Tricks of the trade courtesy of Chef Robin

Talk about a change of scenery for Monday’s class. Instead of hiking up to our usual desk-lined classroom on Upper Wacker, we finagled our way into one of the finest buildings on Michigan Avenue. There we met with Chef Robin Rosenberg, the VP Chef de Cuisine for Levy Restaurants.

With a title like that, it clear that Rosenberg knows a thing or two about food, the restaurant business and beyond. And he was kind enough to share a little bit of his extensive knowledge with us, which, lucky readers, I’ll give you a taste of as well!

But first, a quick bit about Rosenberg:

  • He was practically born into the kitchen; his parents owned and operated a deli, where he learned to make everything from scratch.
  • He went to culinary school at Columbia College in Columbia, CA.
  • From there, he worked at a “mom and pop restaurant” near Yosemite. But, as Rosenberg said, it was as if he “started backwards.” So, he wanted to make a change.
  • After proving himself to the big folks at Hilton, he was hired as a butcher. From there, he rose to the ranks of Banquet Chef and finally, Corporate Chef.
  • And then, in 1995 Levy Restaurants called and here he is, 21 years later.

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In a world where millennials are frequently changing positions more often than those before them, you might be wondering, how did Rosenberg last 21 years at one company? And Rosenberg realizes the shock factor to his long relationship with Levy, answering the questions as such:

“I love every minute of it,” Rosenberg said, “This company is so diverse. We have 131 businesses and every one is different. In a given week, I can work in five different businesses and five different cities and it blows me away. It’s exciting, exciting, exciting!”

It is through all of these varying experiences—in addition to the ones that preceded his time at Levy—that Rosenberg developed his robust understanding on what makes for a successful restaurant and overall dining experience. So, listen up foodies because here’s a little insight into what Rosenberg said makes for a great food-related business.

Seasonality; “You use what’s great at the time!” – R.R.

“There is nothing worse than eating tomatoes in February,” Rosenberg said.

He emphasized the importance of seasonality and focusing on the ingredients that are great in a specific season such as watermelon and strawberries in the summer. If you don’t, you’re forced to import the ingredients, specifically fruits and vegetables, and they have to be cold-stored, a process that decreases the sugar content and increases the starch. For example, if you buy potatoes out of season and fry them, they turn black because of all the starch.

“Why fight it?” Rosenberg said. “Buy it in season! Sell it in season! Feature it in season!”

Evolution, with a “but”; “Always try to do new things but be consistent,” – R.R.

When asked if restaurants should be evolving, Rosenberg answered quickly and adamantly: “Always.”

He quickly followed, however, with a clause: “But they shouldn’t lose their shtick, their concept!”

Every restaurant should be consistent with their concept, be it wings or burgers, and keep that these items fresh by doing a “twist on things” or doing different flavors. Rosenberg suggested that every restaurant should have two menus: a core menu that includes best sellers and popular items and a rotating menu that offers “LTO’s” or “limited time offers,” which brings people in.

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“By featuring it once and a while, and you know in February that the Apricot Sriracha Wings are featured at Jake [Melnik’s] and you had them last February and your mouth’s watering when you go there. And you go there and you get them. Don’t you want to go back and back and back?” Rosenberg said.

Essentially, a changing menu—based on and accompanied by each restaurant’s tried and true items—attracts diners to your restaurant. On the other hand, a stagnant and constant menu will cause diners to get sick of the dishes.

“It’s very important to evolve all the time. Always try to do new things but be consistent. Keep within the parameters of your concept,” Rosenberg said.

Value in labor, value in creation, value in product; “Value is huge in our business,” – R.R.

When Rosenberg began in the restaurant business, people weren’t as depended on value-added items, which are prepared foods like sliced turkey or even cooked turkey. As such, he grew up making everything from scratch. Today, however, there’s a “dark hole” in the industry. According to Rosenberg, because of the prominence of these value-added products, culinary students and the like are not learning how to make dishes from scratch. As such, he emphasized the value, ironically, of not using value-added products.

“It’s so important to know how to do that because if you ever get in trouble and you’re out of something, you know how to make it. If you don’t know how to make it and it’s Sunday night, you can’t buy it anywhere!” Rosenberg said.

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While buying value-added items can help cut costs because it eliminates labor (think: you no longer need people to dice carrots, etc.), it’s not always less expensive. But the conversation of costs isn’t one that I’m willing—or admittedly knowledgeable enough—to follow right now. Instead, I’ll continue with the lessons Rosenberg provided on aforementioned labor.

“Treat people like you want to be treated. Treat them like they’re the most important people in the world,” Rosenberg said. “Be nice, be polite, smile, take the time to explain and listen.”

According to Rosenberg a lot of turnover is because the employees weren’t treated or paid properly. Yet turnover is unavoidable. However, the chef said that the trick to reducing turnover is to remember, “no one is better than anyone else.”

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Rosenberg said people come back to a restaurant like Jake Melnik’s during a sporting event if they can get “a couple of beers, a big basket of chicken wings, a burger for a price that doesn’t kill [them].” So, value in product is incredibly important for a restaurant to be successful because diners are commonly attracted to getting quality (and a larger quantity of) food for a competitive price.

At the end of Rosenberg’s talk my mouth was already watering over the idea of timeless bar food and a brief mention of a “dessert cart.” But the salivation just continued from there as we spent the next hour touring Spiaggia, whose scents of dinner preparation were (pleasantly) unavoidable.

So I’ll spare you the hunger pains and close this post with a shout out to Chef Robin Rosenberg: thank you for your candid conversation!

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