Chef Hari Pulapaka: Guest Cheffing His Way To A Restaurant In The Middle of the Recession
Introducing Hari Pulapaka
On paper, it reads like fiction. Even hearing the story may leave doubt.
But there’s one important fact…
…it’s all very much true.
What story you ask?
The one about a Math Professor pursuing a “professional interest,” guest cheffing to build an audience and opening a restaurant with his wife in the middle of a recession.
Oh, and not to mention…
Building the restaurant to become highly acclaimed, securing a James Beard nomination and authoring a book – you know, in all the free time.
The story of Hari Pulapaka and his journey to restaurant ownership is compelling, inspirational and instructional in nature.
With restaurants being some of the toughest businesses to open and sustain, Hari and his wife Jenneffer prevailed. And they did so at a time when businesses were boarding up, stock charts resembled cliffs, and mass panic was the new norm.
Below is a snapshot of the interview with Hari, with the full piece being featured in the September Issue of the Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine.
What you’ll read is some of Hari’s answers to questions about his history, path to restaurant ownership and advice for culinary entrepreneurs.
Let’s get started…
Hari’s Story & Best Advice
Hari’s Pre-Culinary Background
I was born and raised in Bombay, India. It was there I studied mathematics by taking an undergraduate degree. At the age of 21, I came to the United States for graduate studies, like a lot of students.
It was George Mason University where I got my master’s degree in mathematics, and then the University of Florida for my PhD. That was my goal when I came to this country.
After my PhD, I got a bunch of temporary jobs followed by a full-time tenured position at Stetson University at Deland in 2000. I’m now starting my 17th year at Stetson as a tenured faculty member in the Math Department.
That’s my story before culinary, but then…
Culinary Industry Transition
In 2004, I was somewhat bored, for lack of a better term. My teaching position at Stetson had a sense of security, I was just looking to do something else. I wasn’t looking to give up teaching, I was looking for something as a professional interest, not necessarily a career.
Like a lot of students who get attracted to culinary education, an infomercial from Le Cordon Bleu caught my eye one afternoon. As I was watching, I said, “I don’t know about Le Cordon Bleu, but the thought of going to cooking school sounds interesting.”
It was something so different from anything I’d ever done. I always considered myself a fairly decent cook compared to others, but that’s not enough of course.
Growing up, I’d been in kitchens my entire life. My mom and I would cook often when I was a kid. It’s just in our culture, Indian society, to be in the kitchen and cook with family.
Being in the kitchen intrigued me, but to learn it professionally, was a very intriguing idea.
I’ve considered other things – getting other degrees, or another PhD – but this thing really caught my attention for whatever reason.
So that was it, I enrolled in the fall term of 2004. And like everybody else, I got pre-approved for an unsecured loan within a matter of days of enrolling.
I did not give up my job at Stetson, so I enrolled for an evening program. My year consisted of teaching five days a week, eight until four, and then I’d quickly change and jump in my car to beat highway traffic to get to school on time for 6:30 lineup. It was one year of that – I was doing both things full time.
I would wake up in the morning and go teach class, do all my academic stuff and then around 4:30 change my hat, literally, and get into cooking mode. I would get home past midnight and do it again the next day – they were very long days.
“Passion is great, and it sounds good, but we also get tired, the body gets tired, so passion alone can’t drive you. It’s more dedication than passion. Passion and dedication together will usually lead to good things.”Hari Pulapaka
Thoughts of a Restaurant
I graduated [Le Cordon Bleu] with a 4.0 GPA and did my externship in Toronto at Canoe Restaurant, which is highly regarded in downtown Toronto.
It was an old school unpaid externship, but I was all about learning, so I went to a really nice place and I didn’t care if they paid me, I just wanted to learn. I have a brother who lives in Canada so logistically it made sense.
In Canada, I kept asking myself if I was good enough in terms of learning the trade professionally, because I went to school, took a big loan, got the degree, but I needed to know if I should just do a gig here and there, or do if I had what it takes and would be good enough.
The following year I got a chance to go to Alaska, to Denali, at the Princess Lodge. It was in Alaska where I realized I can hang with these kids. I knew I was late in the game, but I’m a damn good cook, I can think quickly on my feet and I’m not afraid to put in long hours.
That’s when I realized I had to do something with this new passion, new ability and training. It was at that point when the first thought of opening a restaurant crept into my mind. Not until then. Not until two years after I finished school when I even thought about opening a restaurant.
There was no master plan from the start, everything just evolved as it evolved. As I got more reinforcement, my ambitions grew.
The Guest Chef Way
I approached some local businessmen where we are in Deland to pick their brains and asked if they would be interested in partnering to open a restaurant. I can assure you almost everybody blew me off. All of those efforts really didn’t lead anywhere for me.
The local banks wouldn’t want any part of it, I didn’t particularly have credit at the time, so nobody really gave me the time of day except my wife. My wife said if I wanted to do it, we’ll figure out a way.
Ultimately, it came from guest cheffing at a restaurant in town, Le Jardin Café, a French-Vietnamese restaurant.
When I finished culinary school and was debating having my restaurant or not, I offered to guest chef on dead days at Le Jardin Café. It was at the location where my restaurant Cress is now.
I had eaten there often as a faculty of Stetson so It was a familiar location and a well-known beloved restaurant.
I told them I’d come in and promote a few items on the menu from me, which would increase revenue and give some diversity – so they agreed.
For 12 weeks, I essentially was their guest chef on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s. I would have my own menu and I had a newsletter of all my buddies from the university and local people, so they were informed every week of the new cuisine.
It was intriguing to people because there was nothing like that in town. People felt like they were travelling the world every week with new dishes. It was very well received. And I think that was the first time Deland got a chance to taste my food.
The restaurant was there for about ten years, but it was the old food for eight years straight. They had their popular dishes and loyal clientele, but I brought a vibrant and friendly shot in the arm that was so different from anything they’d seen before.
And I was just making stuff up along the way! I would say, “Hey, I’m going to make Greek food next week.” And though I’d never done it before, I knew I would just figure it out. I’d make it taste good, because that’s all that matters.
I did that for 12 weeks straight. I took myself around the world. It was a way for me to actually see how well I could cook from just from reading and trying to imagine what dishes should taste like.
An Entrepreneurial “Recipe for Success”
A “recipe for success” would be to have a timeframe to success.
Also, understand the industry standard for what makes it successful, like understanding what the food costs should be, understanding what labor costs should be, and other industry standards like that. Always try to match them, sometimes even better them.
Don’t get too greedy. Be honest. If you’re in the hospitality industry, be hospitable, be honest. Be a learner and be educated.
Passion is great, and it sounds good, but we also get tired, the body gets tired, so passion alone can’t drive you. It’s more dedication than passion. Passion and dedication together will usually lead to good things.
Securing the Restaurant
The guest cheffing came to a screeching halt and our lives went on and continued. I did odd jobs here and there, wedding reception, private chef in somebody’s home, that sort of stuff.
Though once I got that taste of a restaurant kitchen in the blood I thought, “Oh I have to do this, now I want a restaurant!”
We started looking at options. We tried new buildouts, existing places, but I kept coming back to the same location [Le Jardin Café], because that place has a long history of always being a successful restaurant. It’s right downtown, not great visibility on the main drive, but it’s one shop off.
If you’re from Deland you know the location, and that was important to me. I understood the importance of people not having to find a new place and already knowing the location.
Ultimately, around December of 2007, the owners saw I was passionate and started joking with me about buying the place. They were getting burned out and kept saying, “If you want to buy this place, you know we can talk.”
The problem was I didn’t have any money at all, and the banks wouldn’t be interested. I had crappy credit, I had a student loan, and I had no money at all. I was actually in debt consolidation at the time. My finances were in the shit.
Finally, I first got a quote from them of how much it would cost and they gave me a number, of course it was very high and nothing I could afford.
Ultimately, I didn’t have any collateral to speak of, to borrow against at a bank. So my wife’s family came through and they put up some of their real estate as collateral. And I borrowed against my retirement.
Those are the two sources of income, and that’s how I got the loan.
Then I agreed to a payment plan with the seller. I told them straight up, “I can’t give you this money up front, I don’t have it. I don’t care how much I borrow. I’m never going to be able to borrow that much, so if you really want to get out of this business, the only way you can do it is if it’s a payment plan over a certain number of years.”
They agreed to it because they wanted out that badly. They were done, they were burned out.
That’s how I paid off the restaurant eventually.
Advice for Restaurateurs
What’s more important is for an individual to not get wrapped up in hype or trends, but to have a keen sense of what people want. There’s a difference.
You can get wrapped up in trends and read about what some bad-ass chef was doing, well good that’s them. Now, just focus on making really good food that tastes delicious. Ensure service is prompt and efficient. Have prices at a good value. And they will come. It’s that simple.
You have to be creative, you have to push yourself, you have to be an academic. As a chef you have to be an academic. You have to understand money of course. You have to understand flavors; you have to be creative. You have to be efficient, and for me all of those things are academic in nature. It’s a very cerebral thing.
And just because you can roast the whole pig doesn’t mean you’re a bad-ass chef. It just means you can roast the whole pig. Don’t post that in social media saying, “Look at the big old pig that I just roasted.” That doesn’t do anything, to be honest with you.
What happens is if you instead say, “Hey, look at this farmer who grew this pig, and look at what good care I took of it – I used every part. And look at how my customers are appreciating something new that they hadn’t appreciated before.” That’s a story.
You should be aware of the whole cycle in the food system, and that’s more important than just following trends.
Make damned good food, use good ingredients, promote local farmers, promote good sources of food, respect your customer but don’t let them abuse you. You have to ultimately run a business.
“You have to be creative, you have to push yourself, you have to be an academic.”Hari Pulapaka
I hope the story of Chef Hari Pulapaka was as interesting and informative for your as it was for me!
Be on the lookout for his full interview in the Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine Issue #3 coming in September. We go in detail with the steps he took to build his audience before owning a restaurant, advice for marketing on a shoestring budget, and more great entrepreneurial advice!
Also, if you’re wanting to become a culinary entrepreneur, or just starting out, I’d encourage you to grab a copy of the “10 Rules of Entrepreneurship” below. It touches on a few items Hari mentioned in his story!
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