From Restaurant Manager to Apprentice Restaurateur
A path through the creative world
Being a restaurant manager, whose aim is to become a restaurateur, you need to get ready to spend as much time as possible within the creative world. This may be a move out of your comfort zone and therefore challenging but it can also be extremely rewarding as I am about to tell you.
Back when I started my career as a private butler for the French Ambassador in London, I was an old-school perfectionist obsessed with traditional knowhow. At the Ambassador’s Residence, the precious 200 years old crockery we used daily had to be kept in a vault. Newspapers had to be ironed before given out to guests. Service was omnipresent yet invisible. As you can probably guess, I was living in a very strictly codified environment where creativity was rarely relevant.
In fact, all these years I believed creative professionals and I belonged to two different species. I was looking up to these lucky geniuses and believed I could never become one of them.
Later on in my career, as I became a partner in trendy restaurants and bars, I began working closely with creatives and designer to suddenly realise we had so much in common. We all followed processes, methods and shared great love for details. Took me quite some time, observing the way they work until I built the confidence to consider myself part of their crew.
Nowadays, I find great pleasure in interacting with professionals from all trades and horizons. They are crafts experts, artists and designers. We discuss emotional architecture, branding, marketing, business planning, ingredients and trends and we get to have fun with all aspects of our unique “restaurant making art”. I feel I am where I always wanted to be.
I see no reason why you should not be able to achieve the same and much faster than I did. Maybe reading the following humble recommendations will save you time.
Get out of your restaurant and network outside your industry. You will not learn much by hanging out with people who are just like you. If you want to evolve, look for people who are already on the creative path. Look for inspiration and network within other industries (fashion, contemporary art, pottery…). DJs, Photographers and Art students are all around you and will often be your best leads.
Don’t read too much but at least a little. The creative world is far from chaotic. It follows rules and methods that you will need to abide to, at least at the beginning. Be aware that most decisions will not be a matter of taste but the result of research & processes. Don’t worry, it is a lot simpler than it sounds. You can find thousands of simple illustrations of creative processes on Pinterest.
Tell them all to wait, it is only fair. Operators and investors will always push excessively you for speed of execution. Learn how much time you need and learn to say no. Cutting time is almost ALWAYS a compromise in quality. You are the one who understands creative processes, you are the one who understands quality and you will eventually be accountable for results. Creative processes require time for research, observation, testing and so on… Protect your time, protect your processes and protect your creative team.
Spot your new teachers. You will come across new potential teachers and mentors. They may be less senior than you, they may be very different from your past mentors. They may become your teacher for a decade of just for a day. Learn to recognize them. Last week, a 22 years old design intern taught me that whenever possible, I should avoid using metallic colours (Gold, Silver, Brass...) in any branding as it will dramatically increase my printing cost further down the line... wow! Of course! Now you say it! Makes so much sense. After getting that small taste of accessible and valuable expert knowledge, I decided to make our intern my teacher for a few hours a month...
Don’t always think like a restaurant professional. Think like a customer. Designers call that process “emphasising”. For example, it is great to ensure your staff is well trained and gives customers 100% of their attention. However, be aware that so much attention may not be in line with what the guests really want. As a guest, I am too often interrupted in middle of important conversation by waiters who are just trying to do their job the best they can. Some guests just want to be left alone. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes even if it means questioning the most established rules and habits.
Feel safe. If like most people, your biggest fear is to fail or look stupid then the smartest thing you can do it to be humble. As you are about to start interacting with field experts and successful artists, position yourself as an apprentice and all will go well.
Unlearn. Every stage you step up to, demands reconsidering everything you have learnt in the previous stages. As head waiter, I learnt to follow rules and ensure my team was doing the same. Today, I am having to do the opposite and systematically question everything I am told. Two very different approaches at two different stages of my career. Both correct.
Speak up! Head chefs as well as restaurant managers can be known for not taking criticism well (although to be fair we are getting better). I am sure that you heard this before “The Head Chef is always right” or “this is a restaurant not a democracy”. Well, most creative professionals operate very differently. Designers for example like to allocate time for feedback sessions within most their projects and it makes so much sense! In a challenging market where our customers are more and more knowledgeable and opinionated, we would have to be mad to launch any new food or beverage product without at least testing and questioning it amongst ourselves.
Relax and watch. We often miss out on the true power of what I call ‘free observation’. By free observation I mean observing without knowing what you are looking for. Doing that, I one day realised my guests looked happier in certain areas of the dining room than in others. Investigating this phenomenon, I found out it was linked to how far these guests sat from the waiter’s stations. Stress generated by noise and movement was the cause. As I reviewed the location of the waiters’ stations, our spend per head for dinner increased. Who would have thought….
There is no mystery. There is a recipe to everything including attracting great crowds, achieving uniqueness and even guessing what the next trend will be. This has little to do with taste, genius or good instinct. By studying varieties of concepts within and outside our industry (Fashion, luxury real estate, high end furniture design…) you will uncover the recipes.For example, analysing a little the Haute Couture market, you may learn what makes the difference between a short life “latest trend” design and a Classic timeless design. Classic designs that last and become iconic are often simple, pure in terms of composition and recognisable. Their conception involves craft and they are often innovative at the time they are created. Now you know all this, why not apply it to the creation of your signature cocktails?
In coming articles, I will write about a variety of topics such as “Getting inspiration from other industries’’, “Are robots going to take our restaurant jobs”, “Are restaurateurs artists?”, ‘Is creative team work possible?”, “a brief history of London restaurants menus”, “Is calling a cocktail a great cocktail objective or subjective?” …
I will also write about specific tasks such as “Organising a food tasting”, “Commissioning bespoke tableware or bar vessels”, “Preparing creative briefs”, “Guest Mixologist and guest chefs, why do it?”, “Restaurant music selection”, “Selecting DJs and other performers”, “Menu design”, “Develop and verbalise your vision” …
Looking forward to sharing further with you.
Alexandre Santamaria, London, May 2018
PS: I share inspiration on my Instagram @alexandre_santamaria
All views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity whatsoever with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.