own business is a great way to learn. You might think about buying a food truck (though you should try to work in one first). You can buy a food truck or cooking trailer (like a barbecue pit on a trailer or mobile wood-fired pizza oven) for much less than a full restaurant. You can park it in your driveway when you're not using it and set up on weekends at festivals or events. Some food trucks have made a big splash by serving high-end cuisine. You can also get crazy-creative with these. You can see what works in a couple weekends and if it doesn't work, try a new direction next weekend. Or try becoming an executive chef. You can cook for people in their homes and businesses. You could also start a small catering business. The beauty of these options is you can start on a small scale to see what works and what doesn't. You learn about food cost, staffing, marketing, advertising, customers and branding.
Above All Cook a Lot, Read a Lot, and Hang Out with Foodies - Above all cook as much as you can and read as much as you can about cooking, techniques, cuisines, trends, the business of food, and the industry. Read food blogs. Start your own food blog--there is no better way to learn about food than to teach other people about food (or about anything else, for that matter). Read about chefs you admire and see what their backgrounds are. Did they go to school? If they did, where? Did they learn the hard way by working in good restaurants? What restaurants? What chefs do they admire? Did they travel abroad? Where? Emulate the chefs you admire and whose food you love. And cook for your friends. See what works and what doesn't. Network like crazy with foodies and chefs. Hang out with foodies and cook for them. Let them cook for you. Find a chef-mentor in the food business. They have been where you are and they will help you.
When You are Ready, Open Your Place - When you know your craft and the business, open your dream restaurant. You may never feel completely ready. But at some point you just have to take the leap. It will be scary and exciting and stressful and fun. Your first one may fail. If it does, so what? Learn from it. Open another one. If that one fails, open another and another until you figure out what works.
Opening a restaurant is an expensive proposition that involves a lot of hard work and planning. By getting the proper education and planning well, you can maximize your chances of success. This may involve getting a degree, but it will involve a lot of practice. There are also many executive chef positions with hotels, restaurants, resorts and cruise lines. With the right resume you can get one of those jobs. But you have to prepare and learn your craft. Again, you are SO lucky that you live in California which has an amazing food scene. Take full advantage of it. Get into the food scene. You'll make connections that can lead to jobs and opportunities. If food is what you love, stick with it, learn your craft and you will succeed.
Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:
- Learn Your Craft. Cook like crazy.
- Decide whether you want to go to school to learn culinary arts and the business side, or whether you want to learn by working in restaurants. Either way, find a good school or find good chefs to work for. Above all, learn BOTH the cooking side and the business side well.
- Study famous chefs that you admire. Find out what they did to get where they are and emulate them. Get to know them--you have a ton of them in California, and San Francisco is the belly of the beast.
- Get into the food scene. Meet foodies and network with chefs and restaurant owners. Find a mentor to bounce questions and ideas off of.
- When you are ready, start small with a side catering business or food truck. Learn the business and then launch your restaurant.