Naughty George Calombaris?

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

What do we want from our restaurants? Love, beauty, money… can we have our cake and eat it?

Richard Thomas, an early chef mentor of mine, affectionately referred to me as “dog–nuts” and I would be lying if I said that was the roughest thing I saw or heard in a kitchen.

Richard’s pedigree as a chef was significant. He was at Huka Lodge, Taupo, for about 12 years, where the Queen stayed when visiting her smallest, southernmost colony. He was a classically trained chef, yet incredibly experimental. He had started in the navy. He had high standards; if the plates I prepared were not right, he would sometimes throw them in the bin (plate and all), and I would fish them out at the end of service. He also drove himself hard. He committed suicide while in his early fifties, leaving three sons and a wife. It was a complete tragedy.

I suspect Richard was like a lot of chefs: really quite introverted types who communicate through their cooking. They love people through their food. Richard was way too far ahead of the times in that small, rural New Zealand town (Tauranga) in the mid-to-late nineties. Especially for a small food business, which are sensitive to the proclivities and trends of the times. The public could not relate to his culinary dream. Commerce can be brutal, especially when one has an artist’s temperament, which I believe he had in spades. But what a kitchen! We produced some beautiful food. He really was a great chef and a lot of fun to work with. We worked very long hours in that kitchen: usually 60-85 per week.

Chef Gary!

What I took away from reflecting on Richard’s story is the need to balance different parts of our lives successfully to keep happy and not always take our professional lives too seriously. Seeing what happened to him made me reluctant about the industry in general and running a small food business in particular. This reluctance lasted about 20 years.

The significant challenge with any small business is to find some balance of work/non-work, and this is perhaps amplified in a food business, as the manual input required to cook & serve food is high relative to financial returns. And then if you are employing staff, particularly chefs, keeping their hours reasonable becomes a challenge. These elements we try to balance within the bounds of a “sustainable” business model: what is a reasonable work week for a salaried chef?

All this is highlighted in cases we see in the media, with a very prominent case now in the limelight. It is difficult for some of the older chefs who did these old-fashioned (slave?) apprenticeships not to expect some long hours from their staff.

A customer said to me this week that it showed a flaw in the business model if the business could not pay their staff for all the hours they worked, and I completely agree. But if that is the expectation and it is enforced 100%, expect far fewer eating options next time you go out. Most of the famous restaurants in the world run on passion, not pay (wife would not allow me to mention names…). It makes me think of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. This would not exist in the world if current minimum wage expectations had been applied.

If you want to conduct an experiment to test how labour-intensive catering is, simply do the following: invite 8 to 10 friends to your home for a 3 to 4-course dinner. Shop, cook and clean up for your friends. Buy and serve the wine, wash the glasses and clean the floor. Look at how much it costs and the time involved. Then consider the challenges of a commercial restaurant enterprise.

And that is all before considering the frantic real estate market we live in, with little chance of securing a long lease that may exist in Europe or America, meaning rents can skyrocket every few years.

I believe we are a generous and well-intentioned culture. It will be interesting to see where it leads.

More to come and thanks for reading, I hope you found some of this interesting.