A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Chef Foster: Success in the restaurant business comes when luck is combined with preparation

Luck can manifest itself in many ways. One can stumble upon it — when you least expect it you can pull the winning ticket. Luck can be granted to you, and if you’re “lucky” it will materialize.

Or you can work at being lucky, doggedly pursuing your successes, changing things when they don’t work, monitoring your ups and downs until the day that lightning strikes. Farming is very much like that, owning a business comes close, but owning a successful restaurant well, that is the very definition of luck, and it’s apparent in several ways.

Being in the right place at the right time is a form of luck that is the basis of a lot of restaurant stories. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry stumbling upon the shell of a former restaurant and laundry and realizing that this is the spot to begin again.

In my case coming across not one, but two empty spaces that were prime spots, and have the good fortune (luck) to get both! In each case, there was the notion that a minute later and those spots would have been gone, someone was watching over us. The location, while important, did not guarantee success.

That always takes patience, hard work and a bit of prayer, which for some people is part of where the luck comes in. While you might not be able to make your own luck, the restaurant owner works hard to create the right conditions so that when luck happens we take full advantage of it.

To some, that may seem more like being prepared to take advantage of an opportunity, but when the opportunity is a cold call for a table of 25, on a night when you haven nothing, it seems almost criminal not to thank your lucky stars that you were able to take that 25 top.

There is another form of luck that is not exclusive to chefs and restaurateurs. It covers every field and every person that has passion for their chosen career. I am truly lucky to be working at what I love. The opportunity for me to cook every day, to teach people to cook, is something that was not in my future years ago. Except for a few instances where things could have gone differently, I might never have found my true calling.

There has to be some luck in that, something intangible that steers people to a spot where they need to be. Timing, serendipity, luck are all interwoven in my business, helped along by a solid work ethic and a certain amount of self-sacrifice. It extends as well to the people that you work for and with.

Their ability to guide you or stop you from making mistakes may not be a form of luck, but encountering those few that changed your course may be as simple as a meeting on a subway or being thrown together on a project. Was I lucky to meet Leo and Jean of Blue Moon Farm all those years ago at a random city council meeting. I certainly feel like that was good fortune if not a lucky break for both of us.

I cannot stress enough how my career has been shaped by a certain amount of luck and good fortune. And in a business that can turn on a moment’s notice, the ability to keep on an even course is essential to your sanity. I share this sentiment with the farmers who grow the food I cook and even the customers who frequent the restaurants I work in.

Walk-in customers are sometimes the best symbol of luck and opportunity meeting in the middle. The very action of strolling the neighborhood at the right time to notice a full patio with happy people, and decide right then and there to take the chance on the unknown commodity begins a chain of events that could lead to regular customers or a quick demise.

Which brings me back to the most important elements of luck, and the role it plays in food.

To be lucky only gets you as far as the opportunity. To be good at what you do, or at least to be sufficiently prepared to take advantage of opportunity, is the best preparation you can have to be lucky. Plenty of people seem to fall into great opportunities — a great location, a wonderful chef, the “it” cocktail or wine list. But without proper preparation, and planning that good fortune very rarely lasts. The arc is often a meteoric rise, and a quick descent, followed by silence.

Take notice of this as you enjoy the many diverse and wonderful dining options in Lexington. At last count we have close to 700 dining options, ranging from food trucks to white tablecloth. Those spots have some very talented people working in and in some cases owning the place.

In most cases their stories contain an element of luck or good fortune, supported by strong work ethic, great planning and wonderful support staff. Remember always that the strength of the business is its employees and their ability to connect in so many ways with their clientele. The secret of the business may be a little bit of old fashioned good luck.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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