Meet the Masters: Sharing Your Playbook

MANAGING TIME. “It’s the hardest part of my job,” said Rick Bayless (chef/owner, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO). My biggest struggle is that I can get involved in details and lose the joy of what I’m doing.” He said he has a whole slew of assistants, and the one who keeps his schedule knows there are sacred times that are just for him in the kitchen. “For me to be excited about what I’m doing every day, I have to maintain enough time to cook, to develop dishes, to do what I got into this business for, because it’s easy to get involved in the development side which is pretty joyless.” Tom Colicchio (chef/owner, Craft Restaurants, ‘wichcraft) agreed, “You have to schedule your own time in the kitchen, in the office, and time for family, and really work that schedule. For seven years, we grew Craft into eight restaurants and 13 ‘wichcrafts, and I spent too much time in my office. Over the last year, I have completely pulled myself out of business development and put a team around me to focus on that. I find when I spend too much time on business that the creative side of my brain just shuts off and I’m not looking at food in terms of something new to work on.”

CREATING TEAMS. “We do all of our hiring at the lower levels from the interns who work in our restaurants,” explained Rick. “We get to know them that way, and if the relationship works out, after they finish culinary school, they come to work for us.” Tom added, “One of the most important things is to check your ego at the door. The second you think you can’t teach people to be as passionate and committed as you are, and teach them how you want them to cook, you’ll never grow.” He said most of their managers are home-grown talent, starting as servers. “The DNA is there, they understand hospitality. I preach that the welcome, the service is as important as the back of the house.” Barbara Lynch (ceo, Barbara Lynch Gruppo) said, “I develop teams and hold them accountable for running the restaurants – the P&Ls, food and liquor costs are all on their shoulders. I’m always there to fix a problem; when something isn’t working, we tweak it. One of the best things I ever did was get to the point where I could hire an HR manager. This fall, we’re having our first strategic planning retreat.”

CHANGING COURSE.What I’ve changed in the last two years is that I’m looking for hotel partnerships. My partner and I have been learning that if it’s tough to get money to open a restaurant and the hotel industry needs to partner with restaurant operators like ourselves, why not look for those partnerships?” asked José Andrés (chef/owner, ThinkFoodGroup). “The risk is a lot less – they get a concept, you get a hotel. I have a great partnership with SLS hotels.” Tom said that going outside New York City with Craft, a high-end concept, even into mid-sized cities, has been tough. “In Atlanta and Dallas, we have become a special-occasion restaurant, so we may change the concept a little bit, into something less expensive and more like our Craftbar concept, which has actually grown on average 15% over the last two years, even in the down economy.” He added, “The last couple of years have been interesting. You see fine dining changing; the food is fine dining but everything else is relaxed. I don’t think fine dining will ever die, there will be pockets of it, but I think that middle pricing – $20-22 an entree – is what people are looking for. The challenge is to come up with great dishes in that price range and create a great restaurant around it. There’s a real opportunity at that level.”

INVESTING IN YOUR TEAM. “To me, the personal bond is the most powerful tool in human resources,” said José. “When I go to Spain in the summer, I bring two or three cooks and take them to where the real people live, where the genuine flavors are, and give them this other way of learning. I think it is the most precious tool that I can give them.” Rick takes 20 front-of-the-house and 20 back-of-the-house staff to Mexico for four days over July 4th every year. “We take cooking classes, go to markets, eat in restaurants, and then we put it in a cultural context. It gives us the opportunity to instill culture – not only the culture of Mexico, but our personal culture – in our staff in a different way. We always come back and put together menus for the restaurants that reflect the trip.”