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The making of a successful chef-entrepreneur

Chef Melissa Sison: “With enough discipline and a willingness to learn, a chef can become business savvy without having to compromise his artistic side.”

MANILA, Philippines - With sustained interest in food, dining and other matters pertaining to pleasing the palate, it is no wonder that culinary schools continue to enjoy a robust enrollment. Interestingly, it is becoming apparent that other than the students who have just graduated from secondary school, college graduates and those who have decided to change careers in midlife are signing up for culinary courses. Apart from mastering kitchen techniques and widening their culinary repertoire, their common goal is to put up an enterprise and cash in on the public’s inordinate obsession with food. But obviously, not every chef who puts up a business will be able to enjoy extraordinary business success.

What are the qualities that increase the likelihood of a chef becoming a successful businessperson? We asked chef Melissa Sison, academic programs manager of Center for Culinary Arts, Manila (CCA), the pioneer school that offers formal culinary training in the Philippines. She set up successful restaurants before embarking on a teaching career.

“A lot of people think that if they know how to cook they can open and run a food business,” replies the chef. “They do not realize that being an entrepreneur is a different matter altogether. It involves a lot of organizational skills and multi-tasking.”

She explains that being a “chef-preneur” can be an overwhelming experience where one is required to wear many hats — as purchaser, accountant, employer, public relations officer and, of course, chef. An added challenge is that “you exercise the creative side of your brain as a chef when you think up your dishes. Concurrently, logical thinking is necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur.”

How, then, does one find a perfect balance? “Inevitably, it can happen that either the chef’s creative instincts or his entrepreneurial side may become more dominant,” admits chef Melissa. “But with enough discipline and a willingness to learn, a chef can become business savvy without having to compromise his artistic side.”

Definitely, there are advantages derived from formal culinary training where the proper worth ethic and discipline are ingrained in school. “At CCA we have a lot of rules and policies. The student’s behavior at school will likely carry over to the workplace. For example, a student who likes to cram might resort to shortcuts, or a disorganized student in school will most likely be disorganized at work. These are habits that are difficult to break but we do our best to correct these.”

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CCA implements a merit system to reward a good work ethic and discourage deficient behavior, as well as a mentoring system where teachers are able to advise students individually. “We strengthen the first culinary course or ‘Pro-chef,’ which emphasizes ethics and standards of professionalism,” says Sison. She explains that one important exercise instructors do with students is to visualize the future. “When there is visualization, at least they are provided a roadmap so they can decide where they want to go with their careers.”

Then again, getting a culinary degree may not be enough preparation. “We always advise our students to join an organization after graduation. There are industry tricks and procedures that they have to learn on their own — a lot of it pertaining to human resources. When one owns his or her own business, probably 80 percent of your time is spent mentoring, counseling or even disciplining your employees. That is something you cannot learn from the books or from school.”

Since the tuition fees at reputable schools aren’t cheap, will formal culinary education pay off right away? “It can happen quickly if one puts up a successful business. But realistically if you work for someone else, it will take a while,” admits Sison. Undeniably, credentials from a reputable school with accomplished alumni can be an advantage. The standards and requirements can prove even more stringent if one decides on a teaching career. Sison is a graduate of SHA Ecole Des Roches, Bluche, Valais, Switzerland, with a diploma in Hotel and Restaurant Management and holds a master’s degree in Entrepreneurship from the Asian Institute of Management.

In the end however, what will make the chef a successful businessman is his ability to identify and take advantage of opportunities. Thus, the constant need to monitor the business environment.

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Ask about CCA’s new entrepreneurial track on baking and pastry at 994-2520, 994-2530, and 994-2540.

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