Speech to the Restaurants Association Conference

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RAI Conference 2009, Maynooth. “Successful Strategies for 2009 – A crucial time to share ideas”

Creating successful strategies in difficult times begins by listening carefully. L:ike this...

Heard the one about the man who walks into the doctor’s and says “I'm having trouble hearing things”

Doctor says: “Can you describe the symptoms?”

The man says, “Eh, well, ok then. Eh, Homer is the fat bald guy, and Marge has this big blue hair....”

You need to be listening very carefully right now to what the customer is saying to you. I would suggest that what people are saying is that in many areas we need the restatement, the re-affirmation, of first principles: sound money; community spirit; political will, and good food. I want to talk about those first principles today.

The Restaurantness of a Restaurant

“Cooks can be placed at the focus of society. Cooks command the kitchen of culture. They work at the maelstrom at the centre of our world: they stir the mighty pudding of civilization”.
Michael Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking.

Twenty years ago, pubs were the centre of our socialising culture. Today, it is restaurants that are the centre of our socializing culture.
How did this happen? Because pubs took customers for granted, and all but abolished the idea of service.
Why did restaurants seize the high ground?
Because they offered service to a people who were rapidly becoming both more sophisticated, and more demanding.
People today may have less money than 2 years ago, but they have not become less sophisticated, or less demanding.
This is why those restaurants that cater for their customers will succeed, despite the present difficult circumstances. That is how restaurants that can adapt to the present realities will survive, and even thrive.
A few years back when I wrote the second edition of my book, “How to Run a Restaurant”, I wrote that “restaurants fail because they neglect the almost unquantifiable elements that make people want to socialise in a particular room in the first place”.
The food writer and publisher of the great quarterly The Art of Eating, Edward Behr, has written that “Only some restaurants share the animating spirit, the restaurantness of a restaurant”.
Too many pubs in Ireland lost that “animating spirit”, and they failed.
Appreciating and accentuating that “animating spirit” will ensure you succeed. Restaurants for the last decade may have been largely centres of celebration, but they are no less effective as centres of consolation.
In fact, in this regard they may make themselves even more important: the person who cooks the meal and pours the wine in hard times is a true friend, not just someone you are paying to carry out these tasks.

The Narrative of the Food: “Recipes are the core of culture”: Michael Symons.

Too many restaurants tell us too little about the food they cook, and how they cook it.
Either the food is presented as a fait accompli, where you are meant to simply admire the skill that brought it together, and then enjoy it.
Or else there is too much irrelevant detail, by which I mean the menu description that tells you that the duck was “lovingly strangled before being oven-roasted and placed on a bed of freshly hand-gathered pasture-style salad leaves anointed with David Llewellyn’s lovingly concocted apple balsamic vinegar”

Both are failures in explaining the narrative of the recipe and the narrative of the food.

In their book “The Elements of Taste”, Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky tell us that “A recipe is more than a mere combination of ingredients and techniques. There is a fourth dimension to every recipe. It is put together over time and it is experienced over time. Like a story or a song, it has a beginning, middle and end: it has a narrative”.
Are you explaining the narrative of your work to your customers? In a meaningful way? Do your staff convey the effort and consideration that has brought the dishes together?
Put it this way; you spend three hours at the dinner table in a restaurant. You spend 3 hours at the theatre. Would you sit down at the theatre without a synopsis and a cast list and the name of the director?
Successful restaurants tell you this narrative, but they convey it simply, efficiently and methodically, and at their very best this narrative is almost invisible, but it is ever-present.
Of course, you can’t present every customer with your CV – though you can on your website.
But what you can do, through the greeting, the service, the interaction – is to let them know the narrative of your place, your food, your restaurant.

The Signature Style

There is too much fashion in food, and too little true personality. The latest fashion, as we all know, is for ramshackle, bricolage-style, thrift-shop chic. Shebeen Chic. Made in Belfast, to name but two.
Fine, but I know restaurants that have truly been created on a shoestring, and with bits and pieces from thrift shops. So, when I see the latest trend, I know it’s no more than a fashion.
But the restaurants I know that have been created on a shoestring have been some of the most successful restaurants in Ireland over the last twenty years.
Take three examples, which features three of the most respected – and published – cooks in Ireland.
Bernadette O’Shea of Truffles in Sligo, author of “Pizza Defined”. Denis Cotter of Café Paradiso in Cork, whose three books are amongst the finet ever written by a working chef. And Carmel Somers of Good Things Café in West Cork whose first cookbook will be published in a month or so.
Those restaurants are not fashionble, they were fashion-breaking, each of them broke the mould because they were a true expression of personality, they captured a signature style. But they were created on a shoestring.
And, because they were created on a shoestring, they were restaurants that were seriously profitable, because there were no expensive loans to pay back, and no designers to be remunerated for advising you to do what everyone else was doing.
Having the confidence to do things your own way is the surest road to success. In a perfect restaurant world, no two restaurants would be alike, simply because the people running them are each and every one of them different. Don’t copy other people’s ideas: learn from them and adapt them to create your own thing.

The Cooking Animal

Man is the cooking animal. Politics is much less important than food: it’s really no more than showbusiness for ugly people.
It is cooks who, as Michael Symons says, “command the kitchen of culture. They work at the maelstrom at the centre of our world: they stir the mighty pudding of civilization”.

That mighty pudding may be a little less rich than a couple of years ago, but it still needs cooks to stir it, and to enrich it with their narrative, with their signature, with the dignity of service, as these three quotes show:

“Ultimately, service is a hallmark of civilization”.
Kurt Sorensen, Charlie Trotter’s restaurant.

“I realized food was a matter of civilized achievement. The fruit of civilization”.
Myrtle Allen, Ballymaloe House

“The secret of success is the passion for what you are doing”.
Otto Kunze of Dunworley Cottage, quoting Jane Grubb of Cashel Blue cheese.