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Mon 13 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Kitchen commandos

Executive chefs are charged with co-ordinating strategic business manoeuvres.

Executive chefs are charged with co-ordinating strategic business manoeuvres.What's your background?

Marcus Gregs:This is my sixteenth year in the industry and loving it! I started my career at Wrest Point Hotel and Casino, Hobart, Tasmania as an apprentice chef.

Castelot Sebastien:I've been working in F&B since I was 20 years old - that's 18 years.

Executive chefs need to break free from being a leader behind the lines, just taking care of the brigade in a sort of a militaristic fashion. - Martin Knaubert, Four Seasons Hotel Damascus

I started my career in my hometown of Paris in a three-star Michelin restaurant.

Steffen Gube: I've been in the industry for 16 years and started out at Relais & Chataeu Traube Tonbach in the Black Forest in Germany where I was responsible for the property's breakfast buffet.

Brendan McGowan: I've spent 24 of my 40 years in kitchens.

Initially, I entered the heart of the house, donning a navy blue plastic apron and blue overalls as part of the stewarding or kitchen porter team.

After nine months observing the commis doing their daily tastes, I approached the executive chef and asked to move fromblue to white.

I started a four-year programme in The Westbury Hotel in Dublin as a commis.

Martin Knaubert:I have been in this industry for 14 years. During that time, I have worked in a multitude of kitchen positions but I began my career in Berlin, Germany, working in several small restaurants, always in the kitchens.

When I joined Four Seasons Hotel Berlin in 1981, I started to look at the bigger picture in terms of my role and I began to work towards a more cohesive relationship between the kitchen and F&B.

What are the pleasures and the frustrations of your role?

Gregs:I enjoy travelling, constantly learning, passing on my knowledge and seeing full stomachs and happy faces.

On the other hand, I find computer work taxing as it is not what I was trained for.

Nugraha Adi Wardhana:Cooking is the best part of my job, although getting the right ingredients and making sure the staff deliver the same quality daily can be a challenge.

Sebastien:I like the diversity of managing 10 different restaurants, as well as being in a multicultural team.

Managing your private and professional life is challenging though. This job is so demanding.

Gube:Being creative, increasing my product knowledge, and managing a multitude of chefs from different backgrounds and nationalities to achieve the goals of the business are all things that I enjoy.

It can be a challenge to stay patient, however, due to the vast number of delays and postponements, which seem to be the norm in this part of the world and are beyond my control. It's difficult to learn to work with this.

McGowan:The opportunities the Four Seasons creates for our line employees is a pleasure to behold.

The development of people, product and profit is something shared within the team and is witnessed on a daily basis, from cooks presenting their dishes to witnessing the team doing that little bit extra - this is what keeps me going.

On the other hand, Riyadh is a vibrant city that offers unique challenges, one of which is the direct availability of good produce.

The open markets are a little limited and importation is the only real option.

The executive chefs in the city are all in contact with each other regarding any new products coming in though, and this is refreshing.

Knaubert:I love food and I love working with people who love food. Every day is a learning curve.

I see and taste new items each day, and it can be very inspiring to work with various innovative products that chefs have access to.

I take pride in creative presentations and the entire F&B set-up.

In the end, it is satisfying to see customers pleased with what we are presenting to them.

In this part of the world, however, it can be challenging to get certain products that I, as a chef, or even my customers, would like to have.

In an international hotel chain, customers expect certain products at all times. The demand for such items may not always be strong, but it is our responsibility to deliver.

Ensuring that quality and freshness are consistent, and that goods are delivered in a timely manner, is often very hard. How has the role of executive chef evolved in recent years?

Gregs:The executive chef has turned into more of a business manager with a very PR-marketable side.

Wardhana:Hotels' F&B offerings are growing bigger than they used to be so executive chefs have to do more administration rather than involving themselves in the kitchen.

Sebastien:In the past, the executive chef was more involved into the kitchen itself, taking part in the service, ensuring that all dishes were served as per the recipes and so on.

Exec chefs have had to become more effective in terms of things such as cost management, especially as all products have increased in price, some by more than 35%. - Steffen Gube, Park Hyatt Dubai

Today it is more a managerial position and we are more involved in the strategy and the financial side of things.

Gube:Due to hotel competition, exec chefs have had to become more effective in terms of things such as cost management, especially as all products have increased in price, some by more than 35%.

There are also challenges when it comes to hiring good quality and experienced staff.

McGowan:From my experience, witnessing the head chefs over the years, the traditional role has evolved a lot - they now wear more than one hat!

The roles includes team leading and mentoring, teaching, handling finances, being an ambassador and quality controller, dealing with human resources and even being a "big brother" to the more junior kitchen staff.

Knaubert:I truly believe that executive chefs need to break free from the classical role of being a leader behind the lines, just taking care of the brigade in a sort of a militaristic fashion.

I believe in working and interacting with my entire team, including the front-of-house, so that we can deliver an outstanding and unique product.

Team spirit is the quintessence of our success nowadays, as well as knowing that the preparation of a dish ends in front of the guest.

What is your average food cost percentage at the moment?

Gregs:It's 31.7%. If we do not have any bookings through the conference and events department for lunch, I do not put out a lunch buffet, which saves AED 3000 (US $817) for the food cost directly.

Wardhana:Our average is 33.3%.

It is getting harder to keep up with the soaring prices in Dubai.

Sebastien:We are currently running at 32% but that's not the most important thing, even if we are judged on it.

I prefer to have a higher food cost, offering high food quality at a reasonable price and having all of my restaurants full. The food cost is just a measurement tool. Gube:Our food cost is between 30 and 35% - it depends on the restaurant, which ingredients are used and where they are being sourced from.

I analyse consumption to avoid wastage and try to purchase the best produce at a realistic price, as well as carrying out sales price comparisons to help keep food costs down.

McGowan:Our team focuses on correct ordering, storage, rotation, production and preparation, as well as tight communication.

As we are in a city that offers many "pop-ups", an additional stock is kept on hand to accommodate last minute requests, but the communication and daily stock inspection allow this to be utilised in the outlets.

Knaubert:I average a 30% food cost.

Action plans to minimise this always need to include close liaisons with local suppliers and producers to find the right products for the specific operation.

This is the first step in avoiding wastage and the misuse of products within the kitchen, which is a primary cause of increased food cost.

What are the challenges of sourcing supplies in this region?

Gregs:Due to the distance involved, items are not always readily available at short notice.

Sometimes the quality is not up to standard and, as there are no other local suppliers able to replace these items at short notice, careful planning is required.

Sebastien:In today's Dubai market, there are no difficulties in finding or bringing in products from overseas.

The only problem is that there is more demand than supplies. How can cities like Dubai run short of things like eggs?!

Gube:Professional product knowledge and flexibility is often something the suppliers' staff lack.

Also, the best organic or artisan products are very difficult to find. McGowan:In Saudi we have the support of solid importers from around the region. However, the importation by-laws can create additional expenses for them sometimes in terms of labelling, customs and so on.

Products we are unable to purchase include alcohol and pork-based items.

Knaubert:Sourcing supplies is a challenge in any region. You will always find a problematic item among your products.

On one hand, it is our responsibility to adjust ourselves to the market. On the other, I see myself as a teacher, helping local producers to get their product right for the operation's needs.

Generally speaking, high-end products and luxury goods can be difficult to find. Unfortunately, the variety of organic products is very limited in the region as well.

How do you ensure that your restaurant operations continue to generate maximum revenue and remain profitable?

Wardhana:We minimise wastage and try to deliver quality at a reasonable price to attract more people, as more guests equals more revenue.

Gube:I believe in being on the floor, front-of-house, and observing the quality and the type of products guests require - this is what I call selling well.

We keep the classic and frequently requested dishes on the menu and modify the ones that are not selling very well, and we always try to be attractive in terms of quality and price.

We also maintain our selling prices in accordance with the market.

McGowan:Daily briefings and weekly one-to-one meetings with the department heads allow brainstorming and interaction from the chefs and restaurant managers. Also, studying guest comment cards provides us with ample suggestions that allow us to anticipate the needs of our guests.

Knaubert:Decisions we make in the kitchen need to make sense. I cannot afford to put items on our menus that only I believe in. A menu must be attractive to customers rather than being solely a reflection of the executive chef's ego.

We always need to have our signatures on the menu, but we must also accept the guests' tastes and cater to them. This is the key to customer satisfaction.

Satisfied customers will come again and bring new customers to our locations.

How much of your time is spent looking after the business aspects of your restaurants?

Gregs:Currently it is an 80:20 split between business and being hands-on in the kitchen.

Wardhana:For me it's 70:30, business versus cooking.

Sebastien:Most of my time is spent on business aspects rather than in the operation itself. I would say it's a 70:30 split.

McGowan:With the importance of clear and concise communication relayed to the team, 35% of my day is in a meeting environment, which enables me to be hands-on for the remaining 65%.

Knaubert:I would say that it is a 50:50 split for me, on average.

There are times where I need to be more of a businessman while at others I need to focus more on the traditional chef's role. I like both sides of the job and they are equally important.

Would you prefer the balance between time in the kitchen and time in the office to be different?

Gregs:I would prefer an 85:15 cooking to business ratio.

I have spent a long time training to cook, but the higher you get in your career, the less actual cooking you do. I would rather have someone else to do the paperwork and let me do what it is that I love doing.

Wardhana:I still really enjoying cooking and prefer it to sitting in front of the computer doing budgets, but that's not to say that side of things is not important. Unfortunately, this is what we have to do now.

Sebastien:I definitely wish I could spend more time cooking.

The fundamental of our job is to cook, come up with new recipes and please the guests. We haven't been trained to stay in an office.

Gube:The volume of administration work is increasing year-on-year but I would like to be able to spend more time with my chefs in the operation to continuously train them in technical skills.

As it is, I have to share this role with the exec sous chef due to my time constraints.

Knaubert:The balance between the kitchen and the office is the key to job satisfaction.

I do like to understand and control the business part of the job and I get satisfaction from our good numbers, but I wouldn't be a good executive chef if I failed to guide my team through the hands-on work in the kitchen.

I do love to work with food. Menus are created on the cutting board and stove rather than in the office on the computer.

What improvements could be made at your property to help make your job easier?

Gregs:A secretary would make my life a lot easier and would allow me to cook more.

Gube:Giving more responsibility to the chefs and empowering them to treat their outlet and operation as if it was their own business, their own profit centre.

McGowan:The addition of an administrative assistant would allow me more time in the heart of the house, which in turn would enhance the morale and the product control.

Knaubert:I cannot wait for help from outside - we all need to step up and guide our team.

That is our real duty as exec chefs, and it is in our own hands to make our lives easier.

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