Hospitality can sometimes feel like a “members-only club”, and those on the outside have barely any idea of what is happening behind a kitchen's closed doors.
Over the last decade, the chef's profession has enjoyed an international PR boost, glamourising the job, creating its own television subgenre and celebrity chefs, while trailblazing the way for “foodies” and self-proclaimed Instagram food critics. However, what this rebranding often fails to relay is the hard work, long hours and complete dedication that it takes to be in the profession. During the lockdown, many people expressed their hopes for hospitality to go back to “normal”—but what if hospitality can do better?
For our series The Future Of Hospitality, Sina Honeyman interviews some of New Zealand's best chefs, getting the inside scoop on how COVID-19 has affected them and what changes they would like to see in the hospitality industry.
Note: This interview was completed after New Zealand's first Level 4 lockdown
Nick Honeyman is the head chef and owner of two renowned French restaurants—Paris Butter in Auckland, New Zealand, and Le Petit Léon in Léon, France. He has made a name for himself in the Auckland food scene, serving traditional French fare with a contemporary twist. His hospitality journey began when he was just 17 years old after he left his home country of South Africa to travel the world. Nick's first job was as a dishwasher in a buzzing restaurant kitchen—it was there that his passion for the culinary world ignited. On his first day at work, a red sports car pulled up to the kitchen's back door, and when the man walked in, the entire kitchen went dead silent. This was the restaurant's head chef and it was right at this moment, as Nick admired the respect his presence commanded and the speedy set of wheels in the driveway, that the young dishwasher decided, “I wanna be that guy one day”.
This story highlights two things: Nick’s love for sports cars and his love for the traditional kitchen hierarchy, with its clear ranks and military structure based on commitment, hard work and discipline. For Nick, these characteristics have taken the centre stage for most of his career. However, in recent years, Nick has toppled this traditional power pyramid in favour of a flat, collaborative kitchen that recognises and empowers all who are a part of it.
What was the lockdown like for you personally and in terms of work?
Personally, it was incredible. It was the first time ever, in my whole life, that I was present. You know, you go on holiday and you're still doing stuff and you're still stressed. Lockdown was that one time we didn't have the fear of missing out. It was the first time I really had any structure in my day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, family time—it was next-level. It was eye-opening... business-wise, it was a disaster. The beginning of lockdown was a financial disaster. But by the end of it, and where we are now, it was the best thing that could [have] ever happen[ed] to us.
How did you transition back into work-life after lockdown? What was your experience going back to “normal”?
It was challenging because there was so much uncertainty and there still is so much uncertainty. We were reinventing the business every week and trying to navigate a new, more successful path. But we are very humbled by the response from our customers. I couldn't have imagined that we were going to make the "best-case scenario”. And I think we were even quite conservative [with] what we thought the best-case scenario was... New Zealand has really gone out and supported the workers, which has been amazing.
There were quite a few initiatives based around supporting local businesses; do you think that has helped? What do you think are the main reasons people are wanting to go out more and to support local?
I think it is a range of things. The one big thing is that international travel has been taken off the cards. So the household that would normally be saving for their holiday and for that international experience—now there is no experience, there's no light at the end of the tunnel... And so, those people are having a weekly experience at a restaurant and don't mind spending that money. I think that we, as a restaurant, really focus on giving an experiential evening. We've been lucky that our market has seen a boost because we are experiential. Guests are transported momentarily for three or four hours to a happy place and then they go back to normal life.
Yes, I agree there's quite a big difference between the restaurant you go to eat food at and the restaurant where you go to to have an experience. What has been the biggest change you made in the business following lockdown?
Being good at hospitality normally means that you're not great at business because being hospitable [means] you want to give good value for money and an amazing experience. So the biggest shift for me became the fact that we were looking at a business that we had to make work. I lost [my] ego and came to terms that there's a very high chance that we would lose the restaurant. Once I became okay with that, things started to change quickly. Because we had nothing to lose, we could make very smart decisions that were not only good for the business but were good for our future.
Going over the accounts, looking at the P&L sheets, going through every single line, working out where you're spending any extra money and bringing it down to zero. Bringing your business down to the absolute bare minimum and then start[ing] again. We rolled the dice on everything. As soon as we were allowed to do takeaways, we had a go at it. We were extremely fortunate that before lockdown, we did takeaways for a week, so the energy that we had was great. We opened the online bookings the week before—it was mental. We had 950 orders for the first week. At the same time, it was a very humbling experience because we were going to open the doors of the business that we'd perfected for four years, we were doing a product that was completely new, and we weren't doing it gradually. We were at full capacity straight away and learning on the job, which was very difficult. We were making mistakes and that was something that we had tried to eliminate before. I think that making mistakes is also part of a successful business and that eliminating all mistakes is going to cost you money.
What are the changes you would like to see globally in the hospitality industry or at least in New Zealand?
Hospitality is broken. There's a fundamental disconnect with how much you're paying for food and what the expectation is. So the margins are so slim and there's no other industry like it. And not only are the margins slim, but you've got a perishable product. You know, a pair of shoes is a great example. You are paying 250 [New Zealand] dollars for a pair of Nikes and you’d never question that because you have no idea how much it actually cost to make those shoes. But you have a fair idea [of] what it costs to put a steak on a plate and some carrots. And I think that people underestimate what goes into that: from the venue to the staff, the training and bringing everything together. But the price of food in New Zealand is expensive. And then trying to make a profit off that is even harder.
So you would like to see a change in how much you charge for food or you would like hospitality, in general, to get more expensive?
It's difficult. I think that the market is really saturated. And what’s happened is that, naturally, we're fighting against each other. And as we fight against each other, our margins get slimmer. So I think that if you want to be a sustainable business, you have to stay true to your margins. You have to realise what is going to work for you and what's not going to work for you. And you have to back it up with your product. If you keep chopping your margins, your business is not going to grow.
Which brings us back to the financial aspect of the business…
Yes, absolutely, the finances in the business—I've never given them as much attention and credit as they need, but they are fundamentally important. Without them, you don't have a canvas and it's about preserving that canvas. I've always given more importance to what you do with the canvas, which is [about bringing] creativity and energising your team. What I've learned is that we had to scrap the business, take it back down to zero [and] build it up again so that we can be in a position where we can do what we want with it. The creativity in the business has taken me two years to get to where we are now. It was a very hard process and, again, it involves ego. You know, I've been cooking for 20 years, and you come up in this militaristic style ranking where you're fending for yourself. You're always working within a team but you also always want to be better than the next guy. It's a very bizarre process to be in. Then, when you get to the top and you start running your team, it is really easy when you have complete control. But the problem with having complete control is that you are the only person that can feed creativity and energy back into it.
So over the last few years, we changed that for a few reasons. One of them was probably being burnt out and the massive key for me was working with you.
Oh right, full disclosure readers, Nick is also my husband! [laughter] I first started working with you in the business when I was your girlfriend, what was it, five years ago?
[laughter] Yeah, I brought somebody into my business that defied all of the rules and I had to listen to them... You know, when I brought you into the kitchen, you asked me questions that nobody would normally ask. You broke ranks. But then I started treating the other staff the same way and something magical happened. We started elevating quickly.
And I realised that my creative process was broken. I used to come up with ideas, throw them to the team, see some development in them and then come back to me to finish them. That's great if I'm always feeling creative... The part that was broken is that you hire a team who worked for other people and you probably have five decades worth of experience amongst your restaurant team. How are you going to harness that expertise the best? How are you going to access it? There are just files upon files of things that you've never seen... And so we started doing the “Saturday Night Projects” which I recommended to everyone! As a business, it's been the greatest achievement of Paris Butter and Le Petit Léon. The team has a week to come up with anything they feel inspired by. Chefs normally do a dish, the wait staff will present wine or drinks, and they will produce a new idea that they are excited about. Or it might be a take on something that they've seen in the past. When I put my spoon into that dish and taste it, I might not get it, it might not be the style of food that we would put up in the restaurant, but what it does is it sparks a new idea for me, a new creative thought that I wouldn't have necessarily had before.
All of a sudden, you have these other ideas and you develop them with the team. And your cooking style, which you thought was your own, is starting to elevate.
Do you think that flattening the pyramid of kitchen hierarchy would be a good thing for the whole of hospitality to go towards?
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I don't want everyone to do it because I don't want everyone to be successful. Jokes aside, if you want to see changes in hospitality you have to look at yourself. And if you want a successful business in hospitality, you have to realise that it's a hard job. They're hard hours and you cannot do it alone. The hardest thing for me to have done as a leader has been to sit back and let other people’s ideas through, which is relinquishing a little bit of control.
Just to go back to the question of what change you would like to see in hospitality...
That's a super difficult question. Hospitality is so undervalued. You have people running restaurants who have been running them for 30 years. They studied it, they are running it, they are masters of their business. They will come in at 8am and they'll finish at midnight. You come in as a customer and you scrutinise a meal that you're paying 45 dollars for. It's broken. [Hospitality] is an art form. I think that service is completely undervalued in New Zealand. Being a server is like being a psychologist. The table walks in [and] you have two minutes to assess what kind of people they are and talk to them the way you think they need to be talked to. So it's an extremely difficult job. It’s even apparent if you look at the government and the visas they hand out: servers are meant to be university part-time jobs, but it's not true. Hospitality is an art form. Around the world, especially, as we get to see in France, it is a very well-respected industry. Servers at top restaurants are very well-renowned. Because the standard of restaurants in New Zealand is so amazing, I would like to see that we, as a country, realise what a cool thing it is to have that. We're going to bring people to New Zealand because we're a food culture—a new food culture. Our agriculture is amazing. Our restaurants are amazing. Let's put New Zealand on the map for food.