The celebri-chef and second half of the Oliver and Bonacini restaurant empire has lately been sharing his hard-won wisdom (and harsh judgments) with the aspiring home cooks on CTV's Masterchef Canada. Here, Michael Bonacini shares some of the secrets to his success.
Keep your eye on the oven
In terms of the mistakes I see from the contestants on Masterchef Canada, the most common thing is that a cook will lose focus. When you're in the kitchen, this is the most important thing and it's that much harder because of the competition and the cameras. It's so easy to let your mind wander for a second and all of a sudden you're heading off in three or four different directions. Focus is what will allow you to stick to a vision and hopefully deliver a good product. This is particularly true on the show, but it applies to my own life as well. With success there are a lot of options. I have to constantly remind myself to stay focused, stick to my core values.
Pay to be picky
Peter [Oliver] and I get a lot of offers to do restaurants – a new build, taking over an existing establishment, a hotel. The first question we ask ourselves is, does it fit the brand? The landlord, the building, the location – do all of these things align with who we are and where we want to go? Then there are the business aspects. What is the rent? What are the build-out costs? There are so many checkpoints that we go through. Eight times out of 10, it's a pretty quick no. Being very discerning about the projects we get involved with has allowed us to maintain our reputation for so many years. Of course that means there will be a few that get away. We had the right of first refusal on the space that is now [the hugely successful Toronto restaurant] Bymark. I must admit that every once in a while I look at it and feel regret, but that's life.
Lots in a name
When you have to close a restaurant it hurts. It's like a kick in the belly, but it does make you stronger and the hope is that you learn from the experience. We opened a restaurant called Steakfrites on Mount Pleasant in Toronto. Our idea was for a casual neighbourhood bistro kind of spot – simple, unpretentious French food, steak frites being the iconic bistro dish. We weren't getting the kind of sales or number of guests that we had hoped for and I think the reason is that people didn't get it. They heard "Steakfrites" and they came in expecting a steak house with big, expensive steaks. There was confusion and what we learned from that experience is that you have to be sure that your concept for a new restaurant is crystal clear. Your audience has to get it immediately. If they don't, it's a huge struggle to have your PR people try to make up for that through marketing. If we could go back, we would probably rename it.
Don't be a rose-tinted restaurateur
One of the reasons that so many restaurants fail is because people get into the business without the necessary experience. Maybe they like eating in restaurants or they watch a lot of Food Network. They wear rose-tinted glasses and they have this romantic notion that running a restaurant is about food and cooking and wine and friends. That's what a restaurant is like as a customer. As an operator you need to have so many skills and stay on top of so many things. You have to negotiate the best possible financial deal, you need backing, you have to have food expertise, design expertise and you've got to be prepared to work long days, hours when everyone else is closed. It is not easy.
Consistent is better than cool
I will go into one of our restaurants and I will tell the chef or the manager, okay, we need to do our very best lunch service ever today. I want customers to be 100-per-cent satisfied with their experience. Every cappuccino has got to be foamy and piping hot. I expect that and our customers expect that. Consistency is what delivers impact. That's a part of our reputation and our culture at Oliver and Bonacini. There are restaurants that are trying to be the most uber-cool and different or the hot spot in town. In the restaurant business jumping on the trend bandwagon is the kiss of death. Fads don't last. Today you are still seeing a lot of these restaurants that have a sort of dumpster-diving attitude. Seeing how little you can put into it. While I believe in being creative and having fun with a concept, a restaurant still has to be intelligent.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Masterchef Canada airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on CTV and CTV GO (visit CTV.ca to confirm local broadcast times).