More restaurants are opening than ever before, with top chefs granted star status. But it's hard work, and even harder to make money. So why do so many people try?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
"It looks like a cool lifestyle, but the restaurant business is ruthless, stressful, demanding and all-consuming. To be a success you have to give up so much - I know I have."
Not exactly the most enticing job description, but no amount of plain talking from the likes of Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc will put people off pursuing their dream of running a restaurant.
More are opening than ever before, according to respected restaurant guide Harden's, which hails this as a "golden age of dining".
Raymond Blanc is self-taught
But the figures also reveal the harsh reality of the industry, with many establishments failing. In London alone, 158 new restaurants opened in the past year and 89 closed. So what makes so many people want to open a restaurant?
"Why not, it looks like a wonderful lifestyle, as if you are always cooking and entertaining your friends," says Blanc. "Food is the new rock and roll.
"But the reality is that after a hard, exhausting day cooking, you will probably then have to go and unblock a toilet because no-one else will do it."
Live the dream
People are attracted to the glamour of the sector and seduced by how achievable running a restaurant seems, says Peter Harden, co-editor of Harden's food guides.
"Knowing about good food and wine and having money to spend on eating out is like a universal calling card that you have arrived - it's a status symbol.
"On paper running a restaurant looks straightforward, if you have the money. You don't need any particular professional skills or training. That's what makes a lot of people think they can do it."
HARDEN'S TOP TIPS
Get the location right
Don't waste money on fancy decor
Don't mistake cash flow for profit
Be prepared for hard graft as delegating doesn't work in this business
Just what it takes to be a success in the industry is the focus of Blanc's new BBC Two reality series, The Restaurant.
Nine couples with no experience of even cooking in a professional kitchen, let alone running one, will be given an empty restaurant each and told fill it with paying customers. Each week one couple will be given the boot.
The winners will get to run a restaurant of their own, financed and overseen by Blanc himself. It's quite a prize and an about-face for a man who once swore he would never do reality TV. He even called the public "morons" for watching such programmes.
"I know what I said but I am doing this show because these people could have been me," he says. "I started with nothing and I'm totally self-taught.
Driven to perfection
"For my first restaurant I mortgaged my own house and put all my money into the business. It was an incredible success and won every accolade out there. "
Thousands applied to take part in the series, illustrating just how many people dream of emulating Blanc's career.
A large part of his success is down to his obsession with culinary perfection; he says mediocrity "scares" him. Straining tomatoes through muslin for 12 hours for a recipe is the norm in his kitchen, but even that is not enough to succeed.
Blanc will invest his own money in the winner's restaurant
"It's good to have a passion, to be idealistic but that has to be turned into commercial success," he says. "The business side of things should never be the bottom line, but you have to get the balance right.
"If it tips too far the other way, your restaurant becomes a vanity project. It's such a common mistake."
Now a multi-millionaire and owner of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, he obviously hasn't made too many mistakes during his career - but what was his worst?
"Probably when I started Le Manoir, I was too idealistic. For three months I had no board of directors and wanted every decision to be taken by all the staff.
"It was a nightmare and took ages for anything to be decided. I got a bloody nose very quickly and changed things."
But, hard work aside, it's an exciting time to be part of the industry. A lot of countries are undergoing a food revolution and British restaurants and chefs are at the forefront, says Blanc.
"Food became just a commodity and it was all about getting as much as you could, as cheaply as you could. There was no emphasis on quality and it was as if the seasons had ceased to exist.
We spend more on eating out, and know more about food
"Consumers are now more aware and responsible, more demanding. Along with chefs, they have reconnected with the food chain and are reinventing regionalism."
Peter Harden agrees the boom in the industry is largely fuelled by more knowledgeable consumers, who have developed more sophisticated tastes.
"Twenty years ago a Thai meal would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Now diners are comparing the quality with the food they had on holiday in Thailand last year. Many could even cook something similar at home with ingredients from Sainsbury's."
For those who dream of a chance to whip up a dish to impress Blanc, which mouth-watering creation should they place before him? White bean cappuccino with truffles, or sea bass in basil leaves with caviar sauce perhaps?
"Plum crumble," he says. Really?
"Oh yes, plums are in season and delicious in a crumble. The English have known about crumble for a long time, but French have only just discovered it.
"It took a long time, but it was worth the wait. I think sticky toffee pudding will be their next discovery."
The Restaurant begins on Wednesday 29 August at 2000 BST on BBC Two.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Very many restaurants fail within their first year through lack of stock & cash control. The business fails, not through lack of enthusiasm, but lack of profit. A monthly visit by a qualified stock auditor can provide the independent advice that a new restaurant owner needs to ensure that his staff are honest, that his suppliers are not overcharging him, that stock or cash is not being stolen, food and drink are not being wasted and that he is charging the right price. These things often hasten the demise of new bars & restaurants as a new owner does not have the time or skill to carry out this control himself. Raymond, take note!
Linda Arthur, Esher, Surrey
So he once swore he would never do reality TV? He even called the public "morons" for watching such programmes? How right he was. Having seen the trailers, I'm tired of it already. An obsession with food and restaurants is a form of psychosis that warrants pity rather than admiration. The inevitable hysterics and tantrums are just too dreadful to contemplate and it's certainly no incentive to renew my licence fee next month.
Jon Anderson, Alton
I would disagree, most english restaurants still have a hell of a lot to learn. As do most othere places in different countries. The problem is that none is willing to take a risk anymore and that's the beauty of cooking. I should know as having lived and done assignments in most countries in europe.
steve hunter, blackpool
I do believe people see these 'top chefs' and think they can achieve the same status in the trendy world of food and make a lot of money. The reality is learning, hard slog and bust your guts for low wages as a 'commi' chef, then a 'sous' and then one day, a head chef with your own eatery. All the best chefs came up the hard way in the industry.
Jason Fitzgerald, Budapest
I would say that the majority of people opening bars and restaurants have not a clue as to what they are doing, have seen it on holiday and thought "that looks a nice life." I have only worked in 1 bar/restaurant here that was a success. The owner worked from 9am until 5pm and 7pm until close (3am, 4am) 7 days a week and did not have a holiday in 5 years. It was an incredible sucess but no life at all. Married to the job and that's the only way to do it. It's a way of life not a new life,it's really tough and you have to be too.
Sally Molloy, Tenerife
I know how hard it is to run a restaurant. My father has a restaurant. I see him taking the pressure everyday about stocks, cash, profits. To have a successful restaurant business you must be committed and make your staff your second family
I have worked in Restaurants before, it is sheer hard work, you sometimes work 60 hours a week, you often only go home when the last customer leaves, even at 3am in the morning, I have done Waitering, Cooking, Washing up, the money is not that good either, I do get free Food, Coffee, we do work together like a family, we do blow up a few times with each other due to pressure, I did enjoy the cameraderie, but not the work, you do need a personality to suit the work, sometimes there is no Pension, in many cases such jobs can be "cash in Hand", some employers are good some are bad, I myself have since left and now working as a Postman with 3 times the money and a third of the work.
I still enjoy making a meal out of whats available and make a it look good, in a "Ready Steady Cook" stylee
Colin , merseyside
Sounds like a direct take off of the My Restaurant Rules series run in Australia earlier this decade. It spawned a couple of good restaurants here and many more that closed down quickly. Good luck.
michael, Sydney, Australia
They fail because they have to take customers from other restaurants. Just because a restaurant opens doesn't mean new people start eating out. A reputation draws customers and to get it takes time and also your food has to taste fantastic and be a little special. I have also always wondered why restaurants offer so many dishes. Reduce the selection and change frequently.
Chris Appleby, York
I retired recently after being a successful chef for most of my working life. Anyone who thinks the catering trade is an easy trade shouldn't even bother applying!
Long stressful hours, heats that would make most people ill, orders flying in fifteen at a time (yes that's approximately 60 people to feed an hour), and relentless pressure. You can forget all about Bank Holidays, Christmas and time with your family too. Those things cease to exist any more.
If you are what I term a 'dinner-party cook', then you won't be swanning around having cocktails with your 'guests'. No Siree. You'll be up to your elbows in work from the second you open, until you collapse exhausted at closing time, usually well after midnight. And then there's the washing up (for about 150 covers) to do. Oh, and don't forget to hoover, re-lay all the tables, and be in for the food and brewery deliveries at 6am either.
Then there's wages, staff issues and absenteeism to cope with.
The WORST thing about restaurant work is without a doubt, Food Snob customers who have no idea about food, but try to show off their (limited) knowledge to their friends, and belittle hard working staff. Usually after several glasses of plonk.
Ken Thompson, Exeter UK.
BBC recipe: Take one tired reality format (The Apprentice) and mix well with any other genre (Cooking programme). Add a sprinkle of 'Celebrity' and serve lukewarm. May induce sleep Can also be used to make Celebrity dancing, talent idol, and celebrity cooking talent idol. Or whatever.
Scott Graham, Aberdeen