Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Business: The 'True Cost' of Integrity.

I get a lot of complaints that my food is too expensive. To be quite honest, I've never once overcharged what I felt was unreasonable. I think a fallacy they make more than often, is that people compare prices of what they had somewhere else to what I am charging.  I get complaints all the time about my Ramen! The problem is a lot of people have their opinions completely out of perspective... to put it nicely... when they say the price of my Ramen is a rip off... they don't know what the hell they're talking about!

Putting price into perspective:

There's a universal guideline that all restaurant business owners and chefs follow.  Food costs should never be greater than a third of your total sales.  Even the cost of a food item itself should be around that range on average. Why one third? Well as a general practice, food costs are about one third of total sales, labor costs / employee costs are another third, and operational costs which include rent and utilities is the last third.  What ever is left from the equation is the profit.

Total sales - Food Cost - Labor Costs - Operational Costs = Profit

Ideally 10% of total sales is where one makes money.  That may not sound like much but the honest truth is that in actuality in my experience, most restaurants, if they're lucky, fluctuate in the 5 to 6 %. Even the largest most successful business struggle with this.  Every restaurant costs vary.  Restaurants with low priced items, have a low food cost, low labor cost, and an equally low operations cost, but to really make any profit they need a huge customer turn over rate.   High end restaurants, use far more expensive ingredients, have a higher labor cost, and the rent on a prime location is ridiculous.
Most cases labor costs far exceed 30% or even small business get destroyed due to outrageous rent. Rent can kill a business. 

What the food costs::

Chefs create wonderful food that is often interpreted as overpriced.  Looking back at the 'profit equation' I see everything I eat as food cost. When food is in front of me, I know how much money a restaurant is making just through the simple knowledge of the ingredients and where and whom they are coming from. Knowledge is everything.

I'm paying over 30%-34% food cost for my Ramens and that's at 13-15 dollars.  At lunch I am giving the same portions at 9 - 11 bucks at the same exact cost.  My labor costs are where they should be, and yet our costs to run our operations is significantly high. What this equates too... a small margin of profit and a lot of people that still complain.

Know what you're paying for:

The sows I use are all raised here in Texas. The farmers I work with are all good people that I trust. These are the kind of men and women, that know the value of a good hand shake. It's an old school kind of thought, I know, but that is how I was raised... How can I still trust them so much? It's because the quality of their goods show in the final product and that speaks volumes about their honesty and the foods integrity. That's why 'I' pay the price and why many chefs pay for the foods they produce.

I've worked with farmers who've given me sub par ingredients claiming that it is the best product.  In the end it's all crap.  Flavorless.  Poorly raised sows make for a bland broth, tons of impurities forced to be skimmed out, too many alterations in recipes in order to make it better. Yes it does require skills to make something out of low quality products... but we have to put so many seasonings and aromatics which mask the true flavor and in the end you create something that is lost in translation.  It's like putting mushroom gravy all over your perfectly cooked A6 Kobe steak! (A6 = highest grade)

There are restaurants out there with incredibly low food costs yet are overly priced.  Many times I see it as people being subjective about the value of their meal, which varies from the talent of the kitchen or even just the hype of their reputation. This is where people like to begin subjectively 'comparing' prices. Those who've ever studied logic know that this is the weakest argument.  If you think my food is overly priced... please go ahead and buy your $500 ticket to New York or California, pull up to a Ramenya that uses instant mixes and water flavored broth, and pay your bill of $24 a bowl. Then come back and see what I am doing for much less.

What it really costs:

The problem is a customer really has no clue what they are eating sometimes. That is why you must do some research or even ask the chef about what they're using.  We're like doctors to a patient, or teachers to a student, I'll tell you anything you should know about what we are making. I am just trying to help differentiate and pin point exactly what you should be tasting. Just like flavor nodes in a good wine.

A Chef can never sacrifice the integrity of their food. If I were to cut corners and give you something else and claim that it's the best, I would be lying and cheating to you and to myself.  Lying becomes bad habit, and bad habits create poor character. This character shows in every aspect in a business and eventually becomes poisonous.  I believe the food that comes from my kitchen is great, but it isn't the best. That is why I continue to strive to find better solutions and better ingredients to make the food.  I do my best to keep all of it affordable, without ever sacrificing integrity.  This is what I called "the Ramen Experiment".

The next time you go out and eat, take a moment and look at what you are getting.  I'll give you one example of a restaurant to look at. Maggianos. My family loves eating there and I've gone there a number of times in my life. I know for a fact that they are making a killing off their pastas. Generic brands of pastas are very low in cost, if they had hand made their own pasta even far less in cost. 13 bucks for about a pound of pasta noodles and 2 cups of sauce. I'd bet money just the combination of those two would make up less than 2.00- 3.00 dollars tops.  What I would probably guess is that their real cost would be the rent.  Best location in town, right beside the Galleria.

It's a funny game I play often in my head and one that I implore everyone to do always.  Keep it all in perspective, then you can decide if you believe that I am or any restaurant is truly ripping you off or not... in the end you'll find that most of us are just trying to survive.

some people I trust.
GH Urbanfarm

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Cook's Life: Drawing the Line

MFAH illegal photo of James Turrell

Sometimes you have to draw the line between work and life.  In whatever job albeit in a kitchen or in an office, it is probably the hardest thing to separate and or even define.

Triniti & Soma tasting
To some people they are both one and the same, I however, have the most difficult time separating the two.  For years I've found myself up really late at night unable to keep my mind off work.  In fact this blog is a direct result of my inability. When I'm with friends, family, or even my lady, I often find myself getting lost in thought about subject matter pertaining to work.  Whether it's if I need to order something by a certain date, a menu has to be finished by Tuesday, or even as little as eating something I like and having some epiphany for my next dish. I can never shut my mind off work.
my niece maddy

This inability isn't fair for my personal life, or those that are a part of it. When I first started my career, the job was everything. I'm sure it has been like this for anyone else who has had a dream and was willing to do anything to attain it.  People in our industry don't get many Holidays off. We work weekends, either early mornings or late nights.  We're on our feet all day, working quickly with a sense of finesse, living from ticket to ticket.  This is the choice we as cooks make. It may be a sacrifice of one's personal life, but who out there doesn't believe in taking the risk and doing time to reach your goals or even your dreams.

my most favorite girls
In order to separate the two, I first defined for myself... what matters most? friends & family, health, travel, and Annie. I've been really lucky that my lady understands this and that she has been patient and supportive of my career. Patience however, as we all know has its limits; even everything that matters has its limits. By reminding myself this I set the rules.

When I have my day off from work,
1.) I tell everyone before hand that I don't want to be bothered, unless it's an emergency or that something I didn't finish the day before, either way I just don't want to be distracted.
The King and I + Canada

2.) I plan my days off.  Sometimes I either pick a place to go, somewhere close, somewhere I can travel, like Austin, or Galveston. Try to eat at restaurants I haven't been to yet, or revisit those I really enjoyed. The more spontaneous the more of an adventure it becomes.

3.) Look for adventure It sounds silly and juvenile, but it's exciting. If you can't travel there is so much to do in Houston! We're so blinded by all the glamour the whole world shows us, that we don't realize how wonderful our city is!  The MFAH has soo many great works. Discovery Green always has something going on. I like the Menil exhibit. If you can't figure out what to do or where to go check out the local media. Pick up a paper! The Chronicle, Houstonia Magazine, the Houston Press, even Eater... they're wonderful resources.
4.) Get lost This is one of the most important rules to me. When I travel I like to wander, by doing so, I in many cases discover something incredible. When I'm with friends, I'm not going to lie, I love getting hammered with them, either at a bar or even concerts. I am more enamored by my friends and peers more than the booze.

5.) Commit. If I'm at work, I am there to work. I focus on what needs to get done. This level of commitment must be equal to, never less than, to whenever I am not at work. If I set the rules I have to follow them.  When it's my day off, I'm with those that matter to me most.  If I plan on going somewhere doing something, I expect obstacles, distractions, events that may hinder my progress... but that doesn't matter. I'm doing it for the things that matter to me most.

Work hard, play hard. If you can't separate or do not balance this, you can lose perspective.  Know your limits, and the limits of those around you. Never falter, put your foot down about when to work and when to be with those you love. Just draw the line.

Discovery Green: Architects of Air... or a scene from Krull
Trust me on this and check these links out. If you've never know where to start. Start here. Pick a date. Say you are going to go. Just commit.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Business: It's a dirty Job.

I started working in a professional kitchen right before young aspiring cooks had the notion that the best chefs had their own TV shows or that being a chef was like being a rock star.  It's incredulous how much of that glamorous lifestyle is more in fact not so.

The truth is our job is about getting our hands dirty. We spend about a third of our time prepping, a third of our time cooking, and the last third of it cleaning.  More often then one would think but there are days where all we do is just clean. This career involves a lot of manual labor and a lot of refinement.

Before: Years of Neglect
After: Elbow Grease

A cook is responsible for ‘cleaning as they go’. An expression far too familiar for those within the industry since the day they first started. They work, then they clean, they continue to work and then they clean again. Sanitation is important in our industry.  With more and more food allergens discovered and the presence of bacteria and food-born illness’ it is imperative that we must treat every food item with the utmost respect and care.  A lot of cooks know this, but don’t fully understand the importance of this.

After: Twerk Power
Before: Fryer Grease
Cleanliness is a huge sign of professionalism in our industry. It is why I have such a high regard for those Chefs who really know how to keep their kitchens clean. Have you ever stuck your head in the Pass and Provisions? I bet you'll never find a wandering towel on any table or that every stainless steel surface is so well polished. I love stainless steel. Clean stainless steel is Zen!

Bar Keeper Friend does so many wonders.

The simple idea is this.  When the work place is clean and organized, you are able work in peace.  One is more focused and less distracted by all the clutter.  You must create the professional environment in order to succeed. This contributes to a “Professional Mentality”.  There is a new generation of cooks out there that do not understand this virtue.  They have it in their heads that washing dishes is below them or that scrubbing a pot is not their job.  That mentality disgusts me. That mentality does not belong in a kitchen or even in any business.  Many people are in this industry to survive. Remember that.