Culinary consulting is growing for restaurant owners as well as chefs

Jill Weber, owner of Rex 1516 restaurant, 1516 South St., watches as head chef Regis Jansen works in the kitchen. ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer )
Jill Weber, owner of Rex 1516 restaurant, 1516 South St., watches as head chef Regis Jansen works in the kitchen. ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer )
Posted: April 19, 2012

When Jill Weber and Evan Malone hired Matt Zagorski, then chef at Rouge, to consult on their new restaurant Rex 1516, they knew they were getting a chef who could help them with staffing, health inspections, purveyor connections, and food costs. The fact that they scored the ingredients to the burger blend that he custom created for his own restaurant, Hickory Lane, was a bonus. A burger is something one can stake a reputation on. “Some people wouldn’t do that,” Zagorski says. “But I’ll go to those lengths for Jill.”

Zagorski is part of a less-discussed but prevalent aspect of Philadelphia’s restaurant structure: culinary consultants. Restaurant owners who are just starting out, looking to create a new program, or hoping to fix situations before they resemble reality TV are turning to experts. Chefs, managers, operators, sommeliers and bartenders are lending out their skills for these quick-hit, quick-payday jobs.

In Philadelphia, consultants abound. Some are restaurant veterans who prefer a lighter schedule and more flexibility; others are simply responding to requests for their intimate knowledge of certain cuisines and kitchen operations. It’s also a way to make some money between jobs.

Chefs Mike Stollenwerk of Fish and Jim Burke of now-shuttered restaurant James have both consulted. David Fields, once a food writer and restaurant owner, consults for Korman Communities and has created food and beverage programs (such as upscale coffee concepts and lobby bars) in the New York and D.C. properties, and most recently, at restaurant near Rittenhouse Square.

For new restaurant owners, especially those new to the industry entirely, hiring a consultant is a way to glean information without having to pay a full-time salary. Weber, an archaeologist by trade, was a fan of Zagorski’s cooking at Rouge, so she asked him to work on her first culinary foray, Jet Wine Bar, and then Rex 1516, which opened in February.

While Zagorski’s cooking is well established, it was in the less glamorous aspects of running a restaurant that he became invaluable. “He helped us find our kitchen staff, hire our chef, help with pricing, costs, deal with the health department rules and regulations … we never would have been able to plan the kitchen without him,” Weber says. “He helped me figure out what I was doing wrong.”

Turning to the experts is not just for small fish. Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen, co-owners of GuestCounts Hospitality (which operates Cuba Libre, among other things), have, in a way, built their foundation on consultants.

Guillermo Pernot was running his own restaurant, ¡Pasion!, in 2000 when Gutin asked him to create the menu for the first Cuba Libre. A few years later, after ¡Pasion! closed, he joined the group full time as a chef/partner and now oversees multiple projects. “The goal was to introduce expertise into an expanding company, and if the chemistry is right, we will bring them on full time,” Gutin says. Similarly, chef Jean-Marie Lacroix consulted on their catering division for a few years before becoming a named partner.

Having names like Lacroix and Pernot adds gravitas. “The public is growing increasingly savvy when they read about a chef’s involvement in a restaurant and whether they are really engaged or just window dressing,” Gutin says.

It’s not the goal of all consultants to land the full-time gig, but being a part-timer comes with its own challenges. Jim Burke was tapped by Stephen Starr to consult on an Italian menu for a new venture his catering department was opening in the New-York Historical Society. “Consulting is not as fulfilling as owning or being a chef of a restaurant. You have to detach yourself emotionally, and that’s difficult to do,” Burke says. “A big part of cooking is emotion.” After months of creating menus and planning the kitchen, he signed on as executive chef and moved to Manhattan.

“It’s quick money, but it’s not easy money,” Pernot says. “You have to start from scratch or fix horrible problems.” Pernot has asked some of his restaurant clients to keep his name private because he didn’t think it would enhance his culinary reputation.

Chefs also have to deal with tight-knit kitchen staffs that aren’t always quick to embrace an outsider. “A lot of people don’t like consultants. They say, who is this guy, what is he doing here and what is coming?” Pernot says.

And some projects are just beyond repair. The Borgata once asked Pernot to rework Mixx, its nightclub and restaurant. He spent as much time observing and unearthing the problems as he did offering solutions. “It was almost impossible to run the way they ran it,” says the chef, who relayed that very message to management. Mixx eventually closed and was reconceptualized, eliminating food.

Ed Doherty is a fine-dining restaurant vet and owner of consulting firm One Degree Hospitality. In his experience, the best, most successful clients are the ones who are good students. “If all doesn’t go well, it’s very easy to blame the consultant,” he says. He is currently assisting with the opening of two downtown spots, Honeygrow (where chef Shola Olunloyo is also consulting) and SoWe Bar and Kitchen. “You want to make sure they are in good shape when you leave, but you do want to leave.”

The industry is small enough that Doherty has yet to have to make cold calls to drum up business. But he sees the consulting becoming increasingly popular, in part due to an aging demographic that has spent a lifetime building restaurant prowess and needs work. “People like myself,” he says. “They don’t need maître d’s in gastropubs.”

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