April 19, 2012
When Jill Weber and Evan Malone hired Matt Zagorski, then chef at Rouge, to consult on their new restaurant Rex 1516, they knew they were getting a chef who could help them with staffing, health inspections, purveyor connections and food costs.
The fact they scored the ingredients to the burger blend he custom created for his restaurant, Hickory Lane, was a bonus because a burger is something a restaurant can stake a reputation on. “Some people wouldn’t do that,” Zagorski said. “But I’ll go to those lengths for Jill.”
Zagorski is part of a less-discussed but prevalent aspect of Philadelphia’s restaurant structure: culinary consultants. Restaurant owners who are just starting out, looking to create a new program or hoping to fix situations before they get out of control are turning to experts. Chefs, managers, operators, sommeliers and bartenders are lending their skills for quick-hit, quick-payday jobs.
In Philadelphia, consultants abound. Some are restaurant veterans who prefer a lighter schedule and more flexibility; others are simply responding to requests for their intimate knowledge of certain cuisines and kitchen operations. It’s also a way to make some money between jobs.
Chefs Mike Stollenwerk of Fish and Jim Burke of now-shuttered restaurant James both have consulted. David Fields, once a food writer and restaurant owner, consults for Korman Communities. He has created food and beverage programs—such as upscale coffee concepts and lobby bars—in the New York and D.C. properties, and most recently at a kitchen restaurant near Rittenhouse Square.
For new restaurant owners, especially those entirely new to the industry, hiring a consultant is a way to glean information without needing to pay a full-time salary. Weber, an archaeologist by trade, was a fan of Zagorski’s cooking at Rouge, so she asked him to work on her first culinary foray, Jet Wine Bar, and then Rex 1516, which opened in February.
While Zagorski’s cooking is well established, it was in the less glamorous aspects of running a restaurant that he became invaluable. “He helped us find our kitchen staff, hire our chef, help with pricing, costs, deal with the health department rules and regulations. … We never would have been able to plan the kitchen without him,” Weber said. “He helped me figure out what I was doing wrong.”
Turning to the experts is not just for small fish. Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen, co-owners of GuestCounts Hospitality—which operates Cuba Libre, among other things—have, in a way, built their foundation on consultants.
Guillermo Pernot was running his own restaurant, Pasion, in 2000 when Gutin asked him to create the menu for the first Cuba Libre. A few years later, after Pasion closed, he joined the group full time as a chef and partner, and now oversees multiple projects.
“The goal was to introduce expertise into an expanding company, and if the chemistry is right, we will bring them on full time,” Gutin said. Similarly, chef Jean-Marie Lacroix consulted on their catering division for a few years before becoming a named partner.
Having names such as Lacroix and Pernot adds gravitas. “The public is growing increasingly savvy when they read about a chef’s involvement in a restaurant and whether they are really engaged or just window dressing,” Gutin said.
It’s not the goal of all consultants to land the full-time gig, but being a part-timer comes with its own challenges. Jim Burke was tapped by Stephen Starr to consult on an Italian menu for a new venture his catering department was opening in the New-York Historical Society.
“Consulting is not as fulfilling as owning or being a chef of a restaurant. You have to detach yourself emotionally, and that’s difficult to do. A big part of cooking is emotion,” said Burke, who, after months of creating menus and planning the kitchen, signed on as executive chef and moved to Manhattan.
“It’s quick money, but it’s not easy money. You have to start from scratch or fix horrible problems,” said Pernot, who has asked some of his restaurant clients to keep his name private because he didn’t think it would enhance his culinary reputation.
Chefs also have to deal with tight-knit kitchen staffs that aren’t always quick to embrace an outsider. “A lot of people don’t like consultants. They say, ‘Who is this guy, what is he doing here, and what is coming?’” Pernot said.
And some projects are just beyond repair. The Borgata asked Pernot to rework Mixx, its nightclub and restaurant. He spent as much time observing and unearthing the problems as he did offering solutions. “It was almost impossible to run the way they ran it,” said the chef, who relayed that very message to management. Mixx eventually closed and was reconceptualized, eliminating food.
Ed Doherty is a fine-dining restaurant veteran and owner of consulting firm One Degree Hospitality. In his experience, the best, most successful clients are the ones who are good students. “If all doesn’t go well, it’s very easy to blame the consultant,” he said.
He is currently assisting with the opening of two downtown spots, Honeygrow—where chef Shola Olunloyo is also consulting—and SoWe Bar and Kitchen. “You want to make sure they are in good shape when you leave, but you do want to leave.”
The industry is small enough that Doherty hasn’t yet been forced to make cold calls to drum up business. But he sees consulting becoming increasingly popular, in part due to an aging demographic that has spent a lifetime building restaurant prowess and needs work. “People like myself,” he said. “They don’t need maître d’s in gastropubs.”
Quality News Today is an ASQ member benefit offering quality related news
from around the world every business day.