Eleven years ago, Michael Battocletti joined Next Restaurant in Fulton Market as sous chef — his first culinary job in Chicago — before moving on to Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, where he landed at the Melman family’s trendy RPM Steak. But in early 2020, he was feeling burnt out from grueling 80-hour work weeks on his feet in a kitchen. When the lockdowns hit in March 2020, he started offering virtual cooking classes and wine pairings for high-end apartment buildings. The classes were Battocletti’s first foray into a burgeoning part of the industry: restaurant consulting.
“I hate to say that COVID was the catalyst, but it kind of was in that sense,” says Battocletti.
After COVID’s first stay-at-home orders came down in March 2020, many left full-time work and joined the gig economy. Following that route, with indoor dining suspended, some veteran chefs found success as independent contractors. As restaurant owners laid off staff, they deployed consultants who could fill the gaps left by full-time employees. The work environment increased the supply of experienced chefs looking for flexible hours, the type of freedom a consultancy offers. Even as Chicago returns to a semblance of normalcy, owners continue to deploy consultants to develop new restaurants from the ground up or to bring in fresh ideas to save an ailing business.
Larger restaurant companies — ones that fired their well-paid executive chefs — began approaching Battocletti. They particularly sought him out for his familiarity with LEYE. Chicago’s largest restaurant company, LEYE touts detailed operational procedures, including tracking food waste and setting up order guides for vendors, that reduce costs. It’s the type of insider knowledge that rivals envy. As a consultant, Battocletti also worked side-by-side with restaurant design firms to create kitchen layouts that improve the flow of service. For him, consulting has become a lucrative side hustle with restaurants paying a premium for an expert who provides an immediate solution without the need to invest in training or a long-term commitment.
“A lot of these restaurateurs, they don’t know what they don’t know,” Battocletti says.
Some restaurant owners don’t want to manage a chef’s personality, fearful they’ll bolt at the first sign of disagreement. Others are looking for a big name or affiliation to buy credibility. The Green, a golf-themed bar along the Elston industrial corridor, opened in September and proclaimed that its food came from a “former three-star Michelin chef,” via a news release — a misleading claim from the outset, given that Michelin awards stars to restaurants and not their chefs. That consultant’s website states that he worked for Alinea, something Alinea ownership confirmed with the caveat that he wasn’t in that kitchen. He was a food runner.
Consulting differs depending on the scope of a contract; a consultant could develop a menu from scratch or conduct several taste tests before a restaurant launches or drop in to refresh an existing menu with limited-time offerings. For struggling restaurants looking to tighten their belts, contracting an experienced chef who knows how to lower costs by narrowing down the number of products the kitchen orders, rather than slashing employees’ hours, can be a worthwhile expense.
Jessica Ellington combined her experience as a pastry chef with her background in business and marketing to found her pastry consulting business, Sweet Bee. She develops recipes for extract companies, consults with local restaurants, and recently created a line of gooey cakes for a food manufacturer.
“[Restaurant owners] don’t know how to lower labor costs besides just cutting hours,” she says. “They don’t know that you can take a look at a production schedule and find those efficiencies, find those economies of scale.”
Ellington often shows restaurant owners creative ways to reduce food costs and waste. That could mean taking a closer look at what the kitchen could do with the egg whites they’re throwing away after making a custard or whether leftover cake crumbs could be repurposed for cake balls or ice cream.
“It’s not about just getting the cheapest food and cutting hours,” she says. “You have to be really creative in how you’re looking at those ingredients, food waste, and where the kitchen is spending their time.”
Like other freelancers, some chefs are lured by the promise of more flexible schedules or are ready to leave the daily grind and hard physical labor of a full-time chef position. Others are forced by the pressures of a tenuous industry that has only become more difficult since the pandemic began.
“It’s called survival mode,” says Jason Paskewitz, who has served as an executive chef and consultant at 17 restaurants, including the French bistro Pomeroy in Winnetka. “You have some things thrown at you during COVID. You take it because you gotta put some money on the table.”
Paskewitz previously consulted for Pearl Brasserie in the Loop before moving to the United Center to cook at the arena’s flagship restaurant, Queenie’s Supper Club. By March 2020, he was only working three days a week — the NHL and NBA weren’t allowing fans in their arenas. It was then that his former business partner Ryan O’Donnell approached him about opening Pomeroy.
“COVID led to a lot of consulting jobs for people. A place is closed and then reopens and bringing on big salaries without revenue being generated doesn’t really lend itself well to paying a chef 120 grand,” Paskewitz says. “So short-term consulting gigs were probably more prominent during COVID than they had ever been, in this business and any other business.”
The recent increase in consulting chefs hasn’t gone without notice. In his review of Con Todo last May, Tribune food critic Nick Kindelsperger lamented Jonathan Zaragoza’s involvement in the Logan Square Mexican restaurant.
“Part of me worries that we are going to see more restaurants following suit and hiring a famous name to create a menu and buzz, before he or she leaves after a few months,” Kindelsperger wrote. “It might be lucrative for the chef in question, but without constant involvement, can we expect great things from this type of arrangement?”
Restaurant consultants themselves echo Kindelsperger’s worry about sustaining quality after a consultant’s departure. Con Todo closed in October, months after Zaragoza exited.
“Con Todo was a project I left because there was an agreement that wasn’t honored by ownership and that’s part of the reason I left back in January ,” Zaragoza told Eater Chicago in October. “The dynamic wasn’t there. So that is a risk, absolutely.”
In the restaurant business, consistency is key, according to Zaragoza, and he acknowledged the uncertainty that comes with leaving a restaurant behind. For his part, he says he tries to focus on hands-on training and gives staff a crash course on his cooking ethos. In that sense, his consulting work doesn’t differ from his executive chef projects.
“They are 100 percent the same. It’s just eagerness and understanding that you’re not going to be there forever,” he says. “You try to set up that client as best as you can so nothing changes. My approach doesn’t change [from] it being my own restaurant because I do take pride in what I do.”
Con Todo provides an interesting case study. The family behind the successful Lalo’s Mexican Restaurant chain owned Con Todo, but remained quiet prior to opening. It was Zaragoza — whose family runs one of the most beloved Mexican restaurants in Chicago, Birrieria Zaragoza — who handled interviews and hosted preview pop-ups. That created confusion for fans and media who thought Zaragoza owned the restaurant. Zaragoza maintains he was clear about his affiliation.
“Anytime anyone asked me, I said I was consulting,” Zaragoza wrote in an email. “They referred to me as their ‘partner’ but I was never a partner or owner.”
Meanwhile, Zaragoza left Con Todo frustrated; he said, at the time, that he hoped his tenure would last longer and his experience wasn’t what he expected.
Consulting chefs have differing attitudes toward their responsibilities. Carlos Cruz, who serves as executive chef at Cultivate, the Forbidden Root’s brewpub in Ravenswood, and consults on the side, says he not only gives recipes and outlines procedures during his time consulting, but offers to return to the restaurant to taste the food, refresh the menu, or retrain staff if necessary.
That attitude led Cruz to secure more consulting gigs like at Moonflower, a bar in Portage Park.
“Even after I’m paid, I can check up on them. I check the reviews, make sure that nothing’s wrong,” Cruz says. “For me, if I set them up for failure, that’s not going to look good on me.”