Restaurant Zen

Speak to anyone in the restaurant business about their woes, and the answers are always the same. For management, it’s often high staff turnover and a constant difficulty with hiring good workers. For employees, it’s the long work hours and a lack of chances for progression. It’s a Catch-22 situation: with inefficiencies like constantly having to train new staff, many restaurants lack the resources or willingness to put back into their employees. 

This, in turn, negatively affects the quality of guests’ experiences (contrary to popular belief, a restaurant doesn’t just run on its chef’s culinary genius alone) – which itself affects revenue. 

(Related: A guide to outdoor grilling)

“When I was in culinary school 20 years ago, it was all angry, shouty chefs. When I was working with people like Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton, I only knew one style of management,” shares Tristin Farmer, executive chef of restaurant Zen.

Like many restaurants at the top of their game, Zen – the Singaporean outpost of the three Michelin-starred Frantzen in Stockholm – is actively pursuing excellence. For Zen, this meant taking advantage of the last few rounds of dining shutdowns to improve the efficiency of their operations.

Increased storage space means less time spent sorting.

 “Previously, our team was giving 100 percent to the restaurant, but the restaurant couldn’t give 100 percent back because of several limitations,” shares Farmer.

One of these was space. With the leasing of an additional shophouse unit, Zen now has an additional prep kitchen and a dedicated pastry kitchen.

They’ve also increased the space they have for cold storage. This means less time spent organising their supplies – a task that, Farmer shares, can take up a sizable chunk of someone’s day since they had to repack much of the produce.

There are also now changing rooms, as well as lockers for every member of staff. Shares Farmer, “Our guys previously had to change in the bathroom – and there would usually be a queue to change before service.”

(Related: 3 private dining chefs forging ahead with Asian cuisine)

Smart Planning

Ultimately, as a business, Zen’s increased efficiency is with the goal of increasing revenue – while decreasing working hours. Working smarter is a mantra for the Zen family, with many of the systems in place here mirroring how the Frantzen team works in Stockholm. 

“We didn’t do takeaway during the first Circuit Breaker, and a lot of that time was spent with the senior members of the team making studies on how to divide labour and organise use of our space,” shares Farmer. 

For one, Zen has decreased the number of working days to four, by closing on Tuesdays, and introducing lunch service to Fridays. To make this possible, the kitchen team now has members that only work on prep, which happens in two shifts – one each in the morning and evening. 

Thanks to this system – and other efficiencies like the increased space – working hours have also dropped to an average of 55 hours per week, creating a more sustainable working environment for a team that can be operating at their very best. 

The next step, shares Farmer, is to build towards hiring more staff so that they can introduce additional lunch services.

Investing in your people

One of the biggest issues in the restaurant business is the high staff turnover – something that Zen has alleviated by doing something that’s painfully obvious, yet seldom done: giving people a reason to stay. 

“We want people to stay and grow with the restaurant. We try to make the average [time that someone stays with Zen] two years. It takes resources to train a new member of the team; and the longer someone does something, the better they are at it – and all these improves the operating efficiency”, shares Farmer. To that end, employee welfare is a major concern for the restaurant. 

For a start, Zen’s guests aren’t the only ones that eat well. An army marches on its stomach, and Zen feeds its troops generously. For each meal, there’s a mandated mix including one carb, one protein, one salad, and one hot vegetable – with several dishes catering to the staffs’ diverse mix of dietary restrictions. 

Staff meals at Zen is a whole operation unto itself.

The kitchen team and front of house (who also cook very well) takes turns to prepare the meal, which is changed daily and decided upon by “whatever the team feels like eating”. It’s no small task, given the restaurant’s staff strength of 30 – and the ordering of produce for staff meals is done separately from Zen’s main supply. 

There’s even breakfast: cereal, yogurt, fruits, and the like are available for the teams that go in in the morning. Energy bars are also stocked up for anyone that needs a boost anytime throughout the day. 

On the more practical side of things, there are also financial motivators. In addition to competitive pay rates, there are incentives for not taking sick days, as well as a monthly revenue bonus where, if the restaurant hits certain financial targets, there’s a flat bonus that’s shared equally among all full-time, non management staff. 

(Related: Emmanuel Dron’s collection of centuries-old spirits)

Perhaps most importantly, there’s the restaurant’s policy of promoting internally whenever possible – which not only gives a high chance of progression for employees, but also helps the restaurant run more smoothly. “They’ll know the business and the standards. We don’t want the situation where a new manager has to be trained by more junior people,” says Farmer. 

Even if one has been working at the restaurant for years, there’s also little chance of mundanity. Chefs change stations every three to four months, while there’s always something new on the menu to learn about for the front of house. “As the saying goes, we want people to be comfortable with being unforgettable. If you’re going through the motions, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Does it all work? While it’s hard to pin down how Zen measures up against the rest of the industry, they’re happy with the current numbers. Since the restaurant’s opening in November 2018, they’ve retained a third of their kitchen team, as well as most of the front of house.

In the near future, there’ll be an additional reason – something “money can’t buy” – for people to stay: an exchange programme with sister restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm. “It’ll be an incentive for the people who are doing well. We’ll pay for the flight – and while accommodation isn’t covered, we’ll see if there are people able to take our guys in for that period. We’ll take care of our own,” shares Farmer.  

God is in the details

At $480 per head, pre-tax and without drinks, Zen’s prixe-fixe menu is one of the priciest in town – and for good reason. Even beyond the premium ingredients, stellar service, and sumptuous decor, there’s a ridiculous amount of detail put into the whole experience.

Pre-service meeting discussing guests’ dietary preferences and restrictions.

During the team’s daily pre-service meeting, for example, they discuss guests’ dietary preferences and restrictions, as well as the occasion for their visit. Team members are also encouraged to speak up about possible improvements during service. These can be anything from the speed at which people turn corners on the floor, to the act of zesting yuzu tableside: the part of the fruit that’s being zested should be right next to the spot from the previous table – such that the yuzu doesn’t appear patchy and unpresentable to future guests. 

As with any restaurant of its calibre, Zen also has a particularly strong drinks programme – one that every member of its front of house is trained in presenting thanks to the efforts of GM/beverage director Aaron Jacobson. 

“In addition to the food, everyone knows the basic stuff like our wine and non-alcoholic pairings. Everyone gets the chance to learn everything – so we keep that engaged that way. I treat it like anyone who’s in school or university, and we do a lot of training outside of restaurant hours,” shares Jacobson.

Precision means doing things like counting the exact number of drops of lemon juice for seasoning.

In fact, education is a large part of the staff experience at Zen. In addition to doing their job well, people are also given the chance to improve themselves – whether it’s through a paid-for WSET course (with a bond of course), or even just self-learning. 

The latter comes through a website that Jacobson has set up. It lists every conceivable detail about the restaurant – from ingredient provenance and the menu format, to information about the glassware, linens, and even wine geography. 

It’s not just pure information too – but how to interpret, and contextualise that knowledge. In one pre-service meeting, for example, Jacobson presents a new champagne to the team: a precise, grower blanc de blanc that he explains is a pure expression of terroir – and not something that they should try to sell to guests that prefer, rich, rounded, prestige cuvee-type champagnes. 

“For the first few weeks, it can be quite tough for someone new because there’s so much information, but I find that it’s easy to spark interest in wines once people learn a little about it,” shares Jacobson. 

Better for all

All said, Farmer concedes that most of the Zen doing – from increasing their working space to hiring staff – requires significant capital, and it’s not something all restaurants have the resources to replicate. Every restaurant, however, runs differently, and will require different kinds of investments and allowances. 

The goal, at the end of the day, is to do better in an industry notorious for unsustainable working conditions and workers with poor mental health – and doing better is something anyone can work towards.