Check any restaurant’s event page and it’s likely you’ll see a chef collaboration event or even an event collaboration series. Though the idea of chef collaborations has taken off, the style and scope vary immensely depending on the restaurants and chefs involved. To get a sense of what makes a collaboration successful, we talked to three different restaurants to learn what works for them.
From the simplest pizza event to a ticketed multi-course prix fixe dinner, a few patterns emerged. Participation was on a volunteer basis, with the restaurants covering the cost of raw materials and offering support in terms of labor. Success depended on making it work for both guests and the back of the house. Participants also emphasized that chef collaborations can be instrumental in building and maintaining relationships. Last but not least, everyone mentioned the importance of having fun.
Other People’s Pizza at Nicky’s Coal Fired, Nashville
Nicky’s Coal Fired, a casual pizza and pasta spot, has hosted “Other People’s Pizza” once a week in January for the last three years. January is a traditionally slow time for restaurants, so it’s easy to get a commitment from guest chefs – and events offer a much-appreciated boost in business.
Planning starts the fall before, when executive chef and partner Tony Galzin creates a list of people he wants to invite. He reaches out to mostly local chefs, looking for diversity and focusing specifically on places that don’t actually serve pizza. In the past, the restaurant has chosen a barbecue pitmaster, a butcher, a hot chicken chef, and a pastry chef. Guest chefs come on a Monday (also traditionally a slower night), bringing in a couple of staffers, and they take over the daily pizza. For the rest of the week, the restaurant executes the guest’s pizza. “It’s fun for the guest, a good photo opportunity. It’s good exposure for them and it sells really well,” Galzin says. “It’s a good way to get people together. A lot of times you don’t get to hang out with your peers.” Keeping it casual means the focus is on fun and it’s not stressful for the house.
Because it’s so low-stress, logistics are handled on a case-by-case basis. According to Galzin, “Sometimes guests are really nervous about it and come ahead and test out a pizza, while other times they wing it. We work with them to make the pizza work. Things that sound good on a pizza generally are.” To promote the events, the restaurant issues a press release, which the media generally picks up. They create flyers with a photo of each chef to present with checks and also rely on social media, posting Instagram stories and photos days leading up to the event.
Galzin also notes that guest chefs bring in their own staff and friends. Some of the most successful events have been when chefs incorporate a beloved dish or ingredient, such as Hattie B’s hot chicken seasoning or the whipped feta from Butcher & Bee.
“There’s so much noise with holidays and special events, it can be hard to cut through. Events can introduce a new demographic to the restaurant during a slower time and are good for community building,” says Galzin. “We don’t do it to make an insane amount of money. It’s a cool cross-promotion. Pizza is such a unifier. It’s an opportunity to get to know our colleagues.”
Tavern Takeovers at Gramercy Tavern, NYC
For Gramercy Tavern’s 25th anniversary, the restaurant decided to celebrate the way in which alumni have impacted the restaurant industry in a positive way with a “Tavern Takeover” series. Says executive chef Michael Anthony, “The heart and soul is about strengthening the roots of our family tree.” To that end, the restaurant invited past chefs back to create dishes for one evening only.
Like at Nicky’s, making the program “a light lift” is key. Also, it’s important to solidify the relationships between guest chefs and the current team. “We want to get folks back in the restaurant to tell stories — who did they work with, how did working here help with their career? What do they do now?” explains Anthony. While fostering a sense of community in the kitchen is paramount, it also works for the front of the house. The visiting chef or bartender is on the floor during service and engaged with the guests. [Read more…]