Chef Anthony Hoy Fong is Auckland-born and educated, learning about food from his family's Mt Roskill fruit shop. Now a New York based chef, he has cooked for the US President, appeared on Oprah and cooking shows across America. Hoy Fong was in Auckland last week for the launch of new Wattie's Creations Cooking Sauces with Food in a Minute.
The former IBM IT consultant has set up Top Chef University, an online culinary school that was designed for aspiring home chefs, foodies or anyone who wants to learn how to cook better. It offers people a culinary school program experience in a convenient and entertaining format. The online video-based training is taught by real professional chefs in a curriculum that mirrors a traditional culinary school.
The business started three years ago and now the original online product has evolved into line extensions of an iPad app with over 150,000 active users from over 16 different countries ; a box-set DVD retail line in Target and Costco stores across America and next month the chef is launching Top Chef University Lite - an abbreviated iPhone version of the app - his first foray into an ad and brand sponsored content model.
Do you think that chefs can make good business owners?
Absolutely. Chefs in general are passionate, creative and hard working. Good chefs are always supremely organized and focused too which are all key components to being a good business operator. The restaurant business is a tough industry with so many variables so any chef that has opened or operated and sustained a restaurant business successfully has to be a good business person, not just a good chef.
Is it true that most chefs don't make any real money unless they have their own restaurant?
It's a hard slog being a chef. When I started out in my first gig in New York, I was making $7.50 an hour working 6 days a week, 10 till closing which in NY can be as late as two in the morning. It is tough when you're starting out, like any industry, the hours are long and the pay is not good. So, yes, of course you can make more money when you own your own business just like any job. But of course that comes with greater risk and greater burden but if all goes well then yes, there can be a greater return.
It's not the first year a restaurant opens, but the second and third years which are the hardest. Do you agree?
In the first year, there's always that buzz about a new opening, it's exciting and there's always a lot of curiosity and attention around a new restaurant, so you're always going to get that foot traffic in the first year. The key to longevity is consistency in quality, while also keeping things fresh and new to sustain interest - listen to your diners and listen to what's going on in your neighbourhood to stay abreast.
How can restaurant owners work with social media to help create a buzz about their business?
The industry's constantly changing and dining and food as a culture and interest is so popular now. People used not to care about who the chef was or where their salad greens on their plate came from or how the beef was raised and what it was fed. Now people want the full experience and the story only adds to an incredible and enjoyable dining experience which is fantastic. Social media provides a vehicle in which chefs, restaurants and brands can communicate with their customers directly further breaking down that wall between chef and diner. Who doesn't want to see a tweet or photo posted to them of the chickens being roasted that day on the menu tonight, or the chef picking up the greens from the market?
What sorts of approaches do you see to running restaurants in New York that we could learn from here - in terms of getting the word out about a new restaurant?
The dining scene in general, and especially in New York, is a noisy environment. Diners there have so many choices, so in order to influence a diner to make that choice to dine at your restaurant, you have to have a presence in the dining publications or blogs - whether it be sites like OpenTable, Yelp, Zagat, TastingTable or simply good press - it definitely helps to get the word out. On the other hand, some chefs like those in the West Village simply have developed a cult following so every time they open a new place their crowd flocks to it.
How do you create the niche of a good neighbourhood local?
Keep it simple and in line with the neighbourhood. Like any restaurant location/concept, you have to listen to your customers in the locale and give them what they want. In Brooklyn, New York, there's a really laid back but hipster scene that's taken hold. All the young, hot chefs are doing small, interesting plates with innovative combinations that tease the palate. Dining is super casual but very cutting edge and hip. It's caught the attention of locals - and they can't get enough of it.
NZ has chefs who create good profiles for themselves on TV and then open restaurants or new food businesses off the back of that. Does this happen a lot in the States?
Yes. In general the US is quite a celebrity driven culture - endorsements help marketing and reach. I can't stress enough what a noisy business environment it is there especially in the food scene so anything you can do to get a competitive advantage or have your business/product be heard, helps. TV and profile all help. Of course, it's important that what you do matches with your values and beliefs. I'm currently working with Wattie's which to me feels like a great fit. Wattie's are a Kiwi icon - I grew up with their products in the cupboards and spaghetti or beans on toast were a weekend staple before playing sports. And I guess, coming from a background in produce, for me Wattie's commitment to using locally grown produce is really important.
Next week: Note that I'm writing this on the morning of race 12 and 13 of the America's Cup and we have just lost both of them but I am confident we will win the next race or the one after that so I am planning to look at the NZ marine industry next week and some of the small businesses who will benefit from our Americas Cup win. Tell us what your hopes are for new business after this victory and what it has done to the reputation of the marine industry here.