GP chef has the best of both worlds

Running a restaurant on top of his work as a full-time GP keeps stress at bay for Dr Chris Duckham.

People often ask me why I run a restaurant and, more to the point, how I find the time, given that I am a full-time GP who still does out-of-hours.

The second question is easier to answer than the first as I think we can always find or make time for the things we really want to do.

In fact, the Restaurant Cote du Nord only opens one or two evenings a week depending on the on-call rota. Plus there is scope for preparing a lot of things in advance. I am always well prepared when we start serving.

But why run a restaurant? The main reason is because it is fun. Cooking is an enjoyable and sociable pastime: even people who feel a bit intimidated in the kitchen usually find it a pleasure to share food with others.

How much better then when the recipients, as well as enjoying the food, also pay you. For me cooking gives me the chance to unwind and get in touch with my artistic side.

After a week in the straitjacket of protocols, procedures, pathways and guidelines that are every GP's lot, it is refreshing to express myself within a discipline that thrives on creativity as well as skill. And how wonderful to be situated where we are in the far North with access to probably the freshest and finest fish, shellfish, beef and game in the whole of Europe.

Stress-busting
Then there is the stress-busting aspect. At the end of a typical week in the surgery there are usually a hundred practice-related things still buzzing around my head.

But as soon as the first order comes into the kitchen, there is no chance to think of anything other than the timing of the meat and the fish, finishing and garnishing the dishes going out and making sure that the well-done steak for table two is already in the oven.

Also there is the reward of happy customers in the dining room, especially when, from time to time, someone tells you that what they have just eaten was one of the best dishes they have ever had.

What of the downsides? GPs have awkward patients and restaurants likewise get difficult customers.

The latter are probably worse in that, because they are paying, they seem to think that all their requests are sensible and reasonable because 'the customer is always right'.

Beware vegetarians
Then there are the vegetarians. The catering world's equivalent of general practice's heartsinks. Just as our heartsink patients take pleasure in their multiple symptoms that are never amenable to any kind of medical intervention, so vegetarian customers take perverse pleasure in what they will not or cannot eat, rather than finding enjoyment in what they do eat.

I really do not know why they bother coming out at all, so determined do they seem not to enjoy themselves. The other disadvantages are really very minor as the bureaucracy and paperwork is minimal compared to general practice.

I can open the restaurant when I want, put what I like on the menu and close down and go on holiday without worrying who is going to look after the customers while I am away. But when we are open, I do hard work late into the evening, often until after midnight.

Then there is the financial side. With the restaurant having only eight seats and opening two nights a week, I am never going to become rich doing this.

Indeed, margins in the catering industry are notoriously low so making a decent profit for any establishment is not easy.

However, as we continue to make a modest profit each year (although it is perhaps best not to translate this into an hourly rate), we are happy.

The business is kept completely separate from the practice and assessed as a separate business by HM Revenue & Customs. This has not presented any difficulties at all over the years.

Is being a chef a hobby or a second career? I suppose it is a bit of both, but why not? What could be better than being paid for doing something that really interests you and that you love doing? Will I continue running a restaurant after retiring from medicine? I hope so.

Will I give up medicine to go into catering full time? Not while I have a mortgage. It would be too precarious a way to make a living. My attitude is to enjoy it for the time being as a wonderful hobby that more than pays for itself, and see what the future brings. However, there will always be a market, and a minority will continue to appreciate food above the mundane.

Dr Duckham is GP in Tongue and Armadale in Sutherland and runs Restaurant Cote du Nord (www.cotedunord.co.uk).

Why I do it

  • Cooking for others is fun.
  • The restaurant helps me to unwind after a week at the practice.
  • I am interested in good food.
  • Being a chef brings out my creative side.
  • There is a small annual profit.
  • Compared to general practice, there is minimal red tape.

 

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