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.
Planning for the six-month Tavern Takeover series began with creating a list of people who could get back to the restaurant on their own, since there was no budget for flying chefs in. Says Anthony, “We reached out and worked around schedules. We wanted to make sure the ask was not bound by a lot of rules.”
From a logistics standpoint, relationships were key to the success of the series. “I ask the chefs, what would it take to make them most comfortable? Do they want to order the ingredients or have us do it?” says Anthony. “My job is to be flexible. I like for us to adapt to the people and not the other way around. Everyone has been a little bit different.” Menus, he says, are the easy part. “Make it be of-the-moment, seasonal, simple, and straightforward.” In terms of budgeting, it’s a normal night of business, so any special ingredients or expense is on the restaurant.
With any event, it’s important that the restaurant team feels valued and part of the story. “Before we think about the guest, we think of the staff. From the beginning that was the goal,” explains Anthony. To prepare the staff, a week in advance the restaurant posts a picture and bio of the visiting chef so everyone knows who’s coming. The chef comes in early not just to prep, but to talk to staff. Says Anthony, “We ask the visiting alumni to come in the mid-afternoon to meet the morning team and to talk about their experience and give them a chance to ask questions. We try to keep it light. All of the managers are present, all hands on deck. They are an important person to us. That’s a big part of it.”
Anniversary Dinner Series at Greens Restaurant
For Greens Restaurant, the 40th anniversary was a chance to celebrate their executive chef and to allow guest chefs to take on vegetarian cuisine. Their anniversary dinner series highlights six different chefs who each host a single ticketed prix fixe dinner – a format they had done in the past for special events.
According to general manager Min Kim, while they knew there would be experimentation, they also wanted to be confident in what they could execute. The decision to go with ticketing was crucial. Says Kim, “With ticketing we knew our budget before the event. We hadn’t done tickets before for the entire restaurant but it was simple to put up the series using OpenTable tickets. Now we don’t have to think about the logistical end of tickets—people pay online and it’s done.” Kim reports that they got calls the same day the event went live. She says the events are all selling out thanks in part to targeted communication with only the most active guests (as opposed to anyone who had ever dined there). “We were wondering if we could sell out, and now ticketing and occupancy is our last concern.”
Chefs for the series were chosen for their connection to a team member. Four months prior to the first event, staff nominated chefs who inspired them. “Some chefs are more hands on and want to prep on their own time,” says Kim. “Our sous chef can assist. We will send our team over to the guest chef’s restaurant if that’s where they choose to prep.” Other chefs just want to write the menu. “We allow them to tell us how they want to work,” says Kim. “Most want to do the whole menu, but it starts with a conversation. We’re finding it’s very different chef to chef. With our menu being seasonal, it can only be planned a few weeks out.”
When it comes to promoting the events, Kim says the host restaurant has to lead the charge. “We drafted a press release and used that to fuel everything else—including the photography in our kitchen. The storyline is really important. We also have some videos coming out. The visiting chefs are great at sharing what we have.”
Choosing a price for dinner was “a big conversation that we welcomed a lot of people into—our accountant, our chef, management,” says Kim. “When there’s a guest chef, the initial value goes up and gets hard to determine. Will the chef be able to keep in the same budgetary model? We’ve tried to be on the generous side. We looked at it as a break even, and to be gracious and generous with including tax and gratuity. You also have to ask, what are guests comfortable paying?”
Each dinner includes a Q&A with the chef in the dining room, since many diners want to meet the person behind the food. Says Kim, “We also learned to move our plate up an hour early. If you’re traditional plate up is at 4 p.m. go for 3 p.m. so you have time to work everything out. For front of house, we had a separate meeting and called everyone in an hour early.”
Like the Tavern Takeovers at Gramercy Tavern, Kim says the events have sparked great dialogue and creativity. One added benefit has been learning that diners are eager for some avenues of experimentation that the restaurant didn’t even know about. Says Kim, “You throw six different chefs into the mix, and it allows us to see how far we can go with our creativity. We’ve tried to honor our past. With the team it’s been a great learning experience. We’ve recognized that we need to have fun. It can be stressful, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s brought the staff together. They are working or asking to work and attend. It’s bonded us with our staff and our diners.”
Images courtesy of Greens restaurant.