Looking Back, Looking Forward

I haven't checked in with you in a few weeks, so here's a catch up with what's been happening. Every now and then a few things come along like proberbial buses that just tie up your diary putting life on hold for a while. In my case, they have all been very worthy projects or commitments and I will be sharing those with you in the next few posts. 

In any case, here's a few:

  • Applying for a Savoy Educational Trust MBA Scholarship at Cranfield University.
  • Training to be a Springboard Ambassador with Springboard UK on behalf of BaxterStorey.
  • Speaking at Conference Oxford about the benefits of working with a Foodservice Caterer and using Twitter to promote your venue or event.
  • The Professional Speaking Association continues to be a fantastic journey of discovery. The monthly meetings I attend in Reading never cease to amaze me in terms of inspiration and sound business advice from the best Speakers in the country.
  • Social Business: I have been really lucky recently to be invited to a couple of brilliant events that promote the benefits necessity of implementing a deeper level commitment to digital media within your organisation if it is to thrive.

A double rainbow on my walk home from work last week.
My running took a back seat as a result, ony managing a few half-marathons in the last few weeks. However, since I am now signed up to the Ealing Half Marathon in October and hope to get into the Oxford Half Marathon, I don't want to put it off too much. (And that weight-loss goal of 72Kgs still beckons.)

Which just leaves my day job! Well, this continues to be very rewarding with lots of events and intiatives to provide a rich pallette of challenges and rewards. My team have been so fantastic at what they do, that they have allowed me the confidence to put myself way outside my comfort zone with some of my other commitments. (Nothing like the prospect of a five minute presentation at an MBA panel interview to get you hopping out of bed in the morning.)

I guess at this point I really should say a big thank you to my Clients (you know who you are!) for being so generous and supportive. My three years at St. Cross College have been absolutely fantastic so far... and long may it continue. My line managers too have been hugely supportive. It really does make a difference.

Of course none of the above would be possible without the love and support of my wife and our beautiful daughter who turned 12 last week. Even now as I type, the wonderful aroma of a Full English breakfast under the grill is wafting through from the kitchen on this Bank Holiday weekend. A long time ago, it would have been to cure a hangover. Ha! How times have changed....

Remembering Lawrence Montagu OBE: Shaping lives by shaping minds

Having only just read of the terribly sad news though Facebook, I can’t help reflecting on the death of my former School Principal Lawrence Montagu O.B.E. after a long battle against cancer.
My former Headteacher Lawrence Montagu who died last Friday
He was such a pivotal character during my formative years and I feel particularly melancholic at the thought that here was a man whose time among us concluded far too soon.

Thinking back, it was during the second week of October in 1984 when the coach, on its final leg from Birmingham, pulled into Gloucester bus station completing an exhausting 
23-hour journey from Galway City in the west of Ireland. For myself, aged 13 at the time, and my two younger brothers, this was a far more seminal journey than we could have imagined as we left behind our school-friends, neighbours and relatives to start our new life in England. Dad was already there to meet us off the bus and quickly transferred our suitcases (we were allowed two each) into a waiting taxi before heading straight out to St. Peter’s High School on the Stroud Road to meet with the new Principal and get signed up at our new school. 

Despite being worn out from the trip, we were ushered in and instantly made to feel at home due to the tremendously warm and friendly welcome we received from Mr. Montagu who was only six or eight weeks into his new job at the time. Despite the formalities, he was happy to have a little banter with Mum who explained that all three siblings were left-handed and the Irish term for it was ciotóg (pronounced kith-ogue).

Two things I distinctly remember about Mr. Montagu in that first encounter; one was his youth and the other was his accent. My previous Headteacher (Seamus Cullinane at the Athenry Vocational School) was in his sixties (quite ancient when you’re twelve years old), so to see this dynamic thirty-something at the head of such a big school really made quite an impression on me. It was clear that age was not a prerequisite for leadership and it spurred me on to be as ambitious as I dared to be.

As for his Liverpudlian accent, I found it both disarming and intriguing. Having just arrived from the so-called fields of Athenry, (and I was as green as the song title suggests) it was the first time I met someone with such a distinctive English accent that you could actually pinpoint their origin. I have since developed a deep appreciation for the myriad of accents found here in the UK and find myself imitating them during lighter moments or especially when I am daydreaming about one thing or another. 

08Jun04: Catching up on latest news, Larry Montagu always made time for his alumni.
During my school years, I was lucky to discover my passion for cooking early on and concentrated on becoming the best chef and patissier I could be after I finished my ‘O’ levels. Somehow it also seemed natural to pop in every so often if I was passing to see Larry as I came to know him in later years and give him an update. He would delight in hearing about my travels to Bermuda and of opening a business in Kathmandu. When I introduced him to my wife on one chance visit in 2004, he organised a pot of tea and cancelled a budgeting meeting he was due to attend at the town hall. It was this generosity of goodwill that I came to admire in him most, especially when I think of the pressure he was under in running one of the UK's top comprehensive schools. 

I was delighted for Larry when I heard he had been awarded an O.B.E. for services to education - it certainly came was no surprise as he really did deserve the accolade. In a display of sincere humility about his achievement he would joke about the letters possible standing for "Other Bugger's Efforts". Again, his self-effacing leadership style was to deflect that spotlight of achievement onto the people around him upon whose shoulders he stood.

All was not well though when he told me how he was forced into a leave of absence in order to be treated after doctors discovered he had developed Prostate Cancer. A major bout of chemotherapy and sheer willpower put it in remission and allowed him to return to work. Sadly however the cancer returned more aggressively than before and had visibly affected his appearance and health on my last visit to see him in July of 2012. He was upbeat despite, as he put it himself, being given fewer than five years to live by his consultant at that stage.

During that final chat with him, I found a man resigned to the ravages of his own mortality and taking each day as it came, knowing there weren’t many left. The fact that he devoted every one of them to the well being of St. Peter's school community is truly a remarkable and noble act of human compassion that will forever remain his legacy. 

I understand he was due to retire at the end of this academic year, but it seems someone up there had other plans and Larry was sadly taken from us this gone weekend. My thoughts go out to his family, colleagues and pupils who, like me, will find it difficult to understand why such sad things are meant to be.

There is no doubt that Lawrence Montagu had a profoundly positive influence on shaping the careers of dozens of teaching staff and shaping the lives of many, many thousands of schoolchildren lucky enough to attend St. Peter’s High School over the last two generations. You only have to to read this tribute here and the comments posted from past pupils on this story here to see what a profound effect he had on the lives of the people he touched.

Mr. Montagu will be sadly missed by us all. Me especially.

Rest in Peace Sir.

Scholarship forethought and four planning

Recently voted Most Powerful Person in Hospitality 2013
Receiving an invitation to have coffee with Alastair Storey is a rare thing. To see him give away a handful of cheques is rarer still. OK, allegedly...

However, that was the experience for four lucky recipients at an event held in Benugo's chic boutique over in BaxterStorey’s Reading Support Office yesterday.

The reason for this display of generosity by the WSH Ltd Chairman was to congratulate the first winners of the inaugural WSH Foundation Scholarship. This comprises three annual awards of £1000 each (to a maximum of £3000) and was open to all employees and dependents within any WSH company who had been accepted onto a further education course aligned with hospitality. Apparently four applications really stood out, so four were granted, and I’m quietly chuffed to report that two were from Oxford University locations.

L-R: Alastair Storey with recipients Sam, Paulina, Agi, Martina and Co-CEO Noel Mahony
Back in September Agnes, one of my service team here at St. Cross College, showed an interest in the initiative so I was more than happy to support her application and we managed to get it in before the deadline. A few weeks later, we were absolutely thrilled to receive the letter personally signed by the Chairman stating that Agi had been selected as one of the recipients of this year’s award.

So here we were, four proud managers with our four youthful wards politely ‘enjoying’ our coffee with the Chairman, Co-Chief Executive (Noel Mahony) and Director of HR (Lynne Graham). Forget the cake, you cut could the atmosphere with a knife as we all tried desperately not to put our foot in it considering the stellar cast of Board Directors sat around the coffee shop table. (I failed on that score, but that’s another story…)

To be fair, Lynne did a marvellous job of putting us all at ease and it turned out to be a really, really uplifting experience to hear each of the young recipients explain their hopes and aspirations within hospitality as a result of this financially rewarding morale boost. Paulina who has only been in catering for 18 months or so intends to study a HND in Hospitality Management, while Agi begins her BTEC Level 5 course in Event Management very soon.

Sam, smartly attired in his best suit, quietly described how a day’s experience at his Mum’s work location made him realise he wants to be a Chef. He still works with his Mum at St. Andrew’s Prep School for Holroyd Howe and has decided to take up the challenge of Level 1 NVQs in both Professional Cookery and Hospitality at Sussex Downs College. 

Martina who is a supervisor at Saïd Business School here in Oxford, described to Alastair how she was so happy at being selected that she cried as she read his letter. She is putting the money towards her Advanced Diploma in Hospitality & Hotel Management eventually leading to a degree. What an amazing display of appreciation.

Eventually photos were taken, lemon drizzle cake wolfed down (mostly by just me) and after a few minutes of networking and chatting with the directors, our group was given a brief tour of the facility.

On our way out, there’s a large illuminated sign by reception that boldly states ‘Food with Soul’. Our customers enjoy BaxterStorey’s food everyday, but for these four recipients and the hundreds of others - me included - who have been through the Barista, Chef or Leadership Academies, we get to grow and share in that special entity that is BaxterStorey’s soul.

I wonder what kind of a cheque that’s worth?

Cool as a cucumber

There are some hidden gems in our industry really worth sharing and here is one of them for anyone with a love for hospitality. 

The indefatigable Roy Ackerman hosts his own Digital TV channel called Cool Cucumber TV

Click here for a small taster of Cool Cucumber...

The interface is not the prettiest and there are no 'share' buttons, but boy does Roy make up for it in content with celeb chef interviews, restaurant profiles, wines, ingredients and recipes. Check it out now - it's fantastic.

Menu Engineering: Selling the Sizzle

This post is part of a series to help you build a winning menu that will engage with your customers, assist your team and most importantly, drive your bottom line.

You most probably have a menu in use in your restaurant. You may even be very proud of that menu because it has been a labour of love. Good for you. Or you may have put something quick together as you dealt with consultants and contractors trying to get open on time, promising yourself to come back and improve it. Good, do it now. 

In any case, I want you to take a long hard look at your menu and start to think about it in detail. If someone has NEVER been in your restaurant before, what is this menu saying from the second they get it placed in their hands (or read it on the blackboard; or click it online). Is it beautifully weighted, to match the tablecloths? Is it brightly coloured to reflect the buzz of the place? Is it desktop-printed to reflect the freshness of the daily specials? Every menu is different, but they all have the same objective: to grab your customer’s attention and convince them that they have chosen the right place for spending as much as they can afford on this visit.

So where do you begin? The first thing I like to do is put myself in the chair of the customer. Things look awfully different from this perspective. You start to ask yourself, as a customer would, Why have I chosen this restaurant? Who owns this place? Who is serving me? (It could be the owner or is it part of a bigger chain.), Who’s cooking my food? What made you guys open this place? And now get someone to hand you your menu. How does it feel? What does it say about you as a customer? Do you feel valued by this business? 

Now, ask yourself this: where on your menu does it answer all these questions? This is where I think there’s an opportunity to ‘sell your story’. Raymond Blanc does it at Le Manoir. Peter Boizot did it at Pizza Express. Even Nandos do it. 

And they’re all pretty successful, so do YOU put an introduction on your menu? You know, something like... 
“Welcome to Peaches & Cream Restaurant, My husband Renoir and I had a vision of growing our own organic fruit and vegetables and thought wouldn’t it be fun to have a place where our friends could come over to taste the latest produce. Our Chef Antonio is passionate about letting the ingredients stand out in every dish he cooks. And don’t forget to leave some room for dessert. We wish you Bon Appetit, Candice” 

Suddenly, I feel I’ve just had a conversation with Candice…. She’s married to Renoir (is he French?…). They grow organic fruits and vegetables; Wow, how idyllic. It must taste amazing. They mention friends, so they must be popular. And they opened this for them? What a generous couple. Chef Antonio... nice name, sounds Italian - wonder if he looks like Antonio Banderos? Hey, perhaps the pasta is good. Simple food, the way I like it. Hmmm, 'leave some room for some dessert’ … interesting. I love dessert. I wonder if peaches and cream are on the menu? Bon Appetit? Why, thank you Candice. This is going to be a real TREAT!

So many assumptions based on such a short intro. But most importantly of all, you have moved the value proposition AWAY from cost and made it an emotional one. In other words you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

By sharing your story, you put your guest at ease and invite them in. Now they’re thinking ‘I’m going to browse this menu and see what else I can learn about my new-found friends. I’m starving…’ Now it’s time to bring on a very under-utilised sales opportunity: nibbles while you browse. Check in with my next post to find out more.

Milestones in our Lives

Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler described songs as "milestones in our lives". I think he is on to something. If I want to cast my mind back to a happier, or perhaps more melancholy time, I will put on a certain album that reminds me of that moment in my life.

I think it's also true of dishes we cook. Especially if you are a chef. As you move from one influence to another, from one job to another or one country to another, there are certain dishes that become bookmarks in our culinary life. The question is, what sort of menu would they make up today?

Kilroy's Lemon Tart
Anton Mosimann's Bread and Butter Pudding will be a dish that had the most indelible mark on my career and as a result I have a real love/hate relationship with it. On one hand, it opened my eyes to a new way of cooking traditional classics and through it's popularity, I got to travel around the world making it for some very special occasions. On the other hand I made so much of it that today I would have to be super-hungry to eat even a spoonful.

Kilroy's Lemon Tart became my signature dessert over a two year stint in Bermuda where I made about 5000 portions by hand on a Formica table that I hope I never have to see again. And setting up in Nepal allowed me to develop Seared Chicken Breast stuffed with Nak's Cheese (- yes the spelling is correct: if you’re thinking the milk came from a yak, it's worth bearing in mind that a yak is male) and remains the signature dish in our restaurant to this day.

Dessert 'Wizard of Oz'
Thinking back to some of the life-changing milestones in my life's map of discovery, I fondly remember suchdishes as Sauerkraut in St. Moritz or Thukpa in Tengboche or Sel Roti in Sikkim. Which make me think that perhaps the greatest thing about cooking is that the act of doing so - with it's aromas, textures and flavours - will take you right back to that place or moment in time you want to experience again. Like listening to a song.

More importantly, this allows you to ‘emotionally connect’ with your guest in a very fundamental way, either by sharing with them YOUR experiences through a carefully crafted menu or by allowing them to create new milestones for themselves by putting them in a great atmosphere, where the service and food will be immortalised in their future memories and reminiscences.

I do appreciate it.

Reflecting over the years on what is the morning of my 40th birthday, this is the phrase that sums up how I feel about my career, family and life experiences up to now.

The thing is, anyone who knows me will know that I use this phrase a lot, especially in emails.

How many times have you sent an email and not received a reply? You begin to wonder sometimes if they received it in the first place, or cared that you sent it.

One lesson I learned from my friends in the U.S. Embassy in Nepal was that Americans have a culture of replying to every (genuine) email, every time. Even if it is to say 'thanks'. It's just one word, but I feel better knowing that person got my message, read it and took the time to reply.

As a result, I now endeavour to reply to each one of mine out of courtesy to the person writing it. And since I appreciate their interaction, I usually drop in the phrase 'I do appreciate it'. Because I do.

Without that interaction you cannot move forward, negotiate, request, communicate, produce, offer help, do great work, enjoy a moment. Their interaction acknowledges me. Now that is something to be thankful for.

And on that note, I wanted to thank YOU for checking in with The Kitchen Sync to read my musings: I (really) do appreciate your time and consideration.