A very inspiring characteristic of the restaurant industry is that in one way or the other you have to be self-made.
Whether you inherit a whole restaurant empire or start your business from within the dish pit washing dishes, there are no shortcuts in the restaurant business. You need to slog those endless hours in the kitchen, at the desk, with the customers, and so on.
While that makes it a tough industry to crack, what is also great about this business is it gives a chance to anyone with the passion and the hard work.
Whether you start in politics, are a PhD in Engineering, or simply learned culinary expression from your mother as a child, the industry welcomes you with open arms ready to push you to your extremes.
With this piece, we want to inspire you with some stories of the industry legends (in no particular order) that prove to us that all the long restaurant hours are worth it. There is a success on the other side of your restaurant struggle.
All these restaurateurs come from different backgrounds and very different stories, instilling in us that each one of us has the power to achieve our own restaurant greatness. So let’s get started with that motivational boost.
Table of Contents
Paul Bocuse: L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges
Three Michelin stars for 52 years in a row, an achievement no other restaurant in the world, but his, has accomplished.
For someone who started his life surrounded by death and destruction in the middle of world war 2, one can say that Pocuse already tasted conquest and risk. A flavor he would pull from later in life, to change the French cuisine forever, and feelings he took with him in all his endeavors. Bold and life-loving, the best way to describe Paul and his trajectory.
Paul had the privilege to be trained under one of the pioneers of “modern” French cooking – Fernand Point and another talented chef Eugenie Brazier. After that, he started his career path at his family restaurant. With the base for success and the desire to achieve, there was no stopping him. Transforming his family bistro to a world-famous restaurant, being the first chef to receive the French President Legion of Honor award, opening restaurants around Lyon, then eventually in America, and around the world to culminate his success.
He did not stop there, and started his own acclaimed culinary institute, becoming the world’s most celebrated chef. These are just a few of the significant milestones that Paul Bocuse has achieved.
Bocuse is known for being courageous in his culinary experimentation. Nouvelle cuisine in his time required light preparations and easy to digest sauces, but Bucose, on the other hand, was all about cream, butter, and wine. He also was an ardent meat lover and was quoted saying, “Every respectable meal should always end with meat.”
His innovative style raised many eyebrows at the time, but eventually was not only accepted but even celebrated. In fact, people came from all over the world to eat at his restaurant or train under him.
Bocuse was successful in a time when a 3 Michelin chef was more reserved. This was before the era of star chefs with their own television shows, publications, or inscribed knives available internationally. At a time when others did not, he took things in his own hands, and he was one of the few first promoters to take french cuisine outside the borders of France.
He traveled extensively, preaching the French and Nouvelle cuisine. His travels, innovative style, and bold personality – all of this gave him an army of followers. Paul accepted his fans and praise with great sincerity. He often decorated his restaurant with portraits of himself or stationed a life-size image of himself outside the entrance.
Called “great” by none other than Anthony Bourdain, Paul Bocuse is definitely a personality that can fill you with wonder and surprise and even shock (like when he talks about his wife and “mistresses”).
Why they are famous: Revolutionizing and popularizing the French nouvelle cuisine
Estimated Net Worth: $185 Million
Fun Fact: Bocuse D’Or is a competition started by Paul, where 24 chefs are invited to prepare and exhibit some of the world’s greatest techniques in the culinary world. After 30 years of its running, it was only in 2015 when the first time ever, Team USA made it to the winner’s podium with Philip Tessier.
Never before had the USA chef even reached a place higher than the 6th position.
Tilman Fertitta: Landry’s Inc.
If you saw Fertitta as a kid, he would strike you as a bit peculiar. He never watched cartoons and carried a briefcase, yes, a briefcase as an adolescent.
This odd kid went on to become a billionaire owning a whole restaurant empire (also owns Casinos: Golden Nugget and a Sports Empire: NBA Team Houston Rockets). His restaurant group consists of about 522 restaurants – some of the names you could probably be familiar with include Mortons, Mastro’s, Willie G’s, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Landry’s Seafood House, Joe’s Crab Shack and more.
What is interesting to know is the owner of the Landry’s Inc restaurant empire, Tilman is one of the non-chefs that made it big.
He buys distressed restaurants and, with his Midas touch, turns them into super-profitable eateries. Not just one-offs, but scales them out and makes them into coveted chains. Even though he is not a chef, Fertitta did his time when he worked at his Father’s restaurant as a teen and gradually mastered each function, be it the kitchen or the hostess desk. He continued there until he felt that he could run the place even as a teen without any supervision.
Tim has since then followed a fascinating trajectory, including dropping out of college because he was already making too much money to going into a $2M debt and negotiating his way out of it. Tilmann could be a perfect example of an opportunist, and many of his actions prove the point.
For instance, after the great recession, when many restaurants were struggling to keep afloat, Fertitta went on a shopping spree and bought a series of restaurants that already excelled in location and theme but could use help with the operational side. He bought them and modified them to keep up with the standards of his other pieces under his Landry empire.
In his interviews, books, and many conversations, one advice that he consistently focuses on is “follow your numbers.” He is a big advocate of understanding and being thorough with your company’s financial statements. Even with so many businesses under his belt, he meets every week with his team and religiously goes through a “17-minute” run-through of figures from all his endeavors.
He started as an early age entrepreneur; the story of Tilman and his ventures are long and full of lessons. He took up businesses he knew nothing about but not foolishly so, but rather with a super-smart approach and right there is a business scripture for everyone to read.
Why they are famous: Being a business celebrity (owner of Landry’s Inc and Houston Rockets)
Estimated Net Worth: $4.8 Billion
Fun Fact: Tilman Fertitta has recently written a book called “Shut up and Listen.” While most successful entrepreneurs write about their journeys and what worked for them and whatnot, Tilmann thought it would be more interesting to write it as a “business strategy book,” and that is what he did.
“Never, ever stop worrying about your business”, or “Know your numbers” are just some of the things he focuses on in his book. It is well worth the read and made our list of must-read restaurant books as well.
Nobu Matsuhisa: Nobu Restaurants
With forty restaurants on five continents, Nobu definitely had to make our list. It’s not just the size of his operation that makes him one of our favorites.
His story is humble and every bit of him, his restaurants are as unique as his talents, and he is as good a chef as he is a businessman.
Nobu was born in Japan and spent his 20s in Peru, and the influences and experiences he inherited in both these places are what drove him towards the path of his worldwide success. He first dreamt of being a sushi chef in the times when sushi was not commonly known, even in Japan. It was a thing for the elite, a high-end cuisine.
That would all change, and a trip with his brother to a sushi restaurant in Saitama gave birth to his goal of being a sushi chef. Owing to its exclusivity, there was a lot of self-training and learning by doing, but that did not deter him from becoming a highly trained Sushi chef.
It was after three years of only cleaning the fish and washing dishes that he got a chance to learn some of the coveted techniques, and he worked endlessly to become a fantastic sushi chef.
Nobu’s career trajectory makes for a very inspiring read about resilience. In Peru, he could not find Japanese ingredients, thus was born the Peruvian-Japanese cuisine. When his partnership broke in Peru, his Alaskan adventures began. Just in the first couple of months in Alaska, all his money and hard-work caught fire, and the restaurant came down with his dreams. Again, that did not deter him, as he started yet another restaurant in Los Angeles (LA).
This LA restaurant venture did not make money for two years, but there was just no stopping him. His persistence helped him strike gold, and the unique and distinct combination of Peruvian and Japanese cuisine in his menu created enough curiosity, including from the famous Robert De Niro. As he became coveted by the LA elite, he was eventually accepted well by the people of the city of angels.
One common philosophy he often preaches in his interviews is the rule of 50:50 – good food and good service. Good food in his restaurants is not limited to his idiosyncratic cuisine mix, but also very unique ingredients and dishes.
For instance, he has an exclusive partnership with Hokusetsu, a premium Sake brand, that is at least 4x the price of a regular sake and likely 10x the flavor. Or for the fact that some of his dishes include Atlantic Bluefin Tuna. Owing to it being an endangered species of fish, it is not commonly available or even known to the masses.
The good service part in his restaurant is no surprise when you learn about his management style. Being uber-successful does not stop Nobu from personally training his chefs whenever he opens a restaurant. His previous success does not stop him from traveling ten months a year to be physically present. He still runs his kitchens to manage food quality or restaurant systems personally. It doesn’t stop there, though, as he is known to visit guests on the restaurant floor and give them a heartfelt thank you.
Once you learn about Nobu, his talents, his leadership style, and his personality, the fact that De Niro waited four years to convince Nobu to enter into a restaurant partnership with him does not come as a surprise. Nobu teaches us perseverance, being down to earth, and patience – essential skills when we talk about success in any industry, let alone the hospitality industry.
Fun Fact: His Hollywood connection does not stop with De Niro. This chef also landed some small roles in movies you have definitely seen (or should see) such as Casino, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Austin Powers in Goldmember.
Why they are famous: Partnering with Robert De Niro and innovating Japanese cuisine
Estimated Net Worth: $200 Million
Andrew and Peggy Cherng: Panda Express
A fast-food empire that spreads worldwide from the US, Canada to Mexico, Guatemala to Japan, Korea, to UAE, Saudi Arabia, and even more.
A restaurant empire that produces sales on the north of $3 Billion with more than 2,000 stores. A restaurant empire where each store serves an average of 500 guests on a typical day.
A hospitality empire that hires more than 35,000 people from around the world. In addition to the fast-food empire, there is also a highly rated ramen restaurant with locations in New York City and Berkeley, California, called Ippudo.
The duo behind this empire (Panda Express, in case you were still wondering) and Ippudo is Andrew and Peggy Cherng. Their story is not just admirable but also worth swooning over.
Both immigrants, Andrew and Peggy, met at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, as freshmen students and have stayed together since then. Long-distance, different degrees, different origins, these factors were no barrier for this couple. Not just that, but they built their restaurant empire together. The Cherng’s journey from making a living for the family to being worth billions is an encouraging one.
The Cherngs, in many aspects have a distinctive business strategy. For instance, they own each one of their chain stores (with the exception of very few locations). They have been giving many offers to franchise their stores or sell their company shares to the public. The Cherngs did not give in to the quick money but instead retained consistency and control over their stores.
Philanthropy is another big part of their business strategy, and they are big on it. Panda Cares, the philanthropic arm of the Panda Restaurant Group, and Panda Charitable Foundation — the Cherngs give chiefly within the areas of education, youth leadership development, and health.
Cherngs are also known to be very tightly knit with their family and culture, and this shows in their stores and businesses. For instance, associates who work in Panda Express restaurants wear uniforms with the Chinese proverb: “Make happy those who are near and those who are far will come.” Even with the globalized spread of their business, they have been successful in maintaining their original identity.
The story of Cherngs is another zero to a billionaire one and an exhilarating one at that. The immigrant duo proved to us that although the “zero to one” restaurant for them was a challenge, perseverance and hard work led them to build a whole restaurant empire.
Fun Fact: Did you ever wonder where the popular chain Panda Express got its name from? Andrew Cherng owned a sit-down restaurant in Pasadena (California) with his father as a chef in 1973. That was called Panda Inn and was a unique name as pandas were viewed as a friendship symbol between the US and China (this was the time during the famous Richard Nixon’s visit to China).
The name stuck even when Peggy and Andrew opened the first Panda Express in a Glendale Mall (California) and has been so since then.
Why they are famous: Building one of the largest Asian food fast-chain restaurant
Estimated Net Worth: $3 Billion (combined)
Christina Tosi: Milk Bar
Out of curiosity for those unusual sounding items (compost, cornflake-marshmallow-chocolate-chip cookie, or cereal-milk Panna Cotta) or because you are a lover of anything chocolate. Or maybe just because this is one of everyone’s top bakeries to order from, whatever be the reason, there is a high chance that you already have tried something from Christina Tosi. The mastermind behind this dessert chain, the Milk Bar.
Her journey to her own enticing menu that immediately sends one back to his or her childhood memories was not so immediate. Tosi majored in Math and graduated from college with really top marks. The desire to not get stuck in the 9-5 rut led her to New York, and there she began her journey to be a world-famous pastry chef.
For a decade, she sifted through restaurants and tried to make her way, and after a 10-year wait, she finally found her big break when she got a chance to work with Wylie Dufresne at his heralded restaurant (Wd ~50). Wylie helped Christina bring her culinary skills to the next level and network with many big names in the industry, including David Chang (Owner of Momofuku Noodle Bar).
In 2007, when Chang was working on Momofuku Ko (tasting-menu restaurant) launch, Christina was already working with him and had the idea of cereal milk panna cotta. Chang helped Christina start Milk Bar, and he loved the idea so much that he wanted the whole vacant space his company had to be about the cereal milk. And the duo was not wrong, on day one the customers flocked up and then there was no stopping Christina building her Milk Bar empire to what we know today.
Tosi, like most successful business owners, watches everything down to the last detail. She samples every type of cookie and soft-serve whenever she walks into one of her stores. This combination of attention to detail, combined with her boldness for really unique menu items, helps her stand out in the crowded dessert space, even in a city like New York.
The story of Tosi makes us believe that it is definitely okay, even encouraged to make our own way.
Fun Fact: Tosi has had more than one TV debut. Netflix Culinary documentary series Chef Table: Pastry covers Christina Tosi in one of her episodes. It is an exciting profile, as you already know by now, so definitely worth the watch. She was also a judge on Master Chef and Master Chef Junior in 2015 (Fox reality TV cooking competition).
Outside the cooking frame, she also had an appearance in a TV ad for Subaru in 2014 and also did promotional work for American Express, Kellogg’s, and Estée Lauder.
Why they are famous: Her unusual ingredients in the common bakery items
Estimated Net Worth: $5 Million
Final Dollars and Cents on the Rich and Famous Restaurateurs
These restaurant legends sure have set high standards of success that will motivate restaurant owners around the globe.
Their stories only affirm the fact that there is no easy way to succeed in the world of restaurants. Nobu spent three years cleaning before he could make his first sushi dish. Christina worked for ten years before she got her big break. Tilman started as young as a teen to equip himself with all his restaurant skills. They all worked endlessly to be where they are now.
Their stories affirm that you can always pursue your restaurant dream, and it is never too late. Christina studied math, and the Cherngs were engineers with PhDs, but they still started their restaurant when they realized their passion.
More importantly, all these diverse backgrounds and skillsets helped each of these restaurateurs make it big, so use your unique perspective to give you an edge.