What you don’t learn at cooking school

(03 /03 /2013)

This is part 1 of a 3 part series reflecting on my personal experience and the lessons that one learns not at cooking school but from the hands on operation of running your own business.

Part 1: Happy Days

I left the Hotel Windsor 28 years ago, well trained in the skills of the cooking trade. I completed my studies and I set out to conquer the world. My plan was to learn from other great Chefs and work in all the great kitchens however I soon became frustrated with working for others.  Wondering why no one else had the same standards and levels of creativity that I had experienced during my 5 years at the Hotel Windsor.

After being exposed to the reality of working for other people who lacked the passion that I had, I soon decided that I had to get my own place. One fateful day I was dining with a friend at this old historic property in the foothills of the Dandenongs in Victoria. The building was grand, with high ceilings and blue stone walls, beautiful manicured gardens and a bluestone building at the back that was once a stable.

In conversation with the owner of the business we found out they were looking to sell. Upon hearing this I knew that this was my answer and I decided it was time to run my own show.

I could see it now,  “I know what I will do with this place, I will recreate the Hotel Windsor.  I will do Guerdon Cooking with waiters cooking at tables.  We will be the first place in the area to do this.”

With the plans of turning this beautiful place into a five star eatery I approached the owners.  With no money for the idea, we set out to negotiate with the owners.  We being my friend who I dined with on that occasion.

Eventually we became the proud owners of the grand lady.

Armed with my qualifications, plans, the building lease and borrowed money, I set out to take over the world and create a dining experience that no one would forget.  The place would always be full and I would make a fortune being the owner and I would never have to answer to anyone again.  By the way the borrowed money was in the form of a bank loan with my parents’ home as security.

I recruited the help of a professional Maître that I had work with and we inherited the wait staff from the previous owner. The Maitre and I set out and retrained the staff in the way the new business was to work. We had some good press on the re-launch of the restaurant with the new menu and new dining experience.

We started trading close to Christmas so trade was assured and we planned for a busy period. So the doors swung open with great expectations.

“Is the menu the same?” “Is the buffet still on?” “Why change the place?” was the response from many of the regulars.  Embrace change I said to myself.

Over time we started to get our own reputation as being different.  With the cooking trolleys busy making mains and desserts and the salmon carved at the table it was a great experience for diners who hadn’t experienced this type of dining before.

The building was ideal for functions and we offered very flexible function packages so we started to attract a large number of wedding bookings.  We also had regular Jazz nights as a way to lift mid-week trade.

The menu consisted of high quality ingredients.  We even had a mobile fine food truck arrive where we were able to select anything from fine cheeses and chocolates to specialty meats and other fine ingredients. Our customers where well looked after.

Christmas came and went and yet we were busy with wedding functions.  We had multiple bookings on weekends and everything was going great.  Going to the bank with bags of cash and cheques kept a smile on the bank managers face. Life was good and these were the happy days I expected.

Stay posted for part 2 which discusses the reality of what was happening with my business.

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