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Dishing Out Advice to Troubled Restaurateurs

Restaurants: Menu revision, wording and design, management structure, food cost analysis--San Francisco consultants cover it all.

September 09, 1997|DEBBY MORSE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — Does the house dressing need a little oomph? Are the specialties of the house not so special?

These doctors make house calls.

Gayle Pirie and John Clark are in the business of providing intensive restaurant care, right on the premises.

Since they began their restaurant consulting careers in 1993, Pirie and Clark have come to the bedsides of a number of impressive restaurants--among them, Ginger Island and Cafe Fanny in Berkeley, A. Sabella's in San Francisco and a couple of snazzy joints in Hong Kong.

The areas of expertise offered by Pirie and Clark include not only menu revision but menu wording and design, management structure, food cost analysis--whatever it takes to stimulate any restaurant, from beanery to brasserie.

"There's a tremendous physical effort in getting a restaurant opened," Pirie says, "and we just know it like the back of our hands."

Pirie and Clark, who are partners in life as well as in business, met while working at Viccolo Pizzeria in the 1980s. Between the two of them, they have 25 years of experience working professionally in kitchens.

Clark, 37, had a "really stupid" cooking job at a huge hash house in Southern California while in college, but he came to believe that cooking is essential.

"Eating!" he says. "You don't eat, you die. And [cooking] is a lot of fun." He has since worked at E Street Cafe in San Rafael and 39 Grove in San Francisco, in addition to Viccolo and Zuni Cafe.

Pirie, 33, came into the business because, as she says, "If you're born and raised in San Francisco, you end up in a restaurant, you know? You end up in a restaurant." After stints at Viccolo and Cafe Esprit, she celebrated her 21st birthday at Zuni Cafe and fell in love with the place. She soon found herself tending the newly installed wood-burning oven there, roasting quail and squab and chicken.

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Neither has formal training in cooking. Both claim to have grown up "food-aware" and are grateful for the generous atmosphere in cutting-edge restaurants during the '80s.

It's that generosity, the sharing and informing and discovering in the kitchen, that Pirie and Clark hope to impart in every restaurant consulting job they undertake.

Their first experience in restaurant consulting was when they were hired to bring some Western pizazz to the eclectic menu at China Max in Hong Kong. Zuni Cafe chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers created some new dishes for the restaurant, and Pirie and Clark went abroad to put them into practice. But when they got to Hong Kong, none of the desired ingredients was available in acceptable form.

"So we threw the whole menu out the window," Pirie says. "We went to the market to see what kind of produce we could reliably use and went with whatever we could get. Really great squash. Watercress. From those seven years at Zuni, we could trouble-shoot."

It's their goal to instill a great understanding of ingredients, techniques and sensitivities, precisely so they can move on to the next client without regrets.

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Clark and Pirie go so far as to provide detailed customized cookbooks complete with photographs of each dish, showing the perfect blistering of a pizza crust, for example, and perfect presentation on a plate. They'll demonstrate dishes cooked at the right and wrong temperatures, so that the cooks they are training will see, smell and taste the varying results.

Pirie and Clark try to conceive entirely original recipes for each of their clients. "We try to make it site-specific for the individual restaurant, so it's completely special for them," Pirie says.

"And you have to determine how much impact they want to make on their existing system," Clark adds. "Do they want to go out and buy all new products? Or can we find something that's right there and make something new from it?"

The price for their services is not poussin-feed. An extensive consultation could run between $10,000 and $25,000, according to Clark.

Even with all their expertise, however, they aren't interested in opening a restaurant of their own.

"Most people with our background are desperate to open restaurants and to show themselves off. We're not," Clark says. "In all the world of consulting, we're some of the few who could theoretically run a restaurant of our own but who want to consult. Usually, consultants are chefs in between jobs, not really committed to helping people with their businesses."

"But a lot of them aren't willing to go in and be diplomats and just give a damn," Pirie says. "Nobody else does what we do."

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