A chef’s secrets to learning from and growing your business

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By Romsanne R. Ortiguero

Apart from quintessential factors such as location and market knowledge, among others, there are more important elements to consider in jump-starting a business, making it grow, and eventually sustaining it.

If there is any lesson neophytes could learn from restaurateur and TV personality Chef Jonas Ng — who’s behind restaurant concepts such as Huat Pot, Le Jardin, and James and Daughters, as well as the cooking show Chef Next Door — it would be the values he operates into as head of his restaurant business.

“Apart from innovation, learning from others, and all these things, the core of it is just two things: passion and commitment,” Mr. Ng told BusinessWorld in an interview.

According to Mr. Ng, all restaurant projects start with passion, however, when real work and problems start coming in, this fervor and enthusiasm might die out.

“When they realize how difficult this business is, the passion will wane. What will help you is commitment. How committed are you? If you’re not really committed to make things work, it’s a waste of your time,” he explained.

These values are like a compass that enabled Mr. Ng to sustain his career in the food and beverage industry despite challenges and failures. After working as a head chef at Mango Tree which opened in 2009, Mr. Ng opened his own restaurants in 2013 and 2014: Huat Pot and Le Jardin, respectively. Realizing that he can’t split his body operating two restaurants at the same time while writing and producing his own television show, he decided to pause and close down the two restaurants in 2017.

“The numbers will tell you. Basically we’re in the red for a few months,” Mr. Ng shared when asked on what made him decide to close Huat Pot and Le Jardin.

“I’ve been very unlucky but the way I’ve learned is by making mistakes. That’s the best way to learn; I actually call it tuition fee. I had a lot of failures, and I applied all the lessons from those failures to be able to come up with new solutions. Honestly, experience and failures are the best teachers,” he added.

Apart from his own experiences, Mr. Ng said he also tries to learn from other people’s mistakes by doing a lot of industry studies — knowing what worked and did not work from others, as well as communicating with other peers in the industry to exchange tips and expertise.

After some break, Mr. Ng opened a new restaurant concept last November 2017 in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig: James and Daughters. The new restaurant offers comfort food from around the world but uses locally sourced ingredients. Drawing inspiration from his family’s globe-trotting adventures and his own working experiences under different chef mentors abroad, the restaurant’s menu is a story, a place, a person, or an experience connected to him or his family.

“Timing is a big thing. A few years ago, Manila would not have been ready for this concept. Now, we’re at a point where people are willing to try anything, and people are looking for something honest. This is the most honest restaurant you’ll ever see,” Mr. Ng pointed out.

Apart from timing and some luck, Mr. Ng also noted that before opening up a new restaurant, it is vital to know who and what you are about. “Be firm with your concept. Be 100% sure of your concept, and be sure that you’re good in the first place.”

Knowing your market on a deeper level helps, too. Mr. Ng shared that he always make an effort to be at the dining area during lunch and dinner to personally talk to their guests to understand what they want and what else could work better.

Lastly, it is important to be consistent. He explained, “Make sure that their experience now is the same as their experience next year. Install systems to encourage predictability. Without consistency and predictability, you’re never going to make it.”

And while it is tempting to immediately open up a restaurant, learning the tricks of the trade from the masters first is one sure way of having an advantage on this very competitive industry.

“I will give you the same advice that Anthony Bourdain gave me. I met him once when I was a young cook, and asked him, ‘what do I do?’ He said, ‘Work for the best chef you could possibly work for, and learn as much as you can even if you do it for free,” he noted.