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.

Dinner and a Storey at The Savoy...

A quick post on my way into London for this year’s Savoy Lecture and dinner hosted by Arena, the professional network as I am gently getting more excited about what’s to come. Not so much for the food (which will be epic, as ever), or the stellar company (again, a veritable Who’s Who of the catering industry judging by the guest list here in my hand), but for the main event. I’m really excited by the prospect of listening to the keynote speech being delivered by Alastair Storey who happens to be Chairman of the company I work for.

No doubt, he will have some forthright views and interesting perspectives, but I will also be watching intently to see how he delivers that speech. Will it be a relaxed performance? Has he rehearsed and will it show? Will it be tailored to this audience? How will people react to his message? Will he have a call for action from such a platform? I guess what I am hoping to see is Alastair Storey demonstrating in stark fashion what it is that has made him one of our industry’s biggest stalwarts. To have reached the very pinnacle of the sector as he has, takes a unique star quality and that is something what is worth being present for.

Check in later to find out how the evening went, what the most powerful man in Hospitality had to say and what this might mean for the future of our industry. 

Meanwhile, dinner at The Savoy awaits….

Passion, Debate and Dutch Courage

I was delighted to be asked to participate as a judge in the annual Passion4Hospitality Student Debate which took place yesterday. Hosted by the Institute of Hospitality at the Victory Services Club, the stinging cold on the commute into London soon gave way to some very hotly contended verbal jousting by the brightest minds in hospitality academia today. The format seemed simple enough: eight teams of three presenting to five judges covering two topics in the hope of winning one prestigious trophy. Bring it on.

The challenge however, turned out to be as perplexing as the format seemed simple. In retrospect, I guess the real eye opener for me was seeing how many different ways a single specific topic could be interpreted and presented. Some picked up on a key word, some focused on financials, others on culture and history. All in all, it was an amazing array of thought processes to convey a message whether one was for or against the given argument.

As the day progressed, we picked a winning team from Heat One in the morning who would then go head-to-head with the winning team from Heat Two in the afternoon. The final debate took place in front of the Student Conference guests with the victors being chosen by a straightforward show of hands from the audience.

At this point, you will not be surprised if I say the winning team showed immense character, intellectual prowess and grace under pressure. But you might sit up and take notice if I said that English was not their mother tongue since they had flown in from the continent especially to take part. That really was the measure of commitment and professionalism on display as the team from The Hotelschool in The Hague raised their trophy aloft, leaving London Metropoliton University to be content with the runners-up position.

From left: Maria-Cristina Oprea, Anne Overwater, mentor & lecturer Glen Hepburn and Boudewijn Metzelaar.

Reflecting on the day I applaud every participant for their pluck and commitment in taking part. Win or lose, they will have learned something truly special about the nature of their character and that is more valuable than any trophy or certificate. 

My favourite quote of the day which I posted on Twitter shortly afterwards:

To read all about the debate click here for the Institute's article or check out this great post by Ioannis S. Pantelidis, the team mentor for University of Brighton who came so close on the day.

Our 'Honourable Chairman' of Judges, Russel Kett FIH presides over a tightly fought contest. 

In the meantime, I think the last word should go to Peter Ducker FIH, the Chief Executive of the Institute in his very kind note to me where he said “... the enthusiasm and engagement we saw yesterday suggests that the future of our Industry will be in safe hands.”

You can't argue with that. 

Unless it becomes a topic for next year's debate, perhaps...

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.

Are you earning too much money?

If you're an investment banker then I suspect you probably are. But for the rest of us I'm sure the answer is a resounding NO.

So we agree that you're earning just enough money (if there is such a thing). And when you finally get your hands on this hard-earned cash, what do you do with it? Generally it's used to pay the essential bills and get the basic things we need to keep us going until we are left with a little bit (hopefully) at the end that we can call our own. This is the bit I want to think about for a minute.

When you spend that money on say, a coffee or a sandwich or perhaps a beauty product in the sales, how do you expect to be treated by the person serving you? To be miserable, grumpy and rude? I don't think so. We want to be smiled at and spoken with. We want them to make us feel special. We want to feel that our custom counts for something. We want to be appreciated (not to be confused with just thanked). In an ideal world we want it to be a rich and warm experience.

Is this how we treat our customers who come in to spend their hard-earned money in our business. Do we make the effort to genuinely smile (even on the phone, it shows), or say a few words of chitchat beyond a mere 'can I help', or go that little extra and offer to bring it to the table or carry it to the door? These are the so-called 'little things' that count really big in turning that mundane transaction into a rewarding customer experience that might encourage a return visit. And paradoxically the experience can be as rewarding for us too.

One final point: Just think how much would it cost to buy an uplifting experience like that. Although great service is expected as part of our customer's purchase, how we deliver that service, for better or worse, remains something we give away for free. In the case of an exuberant, outgoing and talented Barista, it might just be the price of a coffee.

Every person. Every day. Every Time.

Are we delivering excellence? A profoundly simple question I put to my team this week on our first day back after a fantastic Christmas break. Giving it some consideration, a variety of answers came back ranging from 'yes totally' to others who felt 'we could do better'. I tend to agree with the latter.

But first, let me explain how this bout of philosophical navel gazing cropped up. As we neared the end of another hectic term last November I found myself looking for some nugget of motivation that would slingshot me through the hectic Christmas period ahead and into 2011. It came in the form of a rather innocuous question in my annual and first ever - appraisal at that time; “Are you delivering excellence?” Hmm, I would have to think about this carefully because truthfully I knew there was room for improvement.

A few days later in a very unkempt changing room I suddenly had an epiphany about this excellence I was meant to be delivering which has since given me enough motivation for months to come - enough to start this blog even! You see, while I had been thinking about the big showy VIP things that we tend to focus on most of the time, I was overlooking the everyday mundane tasks (such as keeping this changing room tidy) that also require excellence from every member of my team.

With this newfound perspective, I put it to them; how does our Kitchen Porter deliver excellence? How can HE deliver excellence when he doesn't cook fabulous food for a living? (Or even mediocre food for that matter). Nor does he serve Champagne to our guests with panache. After all that's not his job. His lot is to mop the floor, wash the pots, throw out the trash and keep smiling throughout. I guess in his case the more fundamental question is 'how can WE help him to deliver excellence?'

Picture yourself, I continued, standing in the changing room with the state it is in most of the time and consider the question again. Would a visitor, senior manager or contractor using the facility think so?

From this point of view, they all agreed we had some way to go. But in doing so, we had just taken our first steps towards this elusive state we seek out. Because in admitting to our deficiency in such a key component of Hospitality, we had taken our first small step towards delivering that excellence. Every person. Every day. Every Time.

My new mantra for 2011, and I have promised to bore my team silly with it, is for each of us to ask of ourselves 'Are we delivering excellence?' Because if we do so in the banal tasks, the big showy VIP ones will take care of themselves.

Look around at the area within arms reach of you. Are you delivering excellence in how it looks?...

Start there.