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OWNER'S MANUAL

Chewing the Fat With Chef Eric Ripert
 

Advice from the co-owner and executive chef of Le Bernardin, Zagat's best restaurant in NYC for five straight years

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Scores of people have dreams of owning a restaurant. But I'm guessing none of them dream of owning a failed restaurant.

To avoid the latter, I talked to Eric Ripert, a chef and co-owner of New York City restaurant Le Bernardin. He's a frequent guest judge on Top Chef and the host of the PBS series Avec Eric, which is moving to the Cooking Channel this year. He's also a curator of luxury products such as spices, chocolate bars, and caviar. (In the past, I've talked with Ripert about building a classic brand and giving back to the community.)

Here's what he had to say about making the joy of eating pay.

Entrepreneurs who start restaurants tend to fall into two broad categories: people with cooking skills and a vision for their restaurant; and people with no cooking skills who fancy themselves good business people. What would you suggest to a chef who has limited business skills?

First, a chef needs to have someone who understands the front of the house--and is loyal and trustworthy. Then, for the business side, you need someone who knows how a restaurant functions both operationally and financially.

That's your core team.

Outside of that, I very often see chefs seek business partners in order to raise capital. But what I recommend is not to have too many partners. A minimum number is best--and they should be silent. A lot of problems can arise when there are too many voices.

Ultimately success will lie in creating a dynamic and dedicated team that shares the same goal. My own progression was culinary school, working as a line cook at La Tour d'Argent, then joining the kitchen at Jamin under Joel Robuchon. Then, when I came to the U.S., I started with Jean-Louis Palladin and later spent time with David Bouley.

It wasn't until I joined Le Bernardin and started being mentored by Gilbert Le Coze that I learned how to become an executive chef and to develop an understanding of financial stability and the business side of a restaurant.

What should I do if I have a business background but not in restaurants?

First, keep in mind that finding an awesome chef is not enough: A person with a good business background still needs to find someone who knows how to operate a restaurant at a director level.

Where a chef is concerned, it all depends on the concept, but I obviously recommend a chef that is a hard worker. She needs previous experience and a proven reputation. And she should be able to work in the kitchen as well as be a great ambassador for the brand. If you don't have a good communication between your brand and the media and your guests, then your restaurant--or any business--has little chance of surviving.

Any tips on how chefs can prepare themselves for that transition?

For me, the transition was natural, but I was very lucky to be surrounded by great people at the beginning of my time at Le Bernardin. I also had enough support that I could take the time to deal with management and communications and mentor our team.

The only time you should leave the kitchen is if you have a strong vision of what you will do outside the kitchen. Build a great team that will stay with you and help you create and support that vision.

If you were coming to my town to open a restaurant, how would you decide whether the concept matches the market? And would you worry about opening, say, a sushi bar in a town crowded with other sushi bars?

If I were considering opening a restaurant in your town, I would do a lot of research about the area and people's dining habits. Assuming I find a location, the decision will be based on gut instinct backed up by that research.

If the town is overcrowded with sushi concepts and I'm planning to open a sushi bar that theoretically I know will be a success, I'm not afraid of the competition. Competition is always good, because it makes you better in every aspect of your business.

And by the way, you talk about concepts and I talk about restaurants, which are two different things. A concept is unemotional, whereas I can relate to and have a deep passion for a restaurant.

Even a great restaurant needs to stay fresh. How do you do this without losing long-term customers who crave consistency?

Let's use Le Bernardin as an example. We force ourselves to not be static and to innovate all areas of the restaurant, without exception. At the same time, we always try to find a balance that makes our loyal clients happy to come back while also attracting new guests.

In part, that means working with the media to bring awareness and to be in some way fashionable without adopting the trend of the moment. We have been able to strike this balance at Le Bernardin by collaborating our efforts among the team--and mostly by our sixth sense. Instinct, when you also have knowledge, is extremely important in decision making.

I know of some great restaurants (at least, I think they're great) in terrible locations. The food makes them a destination I'll happily go out of my way for. So, how important is location? 

It all depends on the kind of restaurant you are opening. If your goal for the restaurant is to be a destination, then location is not that important. If your aim is convenience, then location is obviously more important.

You will have to do your homework to determine what location is best, owing to many factors (best side of the street, foot traffic, etc.). For example, when Le Bernardin opened in 1986, it was in a pretty bad location but one that had huge potential. Today, it is a destination in a dynamic area of the city that attracts businesses, tourists, theatergoers, and New Yorkers.

Many new restaurants start with a marketing splash. Are there ways to tell if your initial popularity has more to do with successful marketing than with the quality of food, service, concept, etc.?

For a restaurant, I don't believe too much in traditional marketing. I believe public relations is much more effective.

However, before you start to heavily promote yourself, you have to make sure that the press and community have decided that your restaurant is a good product. You can't self proclaim you are a good restaurant. That can only be decided by your customers.

If a one-page advertisement in The New York Times, for example, costs $50,000, and that comes out of your marketing budget, it will give you little results for big spend. Whereas, if through PR you get a full-page interview/article/feature, the results are far greater and the expense is a lot less.

Are there key qualities that you notice right away that indicate a possibly great restaurant or a possibly not-so-great restaurant?

In short, yes. When I go to a restaurant, I can sense the potential because of my instinct and experience.

Ultimately, I would say the most important elements that indicate whether a restaurant is good are the food, the service, and whether the ambience helps the customer have the experience he or she is expecting.

Remember, people go to a restaurant not for the formula or the gimmick but to feel comfortable and have a great time. If you don't provide that you'll definitely fail.

Check out other articles in this series:

IMAGE: richcianci/Flickr
Last updated: Jan 30, 2014

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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