Innovating with respect for tradition

Gastronomic risks

Innovating with respect for tradition
Rui Paula knows full well that, if you're going to build a house, "you need to start with the foundation.” He's built several from the ground up (Cêpa Torta, DOC and DOP), so he knows better than anyone that this "is serious business” and all risks must be calculated. Because the reputation of a restaurant is earned over the years, "with plenty of sacrifice, love and devotion,” nothing must be left to chance. "No dish will make it to a client's table without a proper tasting.”

The Chef, who claims life taught him everything, guarantees that the most important thing is to "be honest about everything”, and also delegate and put together competent teams. Despite his success, the Chef takes nothing for granted. He knows he needs to pay close attention to the clients' tastes. He believes that the greatest risk in his line of business is that his dishes "will lose their appeal overnight.”

In recent years you’ve acquired remarkable public visibility, and have become a public figure. How do you see that change? 
It stems from consistent work. We started out with Cêpa Torta, in 1994. It was a small restaurant in a small town, Alijó. For 13 years, I worked on nothing but traditional cuisine. The media started paying attention when I opened the DOC in 2007, at Folgosa, and the restaurant garnered recognition throughout the country and even abroad. New restaurants seldom achieve that during their first year of business. In the meantime, we decided to invest in the Rui Paula brand, which is to say, we decided to develop my concept.

But how do you explain DOC’s meteoric rise to fame? 
We worked methodically, and if you want to build a house, you need to start with the foundation. Our foundation was not a fad, not based on trends. Notwithstanding our marketing campaigns, the truth is people who came to the restaurant believed that the DOC was not a trendy restaurant, that we had our own concept in terms of menu, wines were served at the right temperature, service was outstanding, things like that. Which is to say that a number of positive factors came together and we were able to open the DOP in Porto, in 2010. It matters that a restaurant be connected with a Chef, but it's also important to be really, really honest in our line of business. That’s the case with us. If you look around, the finest restaurants in the world are owned by the Chefs who lead the operation. 

Managing a kitchen and a restaurant/ company at the same time is a double challenge. How do you go about it?
It’s hard work, I admit, but work has never frightened me. The main thing is this: whether I’m running three, five or six restaurants, they must all be based on my concepts. I won’t compromise on that! 

How do you maintain quality throughout your restaurants – how do you manage your brand?
It’s simple, really: I put teams together. But it’s quite difficult to train teams, not everyone is up to the task. At the moment, there are 50 people working in my business, all of them trained and managed by us. I can’t keep someone around for one, three, six months and then let that person go. For us, training is a very meaningful effort and we want to keep people connected to our project. 

What I gather from your words is that you’re not a centralizing boss, that you give your teams some freedom of movement. 
Yes, although I do control them all. Nowadays I am Chef at the DOP, the DOC, and consultant Chef at the Vidago Palace Hotel. In fact, I accepted this consultancy because I have some of my own people working there. I wouldn’t have taken the position otherwise. The people at the Vidago Palace Hotel have been working with me for the past four years. It’ll be their job to train the rest of the staff. We have to implement our concept, which demands a strict approach. Training is fundamental. One other key to success is that we like to work with people between the ages of 19 and 24. We have three or four in our staff who are in fact a bit older, but the rest of them are younger and unspoiled, so to speak. They’re more malleable, more amenable to an informative approach.

How do you establish a restaurant’s reputation? Or a Chef’s? What factors would that reputation be based on? To what extent was it risky to establish that reputation?
A restaurant makes a name for itself in the simplest possible way: through sacrifice, love and devotion. We work very, very long hours. Our project, truth be told, does not contemplate work shifts. We come in early in the morning and don't leave until the work is done. Obviously, if you’re going to demand that kind of commitment, you have to offer above-average salaries.
In Portugal, we have to master traditional cuisine – all of it – and that takes years. I wouldn’t put much stock in a new Chef that suddenly breaks into the market with a prefabricated reputation. That’s a lie, that's a fad. Unless a Chef masters all the traditional flavours of his or her country and learns to tell good from bad gastronomic products, he or she will be entirely unable to cook. Charts and spreadsheets won’t teach you how to cook. There’s no such thing. Cooking takes soul, passion, and a memory for flavour – which is perhaps one of our main sources of inspiration. 

Looking back, which was the greatest risk you incurred throughout your career?
Maybe the greatest risk, even if a calculated one, was opening the DOP in Porto. The DOC was doing great, but in Porto there were a number of reputable restaurants already. It was an expensive venture, too. On training alone, I spent more than 200.000 euros.
Everybody worked at the DOC for a year and a half, during which I barely broke even, as I had to pay wages, lunches, dinners… But when we opened the DOP, it felt as if the restaurant had been open for a number of years. I just knew it couldn’t fail. If the first day hadn’t matched clients’ expectations, and they really expected a lot from the DOP, I would be in a world of trouble by now.

What factors or situations might jeopardize your reputation?
I believe that the greatest risk is that my food will suddenly lose its appeal. That it won't be tasty anymore. Aside from that, a robbery, a fire or losing my team to personal issues. But you have to be ready for those things, you should be able to adapt. My greatest fear is indeed that people will no longer enjoy my food. So I have to be vigilant, I need to eat a lot and visit restaurants everywhere in the world, must keep up with the times, move with the market. Without ever losing sight of my concept, obviously. 

Whenever you discuss the kind of risk associated with a restaurant, you include reputational risk and, oftentimes, burglary or robbery and fires. But there must be other kinds of risk that people outside the business seldom consider. Can you name a few?
Serving a spoiled meal without being aware of it. This is a major risk. That’s why training is so important: nothing, and I do mean nothing, should reach the client’s table without a proper tasting. Absolutely nothing! You can’t cook and not have a taste. That applies to me and everybody else!
This is a fundamental rule. Nothing feels worse than realizing people aren’t tasting the dishes as they prepare them. You must hold a spoon in your hand at all times. Obviously, none of that is paramount to strong hygienic and product maintenance rules.

Would one bad night ruin a restaurant forever?
A really serious incident could do that. Especially in a country such as ours. Portugal is tiny, b ad news spreads like wildfire. If word-of- -mouth consolidates success, the same can be said of its negative potential. One happy customer will mention my restaurant to five or six other people. An unhappy one will complain to a thousand... One might say that, in your line of business, you take chances every time you create or decide to break with tradition and innovate. 

Do you like to take chances in the kitchen? Do you have what we in risk management call "risk appetite”?
I like to take chances but, at the same time, I like it when a dish reaches the client’s table according to my specifications. By that I mean, when my food reaches the table, 80% of the experience is guaranteed; the other 20% is up to the client. Even so we make changes when customers aren’t as enthusiastic about a given dish as they used to be. We work for our clients. They’re the ones who keep us afloat. They run the house. We have our concept, there’s no need to discard it, but we have to pay attention to our customers’ preferences.

In terms of taste, where do the Portuguese enjoy food more? In the North or the South of Portugal?
In terms of taste, the North. Maybe in the South people are more attuned to innovation and display. That doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy food down South. I am generalizing. The truth is, people cook better in the North. 

Generally speaking, do you like to take risks? What’s your career been like? Have you tried to diversify your business?
I enjoy risk-taking. Right now I’m considering a major risk, but I’m keeping it under wraps for the moment.

In addition to your reimagining of traditional Portuguese cuisine, is there a drive to take chances with other cuisines (Italian, Asian...)?
Yes. We already serve dishes that have nothing to do with our cuisine, but the flavours are very much our own. No matter the dish, I have to flavour it my way, find the Portuguese approach to it, even if it’s just a minor touch. We have to put our spin on it. The interesting thing is for people to eat and be able to discover our cuisine. That’s what makes me different.

Is wine an essential part of a meal?
If anyone says the opposite, that’s because they won’t admit it. That’s the truth of it. When your wine and your meal don’t concatenate, you won‘t enjoy the meal or the wine. You can’t be radical about these things and force someone to drink when they don’t want to, although you shouldn’t have milk with your meal (I’ve actually seen that happen). 

When you do have wine on the table, it should be harmonized with the meal. I guarantee that wine makes meals better. Where do you find greater risk: the kitchen, or the dining hall?
Both places are risky. What happens in Portugal these days is really sad. Everyone wants to be a Chef, and it shouldn’t be that way. Because everyone wants to be a Chef, no-one takes professional pride in being a waiter. I’ll tell you right now that no restaurant will survive if the wine and table service don’t measure up to the food.
It might have the best food in the world, it still wouldn’t matter. Service is every bit as important as food. Schools aren‘t motivating kids to be waiters Society is to blame as well – if you’re waiting on tables, you’re serving, and to serve is to be subservient. We Chefs have some responsibility in all of this; service personnel needs to be motivated. 

But you do understand that one of our more prominent issues is the quality of waitressing.

Unquestionably. It’s a real shame! We need to be congenial, professional, joyful and serene around customers. That's what service is all about. You need training and motivation to succeed. If all the kids want to be Chefs and turn up their noses at waitressing, that means we value Chefs more. What’s really bad is, youngsters want to become Chefs without adequate training. They’d like to build their houses from the roof down. They probably think being a Chef is a walk in the park. Things don’t work that way! Not here, not anywhere else. But there’s more to being a Chef than cooking. These days you need to be a good cook, delegate tasks and take on others, control your team, be a leader, a good manager, and good at public relations. That’s not something you can learn in one, two or three years.

What was your training like?
Life taught me everything I know. Obviously I took many international internships, I had to, I needed to go. I’d spent one year at university studying marketing. I was sufficiently cultured to understand things. So what was I missing? Working. Seeing technique in action. So I did! I’d work at these kitchens, spend seasons there, then come back to my own. That was my choice. I never worked for anybody else. I started my first business at 25, the Cêpa Torta. 

Have you ever been through a crisis? How did you solve it?
I’ve never been through a crisis, thank God. I’ve had the occasional slow month, but that’s all. I can’t complain, even now when there’s a crisis going on. 

Would you ever open a restaurant in Lisbon?
I wouldn’t say no, but it has to be based on the Rui Paula concept. I like to prove that things work here in the North. I was born here and this is where my roots are. With my business growing in the North, I don’t have to worry about tackling the Lisbon market. I can’t say it’ll never happen, but I might open a restaurant anywhere in the world. The way I see it, I have to worry about the environment I grew up in. It would be seriously frustrating not to succeed in my own home. Until now I’ve been proving it can be done.
Some Chefs couldn’t make it, so they moved to Lisbon. Fortunately, that was not my case. In other words, I don’t need to go to Lisbon to make money and keep 50 people on my payroll. I doubt there’s anyone in Lisbon, even with a larger market, who keeps 50 people in their employ, paying them fixed wages.
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