Posted: 07/07/2022

Culinary Economics

Nina Matsunaga, chef and owner of The Black Bull Inn and of The Three Hares deli & café in Sedbergh, North Yorkshire

Whether your farm shop has a café or you sell food-to-go from your deli counter, you need to be watching the pennies and keeping those rising costs under close control. And who better than award-winning chefs to tell you how? 

‘Fresh is best’  

Frances Atkins, the UK’s first female chef to earn a Michelin star for her restaurant, The Yorke Arms, now jointly oversees Paradise at Daleside, a café based at Daleside Nurseries in Harrogate. During the pandemic, she and her team ran a food wagon outside the garden centre, so she is well-versed in adapting what she cooks in varying circumstances.  

Atkins’ rule no 1? “Fresh is best,” she says, “and if you’re making it to-go, something uncomplicated and healthy – using three or four ingredients.”

Switch it up 

Remember, you are more nimble than a chain restaurant. “You can change according to what is available and what the prices are like at the time,” says private chef and winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2021, Dan Lee.  

Don’t be scared to switch things up. Instead of struggling to source the (increasingly expensive) items for the same dish over and over again, thinking creatively will save you time and money. If your customer base is open to it, consider a menu du jour – or a menu de la semaine. 

A great chef’s trick is to create a dish then alternate ingredients according to availability. 

“We often come up with a garnish and have to change the cuts such as swapping a sirloin for a rib or even venison at times,” says Nina Matsunaga, chef and owner of The Black Bull Inn and of The Three Hares deli & café in Sedbergh, North Yorkshire. 

“Use the bits that people don’t really use and turn them into something else.” 

Dan Lee, winner of MasterChef: The Professionals 2021 

Beware of the seasonal trap 

As a rule of thumb, seasonality is a good indicator of what is abundant, what is good, and what is affordable, but always keep a beady eye on costs. We all love British asparagus – and precisely because it’s in high demand, it can cost you more than it will earn. 

“You need to be careful with highly sought-after produce,” says Dean Banks, chef owner of Scottish restaurants Haar and The Pompadour.  

Farm shops especially can do what chefs do and cut out the middleman, “Always check pricing and look around before buying from a large supply chain,” adds Banks. “Direct from farm or fisherman is always cheaper.”

Roger Olive, Frances Atkins and John Tullett, who jointly run Paradise Cafe at Daleside Nurseries in Harrogate

No such thing as a ‘humble’ ingredient 

Whether you own a delicatessen carrying the odd seasonal vegetable, or you’re a farm shop with a full produce section, familiarise yourself with the ingredients at your disposal. It should only take a few techniques and an extra bit of effort to turn low-cost ingredients into high-value products.  

Frances Atkins cites cabbage as a good example. Rather than making your excess cabbage into coleslaw, chop it up with some herbs a make a pistou (similar to Italian pesto).  

Cabbage might not sound as exciting as salmon, but you can roast it, or make it into a torte with sour cream and chives.  

As for meat and fish, you can just as well use the trim from your charcuterie counter or ask your suppliers to sell you more than just prime cuts.  

“Use the bits that people don’t really use and turn them into something else,” says Dan Lee, citing dishes like stew and quiche.  

Nina Matsunaga, like those retailers with an in-store butcher, has the advantage of knowing how to cut whole animals down – meaning she can put everything to good use. 

Using the dice from beef and lamb to make crowd-pleasing sausage rolls, pies and curries ultimately makes the most money. “They are quickly made and essential for us to be able to be a little more generous on the prime cuts,” she says. 

“If you’re making it to-go, make something uncomplicated and healthy – using three or four ingredients.”  

Frances Atkins, The Paradise Café

It’s a balancing act  

Yes, affordability is at the forefront of many customer’s minds these days, but sometimes they want to treat themselves to something a bit special. 

When Banks uses luxury ingredients, he opts for those that guests aren’t necessarily familiar with, or that are harder to find, “so a customer wouldn’t directly know the cost”. 

He adds: “This way you can easily achieve your desired margins.” 

Retailers could do this using high margin products, with the added bonus of securing a retail sale if customers are sufficiently impressed by a dish. 

That said, there’s no reason why deli chefs can’t use an expensive ingredient with more affordable ones.  

“We often will combine something like truffles with lamb or venison but use a secondary cut such as liver or heart,” says Matsunaga, adding this will balance the dish as well as its margins.  

“We often also like to use vegetables as the star of a particular dish. For example, cooking beetroot or parsnips in lamb fat and using a protein alongside.”   

Private chef Dan Lee

Don’t be a trickster 

Although it might be tempting to go down the gimmick route of truffle oil and gratuitous dollops of caviar on things, Lee has a word of warning. If you’re going premium, he says, do it properly, or your customers will call you out for it.  

“Wagyu strikes me as a good example,” he says, as even McDonald’s once sold burgers bearing the hyped moniker. The name refers to a breed of cow, and doesn’t mean you can’t source low-grade Wagyu.  

Get your mise en place done, but finish items to order 

While it is tempting to get your prep done first thing in the morning to then focus on your customers in the day, food-to-go items don’t always need to be prepared and packed in advance.  

There’s little worse than a pasta salad that has been sat gorging sauce in a fridge for six hours. When you’re deciding what you want to sell, “think about what lasts longer in a fridge, what’s not going to die if you throw a load of dressing onto it”, says Lee.  

“Always check pricing and look around before buying from a large supply chain.”  

Dean Banks, chef-owner, Haar and The Pompadour 

“Don’t make everything in the morning, try to do it fresh and just top it up every two hours,” and for all your rice, pasta and noodle salads, cook them ready to go with a dressing on the side. “That way you can always make it fresh,” he adds. 

Remember that prime meat cuts don’t reheat well, so don’t waste them. “I would always use a cut that would need to be slow-cooked as this creates a better product for reheating,” says Banks.  

All of that said, lots of things can be made in advance to save you time, without losing in quality, “like sausage rolls, beef pies, pork pies, cookies etc. which we prepare, freeze and cook as needed,” says Matsunaga.  

Chef Dean Banks

Keep your suppliers close – you can take deals from people you trust 

If you’re your own supplier, lucky you. You already know what’s best. But if you’re not, having a good relationship with your suppliers – big or small – will help you be adaptable. 

Not only will this keep you informed about of fluctuating prices, but being within their inner circle could mean they come to you with the best deals. You may need to accept the odd 4am phone call, but as chefs will tell you, sometimes a sleepless night is worth it. 

“You know you’re going to get really good deals from those suppliers,” says Lee, “because they want to sell, and you want what’s fresh. That can save you a lot of money.” 

Echoing this sentiment, Matsunaga has always found that working closely with her meat suppliers means that she can get “the best product at the best time at the best price.” 

By Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

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