Chef, mentor, restaurateur and Honorary Life President of The World Association of Chef Societies
Chef Bill Gallagher passed away in Johannesburg on the 19th of May 2016. He was a chef who needed no introduction and though he is no longer with us physically, his wisdom lives on in the many people he mentored. Here, we bring you his profile, an interview and comments on his autobiography
In 1982, Gallagher was elected president of the South African Chefs Association (SACA), and held that position for 21 years before becoming its honorary life president in 2003. In 1996, he became president of the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS), and in 2000 its honorary life president. In 2000 he survived an attempted hijacking, which left him paralysed as a quadriplegic.
He held the position of Chairman of the School for Tourism and Hospitality Studies, Executive Director for the Centre for Culinary Excellence and Director of Communication and PR for the Southern Sun Hotel Group in Johannesburg. Gallagher has earned a Doctorate of Culinary Arts from the Johnson & Wales University, Miami. He recently published his biography titled “Lettuce and a Lady’s Breast”.
Thoughts on the Industry:
Mentorship. “Find someone you can learn from and talk to now and again. Role Models can be ‘phantom’ mentors are real and track your progress.”
Your Feel for the Market:
Guests and Diners are so aware and know more about food now than before. As a chef, you have to constantly be looking up trends and testing to satisfy that desire.
I look for fair cost, great quality and exceptional service. Those are the key ingredients.
Your Role Models:
In 2015, Billy released his autobiography ‘ Lettuce and a Lady’s Breast’. Billy Gallagher talks about what it takes to beat the odds in the restaurant business and why the fundamentals will always matter ….
Is it harder or easier to start a food business today?
I’d have to say that I think it is a little easier. There are so many tools available to entrepreneurs today – you really can download just about anything from the internet. But at the end of the day your success will always depend on how strong your idea is and, of course, how much cash you have to back it up.
There are three ways you can look to start a business in this sector; buy it, copy it or invent it. Today you’ll find that many of the ‘new’ concepts popping up have simply been copied from one market to another.
What are customers looking for?
They’re looking for time. Everyone is pressured and no-one wants to wait for anything. You have to make sure that the start and finish time you deliver in your establishment meets their expectations.
Your customers are also generally quite savvy and willing to share their opinions. Social media is a major influencer and can build your reputation or destroy it. They are picky and will vote with their feet.
Where is there opportunity for new entrants?
There is tremendous scope for quality offerings at the bottom end of the market. As always you need to find a location where there is profit, service a need, and offer a quality product.
What key food trends should entrepreneurs be aware of?
It can be difficult to distinguish between trends and fads, so beware. It also very much depends on the market you are targeting. But a very general trend is that people are becoming more adventurous – and willing to experiment with new tastes.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs looking to start out?
The fundamentals of hard work, dedication and enough cash will always be key for success. Of course, you also need a good idea – and a good person to discuss your idea with. Find a mentor and ask their opinion, particularly about the financial side of the business. There is so much that goes into running a restaurant that is not about food, but is critical for your survival. In my experience, no matter the business, the first thing to run out is the cash, not the enthusiasm.
Be determined, you have to be the most determined person on the project, and you have to keep that confidence going throughout.
South Africa has its challenges, but it is a time of great opportunity, you just need to seek it out.
To what do you attribute your success?
My good looks and killer smile. No seriously, in large part I owe much of my success to the mentors who have supported me at various stages of my career. I started my apprenticeship at 15, and it was tough. But you learn discipline. And I was determined to find people to mentor me, so I asked lots of questions and found the right people.
What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
Rising through the ranks at Sol Kerzner’s Southern Sun (now Tsogo Sun) hotel group, and being appointed the title of President and Honorary Life President of the World Association of Chefs Societies are just a few.
What are some of the unique challenges that you’ve faced?
There are some challenges you can plan for and others you can’t. When I was hijacked in 2000 I was in the middle of launching two massive projects but had luckily signed off a lot of the work. I was in hospital for six months and the first thing I did when I left was head to site – only this time in a wheelchair. This was a new challenge, but I had to work through it. The answer to any challenge is to face it head on and make the best of it.
Billy Gallagher has also written his autobiography ‘Lettuce and a Lady’s Breast’ and has agreed to answer some questions regarding the book:
Can you briefly describe the book?
I think it’s best described as my personal journey, reminiscences of my life, predominantly in South Africa, and a story about the culinary profession, its progress, some pitfalls, and some opportunities that opened up within it. It’s also a story about adversity and tenacity, and it’s a love story – about my relationship with the industry, but more importantly, with my wife.
How long did it take to write the book?
The idea was first put forward in July 2000. I was in a UK hospital for treatment following the hijack shooting in March. Chip Bowring sent a Dictaphone and tapes for me to start recording my thoughts following the attack. I didn’t have the dexterity to do it and the recorder was put away. Over 15 years, several attempts were made by various people into writing the book. Then Anna Trapido expressed an interest in taking the book further, and with her efforts, together with those of Corinne Harrison, Susan Reynard, and John and Duane Riley, we finally had a book in print.
Where did the name come from?
When I was in my first job as an apprentice in northern England, my executive chef saw me tip a crate of lettuce into a big sink and start swishing them around to wash off the sand. He watched for a while with a pained expression on his face and then explained that lettuce must be ‘handled with care, Respect and in a gentle fashion, like ladies’ breasts’. I was 16 and never forgot the lesson.
What was the hardest part about writing the book?
Essentially it was the research, but more particularly, the research into my father’s life. I had judged him harshly as a child as he had been unemployed for a long time after the war, where he had been stationed with the RAF in Malta. I didn’t realise just how bad the war had been for him, and how much he was suffering. He no doubt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and it affected him for the rest of his life.
What is the message you’d like people to take from the book?
Enjoy the fun parts. If there is anything you can learn, grasp it. And please don’t judge me too harshly.
What were some of your career highlights in the book?
My career spanned 40 years with Southern Sun and Tsogo Sun and took me from Port Elizabeth to Fourways, and many other places in between. My highlight was when I was taken onto the board as Director of Food & Beverage. I had never dreamed that I would sit in the same boardroom as eminent people such as Meyer Kahn. There are many other highlights, including attending the Nederburg Wine Auctions – in my time I was involved in 21 auctions.
I saw Southern Sun and Tsogo Sun grow from about eight or nine hotels to the magnificent leading hospitality group that it is today. Over the years I worked with various MDs, including Sol Kerzner, Peter Bacon, Bruno Corte, Ron Stringfellow and Jabu Mabuza. It was a great privilege for me.
Who were some of the big names you met during your career?
A host of international superstars have stayed in our hotels, and some of those I was delighted to meet were Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Pavarotti, Muhammad Ali, Diana Ross, Lovelace Watkins, Cliff Richard, and many more.
What was the main strength of the Tsogo Sun culinary team, in your opinion?
It was – and I believe it still is – innovation. Over the years many brand new concepts were introduced in different hotels that are still regarded as iconic in their day. Also, the team focused on attention to detail and quality. In those days, as today, our hotels were known as a place to go for a great meal.
What story in the book will move readers?
The hijacking and shooting that left me paralysed was an extremely difficult time for many people – my immediate family particularly, but also my extended family in the UK, and my team at head office, who went through an extremely stressful time, coping with the workload as well as the reality of the shooting.
When I returned to South Africa after treatment in a UK hospital, my family in Britain couldn’t believe I was coming back here. But Tsogo Sun knew I would come back – and that I would return to work. I may not be South African but I feel South African; I have two South African children. My ties to the country, to Tsogo Sun and the SA Chefs Association, were too strong to break.
Do you have a last thought for our readers?
The words on the back cover of the book express what I feel perfectly.
“To those who raised me, you’re forever in my heart
To those who taught me, I’m truly grateful
To those who mentored me, you opened the door
To those who love me, I feel blessed
To those who made me laugh, you enriched my life
To those I annoyed, find time to forgive me.”