Welcome to L.A. Week 2016. To celebrate the rich culinary life of Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week that explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its classic tacos, to its offbeat icons. Follow along on Twitter @firstwefeast.
Evan Funke is chef and partner of Felix in Abbot Kinney, which will open this summer.
Bucato was everything: a culmination of love, faith, hope, ambition, ball-breaking work, and a shit ton of money. If I told you the whole story, you might say I’d have the makings of a Hollywood screen play. This incredible “journey”—one that literally brought me to my knees financially, spiritually, and emotionally—has left me with a rather unique perspective and, in my eyes, a cautionary tale that I feel responsible to tell.
When I opened Bucato in Culver City two years ago, I was personally unprepared for the true reality of the business aspect of running a restaurant. I had manned successful kitchens, so how could becoming a chef/owner be any different? It’s a lesson I would come to learn from gut-wrenching lessons about trust, honesty, integrity, partnership, and gratitude.
My dream started in culinary school; the second I walked through the doors, I knew I wanted to have my own place. It was a driving force within me to write my own music, so to speak. Fifteen years later, this dream would be a reality, but at what cost? So many young cooks have similar aspirations to own their own restaurant, be their own boss, or at the very least earn the respect of their peers. But after they receive their diplomas, are they truly prepared for the ugly side of the business? EPLI, FMLA, ABC, ADA, permits, health department, not to mention constant plumbing issues, payroll, that asshole on table 10 who wants his A5 kobe well done, and your best dishwasher calling in sick from county jail is just a snapshot of the constant struggle of managing a business. I don’t know about any of you, but the most business-oriented class I took in culinary school was a two-week review of food-cost arithmetic taught by a “chef instructor” that had never actually run a restaurant.
When I graduated, I rejoiced that I was now a “chef” as so many of my “instructors” had convinced me. In reality, I was a cocky, unprepared, under-qualified, entry-level culinary grunt with nothing but a diploma and a skewed sense of reality. It’s no wonder that 75% of my graduating class are no longer in the business. They’ve gone back to their jobs at the airport, the DWP, and Best Buy because they were released into the wilderness without a fucking prayer.
I’ve been pretty much blackballed by Le Cordon Bleu America for speaking out about its grossly ineffective methods of preparing culinary students for the real world. I’ve lost count of how many newly graduated externs I’ve had to unfuck because they can’t sharpen their own knives, don’t know the five mother sauces, can’t scramble an egg, don’t say “behind,” or generally piss their pants if anyone offers them any kind of criticism or “verbal inspiration” without a lollipop and a pat on the back. This is a blue-collar job—this is not fucking television.
“I don’t know about any of you, but the most business-oriented class I took in culinary school was a two-week review of food-cost arithmetic taught by a “chef instructor” that had never actually run a restaurant.”
I taught at Le Cordon Bleu for 12 weeks and was summarily fired for being a little aggressive. (That’s another story.) At the time, the prerequisite to be a “chef instructor” at Le Cordon Bleu was five years in the restaurant industry. Now, imagine this: You go to medical school to become a neurosurgeon, and after five years of being a neurosurgeon, you are then qualified enough, through the eyes of the school, to go back and teach other aspiring doctors how to cut brains open. Pretty fucked, right?
Now, I’m not pawning off blame to the culinary education in this country for my own mistakes. I take full responsibility for my own actions. But that does not negate the fact that thousands of graduates from the present culinary education system are in debt and are staggeringly unprepared to deal with the grittier aspects of business. Over time, you might be able to learn how to lead and motivate people, write a schedule, write a menu, understand basic food and labor cost controls. But the minutiae of this industry will rob you of every drop of inspiration and creativity you thought you had unless you have a handle on the business.
Why are we not teaching business proficiencies alongside basic kitchen etiquette and techniques in culinary programs? What do we gain from teaching students an archaic curriculum filled with chicken galantine and sauce Cumberland instead of relevant techniques and basic business practices? Unless someone wants to be a mindless line cook for the rest of his or her life, the only way to succeed is to become educated. Take basic business courses, a restaurant management course; read books about restaurant operations, find a mentor. The days of being just a good cook are gone. So if you’re going to call yourself a culinary educator, wouldn’t that also mean you’re going to teach culinary-related operations and business? Programs need to realize that a student’s greater success is dictated by business savvy—not just the cultivation of creativity.
“Programs need to realize that a student’s greater success is dictated by business savvy—not just the cultivation of creativity.”
In closing I ask you, young culinary minds, is it worth propelling yourself into ownership so quickly? Or skipping that extra year of experience cooking on the sauté station under the iron fist of a culinary genius/maniac, in order to take a sous-chef position in a slightly more relaxed atmosphere? What exactly is your rush? This business is experience-based. Its not about how many Instagram followers you have—they can’t help you in October when sales are down. It’s not about how cool your plate looks if you can’t teach a line cook to taste his food and plate it the same way a thousand times at the correct speed. It’s not just about having a creative vision. That’s the easy part. The hard part is knowing how to troubleshoot. Cooking, in many ways, is secondary.
So, on the eve of opening a new restaurant, with a new company, a little older and a fuck-ton wiser, I beseech you—proceed with caution.