'There's a reason husband and wife teams work so well'

The  Staff Canteen

Michaela and Tom Kitchin have been through it all together.

They lived apart for years while they both worked in some of the kitchen's toughest, most prestigious kitchens; they opened their flagship on a shoestring and turned it into a success on the back of which they built a highly successful restaurant group. 

Little did they know that in 2020, they would become teachers in their own right, or that they would find themselves on a direct line to the First Minister of Scotland, imploring her to consider hospitality and the supply chain the sector relies on in deciding how to lock down the economy.

How have they made it work? 

Both agree that having each other has helped them through the better and worse times - and would recommend that others follow in their footsteps by working with their families, too. 

Tom said that although it might not be for everyone, "it's a beautiful thing to do, and it's not just a career choice or a decision in a relationship, but a lifestyle. 

"It'd be very hard if Michaela was a teacher and I was a chef. It'd be very hard to understand each others' world, but because we're both from the same industry, we understand how it works. 

Asked how, fifteen years ago, they knew it was the right time to open together, Michaela said: "It's one of those things in life, there's never going to be the day when you say: 'today, I'm ready,' It's a bit like having a family, it's not going to be like: 'today I want a baby,' it doesn't happen like that.

"It's just something that you grow into. 

"We thought maybe it's the right time, maybe it's not, let's just try. What's the worst that can happen?" 

With Michaela in Dubai and Tom cooking for Lord and Lady Bamford, the engaged couple decided to reunite in one place and live out the dream they'd spent so long working towards.

Savouring the milestones

While trying to define what the best moment in one's career has been so far, the temptation is to talk about opening and accolades, Tom explained, but the thing that sticks in his mind is more anecdotal - and endearing. 

"It was right at the beginning. Literally, we were such a small team, when the phone rang, it might have been myself who picked up the phone to take a booking.

"I always remember Michaela, when we'd just had our first child, she was taking the bookings and rocking the buggy with her foot. 

"But I always remember the first time when whoever it was took the booking, and they said: 'I'm incredibly sorry sir, but we're fully booked for this Saturday, would you like us to put you on the waiting list?' I remember we put the phone down and we were like, 'YES! We're fully booked!' It was like a Eureka moment. 

"Now you have to pinch yourself - The Kitchin, God knows how many months it is in advance for a weekend table. 

"It's just the small things that you remember, but there were such important moments along the road, for sure." 

Asked if they ever thought the restaurant wouldn't be successful, they said in unison: "Oh, absolutely, for sure." 

Michaela explained: "When we first opened we were really really busy, the first week or ten days maybe, and then we were super quiet. 

"We had nights and evenings, I remember it well, we would just be like: 'What have we done, we've invested everything we had and we've worked so hard for so many years to be where we are, to be here to have this restaurant and we have no customers. 

"It was quite devastating," she added. 

Both believe that how that turned into the success story The Kitchin is today is thanks to the sum of their two parts. 

Tom said: "There's a reason husband and wife teams work so well, whoever is front of house or back of house. It just gives you that confidence in the other person knowing that the other person - in my example, I can concentrate on the food and I know Michaela's got the vision for the front of house.

"It gives you that inner confidence, and you've seen that over generations, how at the beginning of many many great restaurants it has been that couple, that husband and wife team." 

Overcoming the hurdles

However, working together isn't always easy - both are willing to concede this. 

Tom explained: "Right at the beginning, we were literally on top of each other constantly, every single day. It was just a small kitchen, The Kitchin Restaurant was very small, we were a very small team, 6-7 people, and then you're living together. 

"Especially back at the beginning, I was an absolute lunatic, I was a fruit loop. That was without a shadow of a doubt the most challenging time, right at the beginning. 

"Now, of course the business has grown, we have children. Michaela's role has changed, my role has changed so much."

Michaela concurred, and said: "I think it's really important to acknowledge your strengths and your weaknesses within yourself and within the two sum and really stick to what you're doing and not poke your nose into what your husband or your wife is doing too much."

Asked if they've been doing this for long enough that they've ironed out any major disagreements, Tom said: "Yeah, I think that's really fair. The stress at the beginning - it was so new, it was so raw, it was very very difficult."

Michaela said that while they do get upset with each other sometimes, "when you work together and you live together and you are a husband and wife team, you can't dwell on things, you have to just get on with it.  

Tom chuckled at this, and added: "It's quite funny when there is a bit of tension in the room; the other staff are looking at each other, they all know that Michaela's going to win anyway. So there's no point even continuing the argument." 

"I can't be bothered," he laughed.

Keeping in in the extended family

Another noteworthy element of their success, it is worth venturing, is that keeping it in the family extends further for the Kitchins than just to each other, and that while they grew their business, they made sure their teams had the space to grow, too.

"We're all talking in the industry about not losing staff and trying to retain good staff," Tom said. 

"If you don't create jobs for the people who are ambitious and coming through, quite rightly, they'll move on and go somewhere else."

"That's really important to us, and something that Michaela's drummed into us, which is trying to create a career path for everyone within the company and let them grow and see where they want to go, what it is that they want to achieve. 

Michaela agreed, and said it was "incredibly rewarding" to watch young talent grow in their midst.

"Over the years, we've seen that so many times and there have been so many highlights for us.

"It's incredible to just be able to nurture somebody, to be able to mentor somebody and to be able to see how they're getting more and more brave to move on taking on more responsibilities - I love that, that whole nurturing and individual development, making people believe that they can do things that they've never done before." 

Looking ahead

It goes without saying that pandemic has been a tough time for many across the UK, during which the Kitchins have helped fight for the sector as a whole.

The couple have managed to grab some positives from it, including the knowledge that they can count on their peers and that everyone's struggles can be carried together. 

"It's broken down so many boundaries, so many walls, where actually it's brought us together more as a hospitality family," Tom said. 

And while Covid-19 still rages on, The Kitchin Group is doing its best to look to the future, Michaela explained. 

"Thinking about how we can do things differently, how we can improve things - one of the good things that has come out of this is that it's actually given us a little bit of thinking time. 

And despite the hardships, she said: "We're always talking about what to do next and what things look like when we reopen. 

"For us in an immediate future, we're just wanting to open The Kitchin, The Scran and Scallie and The Bonnie Badger and get those three up and running. 

"The next step is how we're going to open our Brumsfield restaurant again, which has sadly been closed now for some time. We really have every intention to open that up again. 

Tom acquiesced, and said: "Before you start making ambitious plans to do new ventures and stuff, it's very much about survival, preserving what we've got, keeping as many people in jobs as we possibly can and getting the economy working again, getting these hospitality businesses again. 

"Hopefully then we can start employing more people again and there will be opportunities, there will be great things. Sadly, really tragically we lost Castle Terrace but we're delighted that Dominic Jack has stayed with us in the group, he's helping massively. 

"It's really reassuring that you've got someone like him to go around and has the eye, it's really fantastic. 

"For now, we just want to try and get back on our feet." 

Finally asked if they would recommend working with family, they both laughed, and once again in unison, said: "Absolutely." 

This podcast was part of The Staff Canteen's new series of the Grilled podcast: Keeping it in the Family. Tune in to our SpotifySoundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts for the latest episodes. 

Previous episodes featured chefs Chris and James Tanner,  Simon and George Bonwick, Jordan and Majken bech-Bailey as well as Katy and Simon Hulstone. Tune in next week for the ultimate episode in the series with Alain and Michel Roux Jr.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th February 2021

'There's a reason husband and wife teams work so well'