The Culinary School Debate

If you’ve found CookItHere.com, you’re obviously a serious cook. Maybe you’re a caterer, or an entrepreneur working on a line of food products. Chances are if you haven’t been to culinary school, you’re considering it.

Interest and attendance in culinary schools has skyrocketed since the 80s, due in part to the popularity of cooking shows like Top Chef. The level of celebrity that was once reserved for star athletes and performers is now attainable by chefs. Those who achieve household-name status, like Rachel Ray, have launched commercial empires.

Now might be a good time to mention that Rachel Ray didn’t go to culinary school. Many famous chefs did not.

So there’s the debate: with the cost of a culinary education ranging from $20,000 to over $100,000, is it worth it?

Just like going to acting school doesn’t guarantee you an acting career, going to culinary school does not guarantee a culinary career.  Education or not, the career path for chefs usually begins with a $10/hour kitchen job. If you’ve financed a $60,000 culinary education, you’re looking at loan payments of almost $700 per month*—hardly feasible on an average cook’s salary.

Advocates of culinary school will tell you that the formal education offers a breadth of knowledge that you can’t get from working your way around a kitchen. And, just like other programs, you’ll make valuable connections, meet people and encounter opportunities as a student that you might miss otherwise.

There are alternatives. Local community colleges often offer culinary programs at a fraction of the cost of traditional cooking school. And of course, many chefs work their way through the ranks without attending culinary school.

Your ultimate career goal is an important consideration as well. There are many directions to go with a culinary degree outside of restaurants: personal and private chefs, commercial or institutional chefs, education, other hospitality sectors like hotels, cruises, even airlines.  It might pay to explore specific career goals before deciding to attend culinary school or deciding what type of program to enroll in—does your ideal employer require a degree?  Do they favor one type of school over another?

You’ll find plenty of passionate opinions on both sides of the culinary school debate. If you’re thinking about a culinary education, do some research.  Consider your current and projected financial resources, your career goals and the job market before you make your decision. For a more thorough discussion of the topic, try this article from Eater.com.

*From the Federal Department of Student Aid’s Loan Calculator: http://www.direct.ed.gov/calc.html

Food Safety Refresher

With the holiday catering season upon us, chances are you’ll be presenting some buffet-style meals for your clients, or even for your own family and friends.  Now is a good time to brush up on food safety. Yes, you know this stuff… all of us should have solid knowledge of food safety and preventing food-borne illness. But it never hurts to refresh yourself on safe food-handling and serving practices—it’s easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the season.

The following information comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   Food handling safety is broken into four main steps:

Clean:  Wash your hands before handling food. Clean all surfaces and utensils between uses. Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly, but DON’T wash meats, poultry or eggs.

Separate:  Keep meats, poultry and eggs separate from other foods, from the time they spend in your grocery cart to the time they’re in your fridge. Use separate cutting boards and plates to prepare proteins, too.

Cook:  Use a meat thermometer to verify that meat and poultry is properly cooked—don’t go by looks.  And keep hot food hot til it’s served—at least 140 degrees to prevent bacteria developing.

Chill:  Perishable foods should be chilled quickly—don’t let them drop to room temperature before putting them in the fridge. Also, don’t marinate or thaw proteins on the counter—letting meat stand for long periods at room temperature is a recipe for food poisoning.

Serving buffet-style meals presents additional safety challenges—it’s all about keeping food at the proper temperature and avoiding contamination. The FDA offers the following advice for presenting a safe buffet:

Serve smaller platters: if guests will be serving themselves over a period of time, then prepare several smaller plates of each dish. Put one plate out at a time, and keep the back-ups either refrigerated or in a 200° oven until they’re needed. Not only is that safer, but guests who eat later will have a more enjoyable meal, too.

Keep food at proper temperatures: use warmers or crock pots to keep hot foods hot—140° or warmer. Any cold food that will be on the buffet longer than two hours should be on ice.

Replace, don’t refill:  Don’t top off partly-empty serving dishes. Wait until they’re nearly empty, then replace the dish with a fresh one.

The Two-Hour Rule: Discard any perishable foods that have been left out for two hours or longer. If you’re serving in a hot environment (90° or higher) then make that the One-Hour Rule.

For more information on food safety, visit www.foodsafety.gov or www.fda.gov.

Business Building Basics for Caterers

Have you heard of the 90-day principal? In the business world, they say that whatever you do today, you’ll reap the benefits of in 90 days.

90 days from today is mid-November.  The catering season will be heading into full swing. Wouldn’t you like to have some events on your calendar for the holiday season?

Here are some things you can do right now to make that happen.

Gear up for a marketing push. Do you have business cards? Have you set up a web or Facebook page with basic information about your products and services?  Look at your calendar and set a goal—how many events can you handle? What dates are you available?

Make a contact list.  Start with your existing clients, or if you’re brand new, start with people you’ve cooked for—put them on the list. Then brainstorm leads from the people you know. Who are the social butterflies—who hosts or attends parties every season? Who works parties—entertainers, decorators, florists, valet services? What about business contacts—who hosts staff meetings and client appreciation functions?  Sales people are also great prospects; who do you know that calls on clients? Include everyone who comes to mind; even if they’re not interested, they may lead you to someone who is.

Reach out. You’ve got three ways to do this: electronically, by phone or in person.  Use all three ways.

  • Post to your social networks and your website. Remember to be customer focused—this is not about how you need work; it’s about how they need a great caterer.  Ask for referrals, and offer a small incentive for anyone who sends you a lead.  
  • Pick up the phone and start calling your contact list. This is a tough one if you’re not used to it—you’re a chef, not a telemarketer, right? Well, remember that and present yourself as such. You have a valuable service to offer.  If you’re nervous, try writing a basic script. You don’t need to stick to the script; it’s just helpful to have words in front of you to get you started. Another trick is to practice on a friend– have a trial call or two to warm up. If that’s comfortable for you, then tell yourself they’re ALL practice calls. Just working on your sales skills…that’s all…it takes the pressure off. 
  • Hit the streets. Bring business cards with you wherever you go. Make it a goal to give out several cards every time you leave the house. If you go to the bank, ask the bank manager who caters the holiday party. If you run into someone you know, tell them what you’re up to, and ask if they know anyone who needs a caterer. Also, attend networking events. Try your local chamber of commerce; most have monthly networking meetings. You may wish to call on some local businesses in person; if you’re going in cold, sometimes it helps to bring samples of your work. Food has a way of opening doors.

So you get out there, you get events booked, and then you need a place to do all that cooking, right? Don’t forget, that’s why CookItHere.com exists. Visit the site to find a commercial kitchen in your area that’s available when you need it.

Is the Customer ALWAYS Right?

I’m not a chef; I’m just an eater, a writer, and a lover of people who follow their passions—so writing about chefs is perfect for me. I want to tell you about a recent dining experience that got me thinking.

My sister (who is a chef, by the way) took me to dinner at a restaurant in downtown Santa Ana, California called The Playground (PlaygroundDTSA.com). It’s a trendy spot with an edgy menu, owned by Chef Jason Quinn, proprietor of The Lime Truck, which you might remember from the Great Food Truck Race. While there are a few standard items, the menu changes daily, based on fresh, local ingredients and what the kitchen staff creates.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The Playground allows no substitutions or customizations to any menu item. Ever. No condiments. No salt on the table. Do not ask that your beef be cooked well-done. And you will not take cream or sugar in your coffee. (“We have a $3000 brewing system. The coffee isn’t bitter.”) Chalkboard signs, printed directions for ordering, and the wait staff will all advise you that the menu items are perfect as is; they’ve already gotten it right. And if you disagree, they will gladly remove the item from your bill—but they will not modify any item to suit your taste.

This chef-driven (as opposed to budget-driven or customer-driven) menu is about honoring the chef’s expertise. It’s about experiencing food as it was conceived, much the way we experience art.

Frankly, I dig it. I’m of the mindset that if you hire an expert, and then tell him how to do his job, you’ve wasted your money. Furthermore, if I wanted what I always eat, I’d stay home. I did not love everything I tried at The Playground, but I loved trying it. (For the record, I loved most of it—a lot.) Even my cocktail was an adventure, a memorable foray into flavors that had never crossed my palate before. And I appreciated the notion of a chef so confident, so passionate about his creations, that he does not allow them to be meddled with.

Not everyone applauds the “have it OUR way” concept. In the cutthroat, competitive restaurant market, most still abide by the old adage, “The customer is always right.” While The Playground has a 4.5-star Yelp rating, Quinn made the news last year when he fired back at a Yelper who gave him a lousy review and, among other complaints, objected to the fact that she couldn’t get her burger cooked to order.

Expectations are key in this scenario. I went to The Playground with a chef who prepared me for the experience and presented it as an adventure. If I had tried it without being prepped, or if I were less adventurous or just not in the mood to experiment, perhaps I would have responded differently.

What do you think? Is the customer king, or does the chef’s concept trump?

Social Media Tips for Food Entrepreneurs

You know you’re supposed to use social media to promote your business. Maybe you’ve set up a Facebook page. Maybe you even tweet. Or maybe the thought of juggling posts, tweets, and pins makes your head spin, and you’d rather just get back to the kitchen.

You’re not alone. Social media can be overwhelming. So many sites: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube…for a small business owner, it’s a lot to keep up with. But if you use social media properly, you can take advantage of this powerful (and essentially free) tool to get your message out.

Here are some basics to help you make the most of social media.

Be consistent. If you have to start small–say one post on one site per week–that’s fine. Just stick to it. Many beginners launch with a flurry of activity and then fizzle out.  The idea is to become a familiar contributor to the online community, and that familiarity comes through consistent actions: posts, tweets, uploads, etc. Once you’ve got that weekly post down pat, you can add another platform. (See “Work Smart” below.)

Be interesting and customer-centric. This is probably the most important principle of social media. Imagine a TV channel that only played commercials–no one would watch it. Likewise, if all your tweets are promotional, no one will want to follow you. You’ve got to deliver some real content in between the commercials. Imagine what your customer wants. If you’re a wedding caterer, share links to articles that brides might find helpful. If you’re developing a line of healthy snacks, post health and fitness tips. Educate, inform, entertain–give people a reason to follow you. If they like what you’re giving them, they’ll share it with their networks, and that’s where you start to see growth. Promotional posts are fine, just be sure they’re sandwiched between customer-focused content.

Remember, it’s a community. Get involved. Follow leaders in your field. Join online groups that mirror those you’d join in real life. For example, if your specialty is gluten-free cooking, join Celiac-awareness groups. If you want to cater for local businesses, find the Facebook page for the local chamber of commerce.  Not only will you make new connections, but you’ll find content that you can share, quote or retweet to keep your own pages interesting. Just be sure to give credit or link back to the source. If you’re not sure, ask permission before you share it.

Work smart. Use a program like HootSuite to manage multiple platforms. HootSuite allows you to post to all your accounts simultaneously. In other words, you can tweet it, post it or update it all at once. Or, you can select specific accounts for each message.

Get help. If you can afford it, engage a social media expert to manage your program for you.  If that’s too pricey, consider paying someone just to set up the accounts and show you how each platform works. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part.

 

Vendor Beware: Festivals, Fairs and Boutiques

If you operate a fledging food business, you’re looking for a way to get your name and your product out in the community. This time of year, holiday boutiques and festivals are recruiting vendors.  Community events can be a great opportunity to sell your signature creampuffs or sample your soon-to-be-world-famous barbecue sauce.  Unfortunately, they can also be unprofitable or even wind up costing you.

Here are some questions to ask before you sign up to sell or sample food at a community event:

Is the event permitted?  Most cities and counties require permits for boutiques, fairs and festivals  depending on the size, nature and duration of the event.  To obtain a permit, the organizer must have a plan that adheres to city/county guidelines—so unpermitted events could be poorly planned or lack critical components like adequate restrooms or accessibility.

How’s the traffic? How many people attend the event? Don’t just ask the event organizers; ask vendors who’ve sold there before. Sometimes plenty of people attend the event, but sales are still slow. Repeat vendors have the best insight for you, so ask the organizer for a vendor reference.

Are the fees worth it? Consider your costs to prepare, present and sell your product. If you pay $200 for a booth, you need to NET $200 to break even. Don’t forget to factor in your time.  How many plates/items must you sell to net that amount?  To make a profit?  Sometimes it’s not about instant profit, but about advertising and lead generating—just be sure that whatever your goal is, the event attendance supports that goal.

Will there be competing vendors? How many food vendors will there be, and what exactly are they selling? Quality events limit competition between vendors by making sure that products are diverse.  If the event organizer is worth his salt, he’ll require a product list from each vendor.

What permits do I need? Don’t take anyone’s word for it: do your homework. If the event organizer says you don’t need a permit, think twice about signing up. Local health departments do inspect community events and will shut down unpermitted  “TFFs” (Temporary Food Facilities—that’s what they call food booths.)  Check with the city AND the county of the event to find out what permits are required for the type of food you’ll be selling or sampling. Even free samples require permits, especially if you’re portioning or plating samples on site.  A quick search yielded information pages for each of the county health departments in Southern California. Here are some examples:

Festivals, fairs and boutiques can be a great way to launch or promote your business; just be sure to do your due diligence before committing to an event.

Ratings and Reviews

Our biggest goal at Cook It Here has always been to try and improve the experience of finding and renting commercial kitchens. We have been trying to tackle this problem from both ends. Our chefs want to find the best kitchen to rent that is going to have all the equipment they need to prepare their meals. Our kitchen owners want to find chefs they can trust and that aren’t going to ruin their kitchen. That is why today we are excited to announce that we are implementing a new ratings and reviews system.

Our system will allow for both the kitchen owner and the chef to be able to rate and review each other. This will make the decision process a much more informed one because now both parties can have a better idea of who they are working with and what to expect. To ensure that the kitchens are only reviewed by chefs actually renting their kitchen we are going to start with only allowing the kitchen owner to initiate the review. This will change once we integrate our renting functionality, which should be soon, but for now this seemed the best way to ensure accuracy. But since not all of the chefs that may have rented the kitchen are members of the site the kitchen owner can also enter an email address of a chef that has rented and we will send that chef an email letting them know that the kitchen owner has left a review for them and that they too can also review the kitchen. Once they come to the site and sign up, that review will be attached to their profile.

We really hope this will be a big help to all of our chefs and kitchen owners!