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What do you call a chef who doesn’t watch food costs?

On the third day of class my students are greeted with the above riddle. The answer, no surprise, is “Unemployed.” My students then ask, “Well, what if he owns the place?” My response: “Unemployed and bankrupt.”

Of course, we as chefs know this. One of the essential elements that makes us chefs is that we understand that professional cooking is a business and that if the food taste good, and the place is packed every night, we can still go broke unless we control food costs.

A key part of controlling food costs is making your crew understand what food AND nonfood product actually costs. If they don’t understand what costs what then they will sooner or later start wasting product and supplies.

By now you are thinking, “Okay, Chef Weiner, I agree with you. But how do I teach food costs to my crew?” The answer is to play a version of the the TV game show, The Price Is Right. My students and I play the game for every delivery. No matter what we are doing, we stop and play The Price Is Right. Here’s how to play:

1. When a delivery arrives, don’t let the driver put the product away.

2. Call all of your staff over. Give one staff member the invoice.

3. Starting with the perishable items, hold up an item and ask the staff to guess how much it costs. (Do this with all food and supplies.)

4. The staff member with the invoice replies, “Too high” or, usually, “Too low.”

5. The other staff continue guessing until they get close and then the one with the invoice calls out the price.

6. Pick up the next item and repeat.

After your staff gets used to the game it moves fast. When they get good on the price of cases, have them break down things per unit. For example, have them guess the price of a single egg or one trash bag liner.

If you don’t think this is useful, I have a little story for you. A friend of mine was complaining that his staff had no appreciation for food costs. He asked me to come over and teach them. I agreed. We started playing The Price Is Right. The first item was a five pound box of 4 to 1 Black Angus all beef hot dogs. His grill cook called out “$5.00”!

And to think my friend was wondering why his food costs were high.

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