On paper, it’s a partnership fraught with conflicts. One’s priority is profit, the other’s is creativity. One’s desire for creativity is often compromised by the other’s frugality.
That’s how the relationship between a restaurateur and chef is often painted, but for any restaurant to succeed, these partners should be able to navigate through any conflict or frustration, merge whatever ideas they cook up, and trust each other to see their concept through. It’s easier said than done, and these two successful tandems in the food industry are hardened by the lessons they’ve learned over the course of their partnership.
Hit the ground running
The partnership of Eric Teng and Him Uy de Baron has yielded a couple of successful restaurant chains, Cocina Peruvia and Kureji being the most prominent ones. The fact that their working relationship began under rushed circumstances makes their achievements all the more impressive.
Teng, CEO of Mango Tree Restaurants, was introduced to Uy de Baron in 2015, when the former was desperately looking for a replacement chef for Cocina Peruvia a few weeks before its official opening. Uy de Baron, who serves as a consultant for numerous restaurant groups, took the job despite the tight timeline and limited knowledge of Peruvian cuisine.
Though admittedly picky with clients he works with, Uy de Baron swerved his decision after hearing Teng’s vision for the restaurant. “I remember telling Eric that when I say yes to you, it’s because I see something there,” says Uy de Baron. “I choose projects where I believe in the end product, and seeing Eric’s passion for Peruvian cuisine made me want to be part of it.”
As can be expected from a partnership made on the fly, developing the Cocina Peruvia menu was laden with challenges. The tight timeline prevented them from formally setting boundaries to their working relationship. They hit the ground running by traveling to Hong Kong to research on Peruvian food, incorporating new dishes to the menu the previous chef left behind, and further refining the restaurant concept—all within three to four weeks. Three years and two more branches later, the two are still working together, with Uy de Baron also consulting for Teng’s other restaurants.
“I like that he’s a perfectionist. The dumbest thing I could do is hire someone like him, then keep stopping him from doing what I hired him to do,” says Eric Teng. “I want our brand to be well-respected, and you don’t do that by compromising on what the chef wants. It’s all about channeling, facilitating your chef’s perfectionism.”
The main factors behind their partnership’s longevity? Trust and respect.
It’s common for them to step back and let the other do what he’s good at—Teng overseeing the business and supply side, Uy de Baron handling recipe development and quality assurance for the kitchen. It helped that they were already familiar with each other’s reputation before they even met, so there was mutual respect between them from the get-go. Uy de Baron has been in the consultancy business since 2003 and had opened his fair share of restaurants, while Teng has several food businesses to his name.
This doesn’t mean they step out of each other’s way entirely. While their day-to-day roles are clearly defined, they pool their ideas when thinking of new concepts. Teng usually comes up with a new concept, which he then bounces off de Baron. According to Teng, the key is to stay flexible to prevent the chef from feeling imposed upon, and vice versa. “I always say that whatever plans we have is just a common base for change,” says the soft-spoken Teng. “I never come up with very strict or solid concepts—they have to be fluid enough to allow for synergy between us.”
Nurturing that synergy is important as it allows Teng to balance his chef’s creative freedom with the business’ bottom line—a common challenge faced by any restaurateur. Working around Uy de Baron’s perfectionism—a trait that could frustrate profit-minded owners—is something Teng learned to embrace.
“I like that he’s a perfectionist. The dumbest thing I could do is hire someone like him, then keep stopping him from doing what I hired him to do,” says Teng. “I want our brand to be well-respected, and you don’t do that by compromising on what the chef wants. It’s all about channeling, facilitating your chef’s perfectionism.”
Uy de Baron, for his part, also makes it a point to “bend like a bamboo” when it comes to his client’s demands. “You can’t always be straight and be like, this is the only thing I do. You have to learn how to bend and sway because there are different needs and personalities in play, not just yours,” he says. Three years in, it’s safe to say these two have achieved a sense of balance after they hit the ground running on their first collaboration, one they’ve never looked back from.
Playing the market
Three years pale in comparison to the longevity of Ricky Gutierrez and chef Vicky Pacheco’s partnership, one that has endured for 30 years. As chief partners of the 1771 Group of Restaurants, the pair has conceptualized some of the most popular restaurants in the country such as Chateau 1771, Sentro, and Flatiron.
The circumstances of how Gutierrez and Pacheco came to work together are almost similar to Teng’s and Uy de Baron’s—Pacheco came in as an assistant manager of a Chateau outlet in 1988, only to take over as head chef when Gutierrez’s original hire left. They thrived with a boss-employee dynamic for the first few years, with Gutierrez mostly setting the direction and tasking Pacheco to execute his concepts. The latter was eventually made a partner in 1994, a position that granted her equal say in the direction and conceptualization of future restaurants.
On paper, it’s a relationship fraught with conflicts. One’s priority is profit, the other’s is creativity. One’s desire for creativity is often compromised by the other’s frugality. That’s how the relationship between a restaurateur and chef is often painted
The move was about empowering Pacheco, whom Gutierrez admired for her resourcefulness, initiative, and discipline. “I wanted to give her role more importance, give her credit for what she was doing,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, she’s the one who’ll put content into the concepts we think up, with the content being the menu.”
Gutierrez gave Pacheco complete control over the operations of their restaurants, while handling the financial side himself (“It’s like a computer—I take care of the hardware, she takes care of the software”).
Their formula for success, however, lies in their sensitivity to what the market wants. More specifically, determining which market they want to serve and building their concept from there. “[The market] is the playing field,” says Gutierrez. “Concept alone doesn’t assure a successful business—having a product that’s acceptable to the market does.” Pacheco concurs, adding, “If you keep pushing something that the market doesn’t respond to, you’re just working for yourself. I’ve learned that as a chef, it’s not about you but what the market wants. In the end, you just have to be humble and accept it.”
Despite their like-mindedness, the duo admits their partnership is often riddled with arguments. It’s common for the fiery Pacheco to rail against her partner’s more outrageous ideas. Gutierrez would get on her case about sales targets. They’d disagree on the hiring of certain people or the interior design of a new branch. Still, the partnership perseveres because each party listens to the other’s position—the same openness that allowed Teng’s and Uy de Baron’s partnership to thrive.
“It’s really just two people with differing perspectives that could both be wrong or right. When we’re not sure, we just say okay, let’s pray about it, then talk again tomorrow,” says Pacheco with a laugh. As simple as that approach might sound, it’s still managed to sustain a 30-year (and counting) partnership.
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 15 No. 5