Hospitality figures tell us about their mentors

Published 26 March 2020

Alexis Noble

Amy Corbin

Ixta Belfrage

Anna Higham

Jules Pearson & Christine Hayes

Kate McKenzie

One of the most inspiring aspects of hospitality is how one person can help another. Whether it’s a formal mentor or a wise, kind friend or family member, it’s all aboutconnections. Harriet Prior asked six hospitality figures about someone who has really made a difference. Photographs by Harriet Clare

Kate McKenzie

Director of Eat Me Drink Me, Kate McKenzie is the food programmer powerhouse behind the food offering at several high-profile events across the UK, from Wireless to Wilderness. Although McKenzie has never met her mentor Mary Portas, she’s completely transformed the way she works.

I’ve chosen someone I’ve never met, Mary Portas, because of her book ‘Work Like a Woman.’ I’d read lots of similar books before and they’d always encouraged me to lean in, be tough and aggressive. Although there are times when I need to be tough, ‘manning up’ and that kid of phraseology isn’t that natural a fit to me and how I work.

Reading ‘Work Like a Woman’ was a revelation, because it argues that there are several values historically seen as more feminine (trust, empathy, collaboration) and not associated with leadership, that are incredibly valuable in a workplace. It’s not anti-male or pro-female, but it argues we need to start changing the way we employ people: from flexible working hours, to improving workplace culture. It’s a manifesto for bringing collaboration, empathy and instinct to the forefront of the business over the historical alpha culture and that really resonated with me.

I’d always thought when I set up a business, I wanted to offer flexible working hours to be able to encourage women to come back to work after having a baby and not focus on hours in the office over quality of work. I’ve always wanted to empower staff. My friends always joke I’m quick to shed a tear, but does that mean I’m not good at business?

Her book gave me the confidence to put a plan in place for my business and in April last year we sat down with the whole team and discussed what we wanted our culture to be– one that encouraged integrity, support and working hard whilst being allowed a break. Are we doing everything right? Not yet. But Mary’s book gave me the confidence to believe I’m not alone in thinking there is a different way to do it.

Alexis Noble

Having lived in cities across the world including Sydney, San Francisco, New York and Rome, Alexis Noble’s feet don’t touch the ground. The chef and owner of Wander restaurant in Stoke Newington admits many people have helped throughout her career, but her sister Patrice is her biggest inspiration.

It’s hard to say I have a traditional mentor, because everyone I’ve worked for has taught me and helped me along the way. But my sister Patrice is someone who inspires me. She was a restaurant manager for nearly 13 years, and she was here for eight weeks when I rst opened Wander. Anytime I have a question, I call her in Sydney. We go back and forth about a lot of stu – she’s always the first person I ask.

We’re used to the time difference, and I don’t usually need her urgently, but there was a situation a few weeks ago where I had a guest (who had never even dined at the restaurant) ring me up and talk to me quite abusively. Normally I would ring my sister and ask her what to do, but she was asleep, and I was thinking ‘wake up Patrice!’ That’s what she helps me with most – I’m a chef and not used to managing guests and front of house. She even helps me with things like working on my email style, because that was part of her role as restaurant manager. She sometimes writes me an email template and I send it!

Speaking to her is more like therapy in a way, because you just want someone to tell you that you’re not crazy. She’s taught me to see things from other people’s point of view. Most people have never worked in hospitality, so they might not even understand the physical space; that we literally only have six tables! If anything, Patrice tries to give me perspective and stops me from leaning into the emotional side. Or sometimes she’s like, ‘yep, that’s messed up!’

Amy Corbin

It’s been a busy couple of years for Amy Corbin. She and husband Patrick Williams co-founded Kudu in Peckham in January 2018, and recently opened cocktail bar Smokey Kudu nearbywhilst putting the nishing touches on tapas barLittle Kudu. Having grown up surrounded by hospitality, it’s little wonder her mentor is her father, Chris Corbin (of Corbin & King).

My mentor is my father, Chris Corbin. He’s my inspiration behind wanting to go into the industry and he’s on hand if I have any questions. I used to work in interior design, but it was always one of my dreams to go down this route because of how I grew up and experienced the lifestyles of restaurants from a young age. Then, when I met my husband, it made sense because he’s a chef, so we both had a role to play.

I’ve observed over the years how my father is with customers and staff. I think one of the biggest reasons Corbin & King has been so successful is because they really look after their staff and they stay with them for many years. Now I’m in the industry myself, I understand how diffcult it is finding staff and retaining them. We treat all our staff here like family, we try and make it fun and don’t want a hierarchy – we’re open to everyone’s ideas and inputs. We’re trying to hire people who can grow within our company and want a career in hospitality.

The other thing he’s taught me are key elements of hospitality, like how they are present in their restaurants all the time. It’s rare to see in this day and age and it makes such a huge difference. People go to his restaurants because they know they might see the owners and it feels more personable. They aren’t just a big group with no identity, they are present there all the time.

We don’t bounce ideas off each other so much now, because what he does is obviously very different to what I’m doing – he very much lets me run it in my own way. But he is still there if I need advice and I need to pick up the phone or I’m stuck on something.

Ixta Belfrage

Ixta Belfrage claims becoming development chef at Ottolenghi was just a case of being ‘in the right place at the right time.’ However, a few years on, Belfrage is working alongside Yotam Ottolenghi and has co-authored the forthcoming book Flavour.

I’d never been to culinary school or worked in a professional kitchen, but I realed off 20 CVs one night on Gumtree, and the next morning I got a call from a restaurant – it turned out to be Nopi. I’d only met Yotam once or twice, but one of our bosses said there was a job going in the test kitchen and I thought ‘sign me up’!

Yotam is really the best boss you could ask for, I’ve never met anyone in life who is so calm, gentle and so fiercely knowledgeable. He is incredibly intelligent, but also incredibly kind. I’ve never seen him get angry and working with him has been a dream come true. I never really expected it, but I don’t think I’d work for anyone else now. No other boss would compare! He gives us time to come up with the best version of everything that we do – there’s a lot of recipes to come up with, but there’s never a rush or a deadline to make something work, there’s no pressure. He’s taught me patience to get to the best place possible. Sometimes you’ll test a dish 10-15 times and he won’t get angry or impatient, and that’s reflective of his character.

I definitely have imposter syndrome, everyone always asks how I got such an incredible job and I think ‘I didn’t try, it was just right place, right time’. That feeling is very much exacerbated when I tell people I work for Ottolenghi. I’ve worked with Yotam on the next book, Flavour, which comes out in September – it’s very much about flexitarian living. The opportunity I’ve been given for this book is amazing and I’m so grateful to him for entrusting that creativity with me. He’s let me be creative with my heritage and what I love.

Anna Higham

It’s been quite the year for Lyle’s and Flor pastry chef Anna Higham following her win in the YBFs pastry category. Having changed careers at 24, Higham says her late mother continues to act as a mentorgure and inspire her cooking.

My mum was a textile maker – she passed away five years ago this year. In her cooking, she wasn’t a sweet person. She had three desserts she could make: a lemon tart, an apple tart, a banoffee pie and that was it. She did some catering work when we were little, and we’d help her out. One of my overriding memories is burning the slices of apple in butter and sugar for an apple tart, so now every apple tart I do is in reference to that.

She loved fruit, so we always had a lot of fruit in the house. For family holidays, we tended to go to France and my mum would get so excited about the ripe apricots; the avours and colours. One holiday in Spain, there was a fig tree in the house and she spent the entire holiday painting and drawing figs and did five pieces of textile work influenced by the fig leaves – for the YBFs I made a fig and fig leaf Danish, so there’s definitely a connection there!

My visual sensibility is completely defined by how she looked at the world. My boyfriend is a photographer and on holiday he’ll take pictures of landscapes, whilst I’ll take a picture of chipping paint or rust, because those are the things my mum noticed. That colour sensibility makes its way visually into a lot of the dishes I do here at Flor. My mum loved offal, so she would have absolutely loved Lyle’s!

Jules Pearson

Having worked her way up from junior PR account manager to partnerships and insights director at Ennismore, all whilst running London On The Inside, Jules Pearson doesn’t stand still. She explains how Christine Hayes, editor-in-chief of BBC Good Food magazine, has helped her at every stage of her career.

Jules: I’m a PR by background and I was pitching and trying to make contacts, so I emailed and asked Christine if we could have breakfast – as Chris says, I turned up in a mini skirt on my bike! It just went from there.

Chris was always nice to me. Even though she was senior, there was none of that ‘don’t talk to me, talk to the editorial assistant’ mentality.

Christine: We’re both straight talking, so we hit it off easily. At the time I was editor of Olive and Jules understood the market and pitched great stories. She would always welcome feedback, whether good or bad. I knew Jules wouldn’t send me somewhere that wasn’t suitable.

Jules: I don’t have to pitch to Chris anymore, I just ask her for advice now; I’ll say ‘what do you think?’ I have always probably moaned to her and she’s listened – a lot of times she’s said you just need to get on with it! The best advice Chris has given me is to be honest and that having a no-bullshit approach pays.

The problem with some millennials is they think they can run before they can walk, so I think it’s super-important to have a mentor, ever if it’s unofficial! Just to learn from someone and understand how to behave.

Christine: And also, to learn that if you can accept constructive criticism, rather than constant praise, then you’re going to fly in your career!

This article was first published in Issue 22 of the CODE Quarterly magazine. To read the digital version, please click here

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