Chef Jason Atherton On How Perseverance Pays Off In The Culinary World
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Disruptive innovation is a common theme across many, if not all, industry sectors nowadays. As in many other cases, the culinary world has also witnessed its rules being rewritten, with many chefs from around the world building their own enterprises to conquer the dining sector. So, how are they going about doing this? We asked some chefs who have embarked on such entrepreneurial endeavors in the MENA region to tell us their stories. Here's what Chef Jason Atherton, founder and owner, The Social Company (Marina Social, Dubai), had to say.
“Patience is number one when it comes to becoming a great chef. You have to be patient because it takes a long time. It actually took me about 20 years before I could execute it properly. Second, you have to have the mindset to look at the work not as a job, but as a lifestyle, so you have to switch the mindset from calling your job a “job,” and making it a lifestyle choice instead. Third, you have to work hard, because it is really hard work. You have to be completely self-minded and focused on wanting to become greater at what you do. And if you have all of those, follow them, work very hard, and then there’s a good chance you can get to the top... And you do need a little bit of talent."
How do you turn a passion for food into a profitable business?
"One of the biggest compliments people pay to our business, and to me as a chef, is that there are only a few chefs who can convert their passion for food into a business, because normally, the two don’t go hand in hand. Chefs go by their heads, so when, let’s say, you cook white truffles and cheese, and the guests go crazy and it’s amazing, you end up adding more truffles, but then you look at the balance, and you realize you didn’t charge them enough. The biggest thing I can advise is never ever sacrifice the restaurant’s profitability for your own ego, because you can be the greatest chef in the world but end up losing your business, family, and homes– all because you want to chase greatness. You shouldn’t force greatness. If you put out your talent, for sure you’ll shine anyway which means you shouldn’t push so hard and put the business at the back end. I’ve seen so many chefs do that in pursuit of being one of the top chefs on the planet."
"However, there are some who are addicted to being over entrepreneurial. I opened up around 17 restaurants in six years, I got to that point where I knew I had to stop and train myself to say no. It was very difficult because of the success of these restaurants. Once I opened Marina Social here in Dubai, I was offered up to six new restaurants in just two years. The thing is, I can only be in Dubai for so much time, and if I get greedy, I’ll end up with five or six restaurants that are average instead of having one restaurant that is great and that will only get better over the years and not close up like so many other restaurants in Dubai."
How have you gone about putting a good team together for your enterprise?
"If I’m honest, our expansion is only because we have so much talent in this company that if they hadn’t been given the outlet to put out their creativity, they would have left . I wanted to create opportunities for them, hence making ourselves commercially available was a natural choice. The first thing I ask my chefs including Tristin Farmer, the Chef Patron at Marina Social, and all my other chefs in London or Sydney, is, ‘Would a non-foodie enjoy this dish?’ If they think that people who just simply want to go out and have a nice time with their friends and family would say, ‘It’s delicious and looks great,’ and if it is a profitable dish, then by all means put it on the menu.
These are the majority of our diners, and we make sure we cater to them. So, you have to be able to manage risks. For example, when you are creating a dish in the kitchen, it is a risk and a reward. The fancier that dish becomes, the riskier it is to put that on the menu. If it takes a lot of preparation, will the staff be able to execute it the same way and level when you are not around? Will they be able to make sure that it’s perfect every time considering its cost for patrons? Are you better off taking off a few elements away to make it easier for the staff to execute? It’s the same thought process when it comes to entrepreneurship in this industry.
However, it’s great to look at the positive side of what you do and strength of your team, but it’s also important to look at their weaknesses. I help through my training courses, and guide them on what they are struggling with. I always recommend spending time with your team and have them feel like they are part of a bigger thing. Being loyal to your team is just as important as them being loyal to you. if you are not creating loyalty, you will not last very long. You have to inspire them to make people believe that you are a good leader so they would want to give you their 120%, not just a hundred."
What are some of the trends you expect in this sector in the future?
"Two years ago, the boom of the takeaway came back and is big in Dubai, London, New York, and so on. The so-called rent-a-chef options are a great way for a chef to start. If you get noticed and show what you can do, then why not? When it comes to technology -robots, artificial intelligence and so on- I can say that there will always be some sort of machinery but you can never replace a human. You cannot train a robot. The human palate and the tongue have so much sensitivity attached to it that a robot doesn’t. How can you train them to know when a dish is too spicy? It’s never going to happen as they don’t also have creative minds. Food is all about emotions. We’ve come full circle on simplicity. People are starting to understand more about sustainability. People are more interested in knowing where their vegetables are grown, what soil is used, what their fish is being fed. The next generation of chefs will need to be more savvy as diners are becoming more and more skeptical and inquisitive of the food they consume."
Jason Atherton’s dos and don’ts for running a business
Create a family atmosphere with your team.
Work only with people you like to be around with, because life is too short.
Maintain a positive attitude always.
...take on debts. Just be careful to not take on too much debts. I run my business within the cash flow.
...over expand. You need to know when enough is enough. Ignore your gut feelings. Always trust your instincts