2808 East Madison
Seattle, WA 98112
Chef Thierry Rautureau, known to many as The Chef
in the Hat, began his journey into the culinary world
as a young boy apprenticing in the French countryside.
Today he is both Chef and Owner of Rover’s Restaurant
in Seattle, WA. He describes how he matured from an
unfocused youth to a successful and highly praised
chef and restaurant owner.
Antoinette Bruno: What were your
early career goals?
Thierry Rautureau: When I was young, it was
to get out of school, work, and travel. To be fed
well and have a roof over my head. Then, after working
with some of the great chefs in the world and discovering
people doing beautiful things all over, I wanted to
find my creative outlet in a job that I could grow
in. Then, I wanted to open my own fine-dining restaurant
where the ambiance was like dining in my own home.
Now, it’s to keep my wife and kids happy!
These goals I am able to verbalize after the destination,
in retrospect. When I started, like many young people,
my goals were unfocused and cloudy.
AB: How did you develop your Trademark?
TR: Four years ago I got a hat for Christmas
from my wife. I loved it and wore it all of the time.
One night, I came into the dining room from the kitchen
and forgot to take off the hat. A good customer of
mine saw me and said, “Look, a chef in a hat!”
And it just sort of stuck.
AB: How has this helped your business?
TR: Any Trademark helps because it is branding,
it is name recognition. I am trying to develop a line
of products in the future, and the Trademark will
really help that in the marketplace. Is my business
better than it was before the hat? No. We suffered
an economic slump. But the hat is a form of advertising.
You need to keep the same image out there over time
to develop the recognition that will get you through
the hard times.
AB: Given the current economic climate,
how do you get customers to go out to eat?
TR: I call it a “re-chameleon of self.”
Over the years, I have changed many skins, but I have
always kept to the same basic goal. I have had to
adapt to culinary and economic trends. When I started,
the menu was à la carte. Then it changed to
5-course meals. Then I added vegetarian tasting menus,
an 8-course grand tasting menu. Now I am going back
to à la carte to create the smaller plate dining
that is popular now. You need to give customers choices
- allow them to play around with different foods.
I want them to trust me, and if they do, they will
have a good meal. We study the dining trends, and
have discovered that the diner wants more personal
choices. And we just re-shift our menu to offer this.
The small plate trend also helps those who can’t
regularly fork out $150 - $200 for a grand meal.
AB: How do you maintain leadership in
your kitchen, even when you are away from it?
TR: I rely on my sous chef tremendously, as
well as the other cooks, the front-of-the-house, and
the office people. We are a small restaurant –
49 seats – and when I hire I have to look for
people who have an understanding of what we do and
who want to be a part of it.
AB: How do you meet the changing needs
and expectations of customers while balancing your
TR: My vision is consistency in the quality
of the food. I believe we have achieved that over
these 16 years. And I never will jeopardize that.
It’s important to ask your customers what they
want, and to listen and then reassess yourself accordingly.
You have to constantly question, constantly re-invent
yourself. Not change the cuisine, but your approach.
AB: As a chef and a businessman, is there
conflict between the creative side and the business
needs? How do you balance that?
TR: It’s stressful. And I don’t
always balance it that well. Only a few chefs can
pretend to be good businessmen. The proof is in the
pudding – look at how many go out of business!
A restaurant is easy to open but hard to keep. What
kicks my ass out of bed every morning is the knowledge
that tonight I can cook what I want. It makes the
business part of it palatable. If I had a choice,
I would have more people in the office to follow up
with customers, but there is only so much money to
go around. It’s hard. I always feel like I am
AB: What advice would you give regarding
raising capital for a new restaurant?
TR: Don’t put your house or much of
your own money on the line. Use just a little to entice
the investors. The best chef in the best location
can fall because he puts too much of himself on the
line. You should find investors who don’t want
to be partners. And when you do raise money, borrow
at least 150K more than you need, because, trust me,
you will need it at the beginning.