Waikato-based chef, Mat McLean, describes himself as a bit of a dinosaur. After all he has been working as a chef for 23 years and running his restaurant Palate, in Hamilton, for the last fourteen. That’s a pretty good innings for a restaurant where the average life-span of new restaurants is under a year. Palate has become a bit of an institution in the Waikato and Mat says that is down to creating a sense of regional pride, where he likes to showcase as much local produce on his menu as possible.
That’s just one of the secrets to Palate’s success. Mat says that with the tough market facing the New Zealand hospitality industry and some interesting economic times ahead, it is imperative for restaurant owners to think outside the box and evolve to survive. In his own mind in the hospitality space, Mat tries to stay ‘out of the box’ and looks for inspiration from the food producers rather than from other chefs, restaurateurs or overseas trends.
One thing that is vitally important at Palate is to be able to tell their customers the story behind their meat – not just about the farmer, but the region and the breed, so much so that Mat says he can charge a $10 extra premium for a steak that has a provenance story connected to it.
Better still are the stories coming from behind the farm gate where regenerative farming practices are being used. Mat sees this as the way forward to be able to supply top quality sustainably grown produce for his customers to create an exciting eating experience with a story attached. With the state of our planet weighing heavily on consumers’ minds, if they can dine out on seasonal, sustainably grown food, they will keep coming back for more.
Mat says training his front of house staff is vitality important and is another key to the longevity of Palate. With the wide range of allergies and eating trends, consumers want to dine out knowing exactly what they are eating and where it comes from. If your staff are knowledgeable, they can help diners make the right menu choice which leads them to have a satisfying dining experience and become loyal customers.
As a chef Mat says it is important to get out and network with others to gain different ideas as everyone is facing similar problems. Having a great network and being able to bounce ideas off other business owners is a smart way to pick up innovative and more streamlined ways to combat challenges such as the increase in labour costs. Attracting good staff and keeping them is imperative and if your staff are well trained and well led they will stay and be an asset to your business.
Mat says getting out into the industry has extended his knowledge and experience of where his ingredients come from. He has enjoyed working with Beef + Lamb New Zealand as a Platinum Ambassador Chef for many years and has helped Silver Fern Farms with product development to extract those extra dollars at the processing plant. His advice to the big meat processors is to expand their product labelling to include the origin and breed which will enable chefs to be able to choose where their produce is grown and pass this story on to customers.
Putting himself out into the competition arena has also been great for recognition on a national level and for keeping Palate Restaurant on the map for discerning diners who will travel to seek out award-winning restaurants.
When Mat first opened Palate, social media wasn’t around and although it has taken some time for him to become a fan, he sees it now as a valuable marketing tool. He says it has become a great platform to showcase not only our cuisine but the food producers and suppliers we are using, which helps to build up that family of loyal followers. Building a great database is also important to keep customers in the loop with what is new on our menu, especially when it comes to enticing customers through the door to sample seasonal ingredients which are only on the menu for a limited time. These channels of communication are what guarantees us customers and keeps us going; and when they come through the door we love looking after them!
Mat says dining out has become a massive part of our culture, so where does he see the hospitality industry in ten years’ time? He feels a level of concern that the restaurant industry could become more of a satellite kitchen-based industry, supplying ready-made vegetables, desserts and ingredients which restaurants can order in, heat and serve, therefore reducing staff costs and improving their bottom line. He says he is probably one of the few chefs still boiling pots of bones to make stocks and producing everything they serve from scratch but even he sees that this could not be economically viable in the future.
So what next for Mat? After small beginnings and growing Palate over the years to what it is today, he feels it is now time to look at downsizing again to create a demand for seats and to get more innovative with using different cuts – premium cuts with a provenance - that will have a higher price point on the menu. Working an Argentinian Grill into his restaurant or a New York style steakhouse are high on Mat’s wish list, ‘all in the celebration of meat’ he says, and as a Platinum Beef + Lamb Ambassador that’s a pretty good dream to have! palaterestaurant.co.nz