Sunday, January 10, 2010

$45 salmon and the cost of doing business

A 2-foot-long eviscerated salmon of about 20 pounds appeared on the demo table in Culinary Foundations III last week. Chef Dan Fluharty used it to demonstrate knife work, cooking and restaurant economics.

The knife work took precision and accuracy. The cooking demanded a delicate balance of flavoring agents and good timing. But the economics involved the sharpest learning curve.

The California Culinary Academy curriculum is designed to teach the business of food service as well as restaurant-capable cooking skills. That means gaining knowledge from the point of the knife forward about how to prepare and serve good food and do it profitably.

There's the rub. Statistics on restaurant business success are daunting, so attention to costs and bottom line are critical. (One often hears that 90% of restaurants fail in the first year of operation, a figure that is without finding in fact. Studies done over the years at Cornell University and Michigan State University show the first-year failure rate to be around 27%, not nearly as bad but still noteworthy.)

The 20-pound salmon we used in class cost about $45 wholesale, Chef Dan said. After skin, bones and parts of the fish unusable for cooking and serving as fillet portions, about 14 to 16 portions of 6 ounces each remained. One must add in labor, overhead, myriad other costs and a profit to come up with a price per plate. Chef Dan put it at $18, meaning the cost of the fish itself would be covered in three servings.

How many more would have to be served to cover the remaining costs would be determined on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis. One can imagine a small profit from the 20-pound fish, but only after exacting P&L work and precise knife and cooking skills.

Those skills even drive the bottom line, Chef showed us during the demonstration. For example, one must pull the fish to the near edge of the cutting board so the hand holding the knife drops below the table. That allows a flattening of the knife blade and a precisely horizontal cut that removes the skin but little or none of the flesh that makes up the fillet.

Or, as Chef Dan put it: "If you don't keep your knife blade flat, you end up cutting money."

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