An open sewer running through the human soul, it is incredibly rare Twitter makes you think. But, recently, browsing a spat between a disgruntled punter and a star chef (exactly who does not matter), I experienced the dining geek’s version of a Damascene conversion.
Said (ex)customer was angry that the chef no longer works Saturday nights. The word ‘greedy’ was used. The chef insisted he was no sell-out but that he wanted to spend time with his family, pointing out how many hours he actually was in the kitchen each week.
What struck me, forcefully, is that, back in 2009, I would have shared the complainer’s view. If your name was over the door, I thought you should be there to cook every service. In serious, ambitious restaurants, I was militant about it – at the time, with good reason.
In the decade between Jamie Oliver’s TV debut and the 2008 financial crash, the UK restaurant industry exploded. Chefs were hot. Many got burned. A generation of top cooks – who often prided themselves on cooking local, seasonal, changing menus – were pulled in 101 directions: TV, cookbooks, festivals, commercial collaborations, opportunities to open spin-off pubs and brasseries.
In smaller operations where a chef-owner previously led the team at every service, their sudden absence was huge. Several restaurants declined shockingly until, conversely, it became a point of principle among some chefs to never miss a service. When I interviewed Sat Bains for Restaurant in 2009, he explained he had closed his restaurant to film Great British Menu, rather than potentially compromise his food. That seemed honourable.
But today? Weirdly, I could not care less if the ‘star’ chef is present when I visit. There are exceptions, where the brigade is tiny and the chef’s cooking highly individual (James Cross at Lake Road Kitchen, for example), but in most venues the way food is produced has changed so radically, it hardly matters.
Chefs learned harsh lessons from that noughties upheaval. They accepted that while their creative heart may lie in their main restaurant, they have a wider brand value which, given the economics of the industry, would be crazy not to monetise. To some extent, they have to spend time away, promoting their restaurant but also generating supplementary revenue streams to ensure the economic viability of their business. They also need time off to live, relax and recharge.
To facilitate this, the best chefs now build talented, collegiate teams around them. If a chef-owner was once both a football manager and the star striker, now they act more like directors of football. They are exec chefs in their own businesses, primarily concerned with dish design, concept renewal, team-building, sourcing and business development, while trusted, increasingly visible head chefs handle the daily grunt work of ensuring consistency at every service.
Menu development has changed accordingly. Produce is researched, scheduled, planted, foraged and preserved way in advance. Dishes are conceived and road-tested 12 months out. Contingencies for unpredictable factors are built-in. This may mean menus change less, but food is more innovative and better quality than ever.
Our best restaurants are now well-oiled machines where the chef-owner’s presence at each service (or not) is an incidental detail. Both financially and in terms of staff welfare, by reducing stress and hours, that feels modern and sustainable.
Is the chef-owner pivotal in a restaurant? Of course. Ethically and creatively, their personality defines that space. But must they touch every plate of food in order to validate it? No. By that stage, intelligent chef-owners have already done their hard work.
This column first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here