A Great Restaurant Needs More Than Just Good Food

Everything else is what makes a restaurant. How good is the service? How beautiful is the restaurant? This is when running a restaurant becomes very challenging.

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Jul 1 2016, 11:00pm

I always loved food at a high level.

I grew up in the south of France and very quickly moved to Paris and worked in the nightclub scene. I became a partner in one of the most famous nightclubs in Paris. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 because I wanted something a bit more challenging. I worked in music publishing until 2009, but the nine-to-five life was not for me.

My dad was in the food business and collected wine. My cousins were all butchers, and everybody in my family cooks. I grew up in this scene and I needed to get back into the hospitality industry, too. However, this time it would be through restaurants.

There weren't that many chef-driven restaurants in LA back then. You had Wolfgang Puck, Suzanne Goin, Mary Sue Milliken, and Susan Feniger, and a few others, but it was a very small community. I started a chef-driven restaurant incubator named Test Kitchen. I opened Mo-chica, Picca, Paiche, and a Peruvian restaurant in Santa Barbara, and people got really excited for Peruvian food. After those ventures, I wanted to do something even more mainstream, so I sold my shares and started more restaurants. I opened Faith and Flower, Terrine, Viviane, and Hanjip.

Stephane Bombet

I opened nine restaurants in five years.

I've learned a few things along the way of what it takes to be a successful restaurateur in LA these days. For starters, a mentor once told me that the most important thing in a restaurant is the lighting and the music, believe it or not. Everything else is what makes a restaurant. How good is the service? How beautiful is the restaurant? This is when running a restaurant becomes very challenging. It has to be more than just good food. The food being good is a no-brainer. No one will go back to a restaurant if the food is not good.

There are so many new good restaurants and you must try to understand why they are successful. At the same time, if a restaurant goes bankrupt, you must understand that too so you don't make the same mistakes in your restaurant.

Hospitality is very much about your character. I always say that you can teach anything but passion. If you don't have it, it will be very difficult to be good in this field. I knew I wanted to be a restaurateur because I don't have that crazy part of my brain that a chef has. The part that I do have is understanding the business of a restaurant. Also, I would say that I have a good palate.

When you are a restaurateur, you must recognize that you are not always right. You must learn to have an open mind and trust the people that you work with. In addition to that, you must try to always understand what the customer wants. This changes all the time. How do people want to eat? Back in the day, we all wanted our own dishes, but now everybody wants to share and taste everything.

Hanjip 6_Photo Credit Rick Poon

Group dining at Hanjip

You must also be aware of what is happening around the world in the dining scene. I eat and drink out at places three times a week, at least. There are so many new good restaurants and you must try to understand why they are successful. At the same time, if a restaurant goes bankrupt, you must understand that too so you don't make the same mistakes in your restaurant.

Yet, owning a successful restaurant will never be an exact science.

Unfortunately, I don't have a good work and family balance because I am a workaholic. This industry is very difficult and emotionally tiring. I haven't been on vacation in two years. I have a wife and two boys, and I work 13 to 15 hours every day. (Except Sunday, when I always try to take a half day, so I can have at least one dinner with my family.) It is very stressful because every day, you never know if you are going to do good or not. All of my restaurants are open daily and you have to be prepared to jump in to deal with whatever problem. The chef is not there? The hostess is sick? The party is now 40 instead of ten? As a restaurateur, there are nonstop problems to be tackled. I don't have an assistant, either.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not complaining. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing because I have great partners, great restaurants, and I feel very, very lucky to be doing something that I really, really love.

The only moment of my life when I wish I was a lawyer or doctor instead is when you realize that you don't really see your kids anymore. Nonetheless, I am working toward having a better life and work balance. What keeps me going is that I simply want my restaurants to perform better every month.

At the same time, I still want to build restaurants and be in this industry. I am hoping for at least another ten years. I am just about to turn 42, after all. Then again, you never know. When you love something, it is very hard to let it go.

We shall see.

As told to Javier Cabral

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stephane Bombet is a restaurateur who currently has four restaurants in Los Angeles. For more information on them, visit Bombet Hospitality Group's website.