'Our focus should be on moving forward, but we have to acknowledge that our mistakes made this situation worse'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Igniting hospitality founder Simon King and chef director Matthew Larcombe are embarking on a new adventure as they plan the launch of the Victoria pub in Oxshott this summer - and they hope to make it one of the best places to work in the country. 

"I'm really passionate about this," Simon said in an interview with The Staff Canteen.

"You see so many young passionate talented people coming into our profession and for various reasons they leave prematurely, often because of the working environment, the way they're treated and how tough it can be."

Having worked in New York for celebrated restaurateur Danny Meyer, Simon believes that he's proof to the pudding that treating your teams well "is conducive to phenomenal success," and his own coming together with chef director Matt Larcombe stems from this shared belief. 

But in order to reward members of their team for what they are truly worth, he said, businesses must offer more than just money. "It's about conditions, it's about treatment, it's about respect, it's about trust, it's about nurturing." 

And though the compounding effects of the pandemic and Brexit are hurting the sector deeply, he continued, "in the long run, it's going to be much better for us, because we need to change the way that we approach things."

One-size fits one

Beyond material benefits, which, at The Victoria will include four-day working weeks, carefully planned nutritious mealsand regular trips to meet with suppliers, there is something less tangible about what they are striving for, which is an organisation where passion and talent are given space to thrive. 

Matt explained: "Over the years, you see young people, who, in their roles, mature and get that confidence about themselves. It's quite an amazing experience to see them grow up in that way, being able to teach them and help them develop as a person as well as in the industry." 

"There are too many places that are solely focused on what they singularly want," Matt said, "and not necessarily what's good for the collective." 

Though it is understandable given the circumstances, Simon sees it as problematic that employers are currently focused on hiring more than on retaining their staff.

For this reason, Simon explained, "our approach is per individual."

"We're taking a one-size-fits-one approach, so whether it's training or mentoring, it's what their needs are. Because when it feels personal, it already feels different." 

For Matt, in the kitchen, an upending of the classical hierarchical structure is in order. He explained: "When we're doing development on new dishes, I don't want to do everything myself. I want everyone from the commis to the head chef to be working on developing new dishes because what will make that commis chef more proud - it might take them six months and the mentoring of me and senior chefs - than getting that dish onto the menu eventually? 

"The industry doesn't always give that education to the younger chefs, but it's a great asset to have so you can build on their confidence and keep them engaged."


It almost goes without saying that in order to attract and retain strong teams, there are also practices that have taken place - and in some establishments, still do - that need to be eliminated, as they continue to tarnish the industry's reputation.

This may be due to the televised sensationalism lingering from the Boiling Point days, when it was normal to think of macho laboriousness as being necessary to achieve great success. 

For Simon, owning up to mistakes made in the past is crucial, as it is key to learning from them. Having started his managing career at Royal Hospital Road more than twenty years ago, when things were run very differently, he feels that his approach had its flaws. "I had to change - and was lucky enough to gain enough experience to change."

"We've come such a long way as a hospitality and service industry, it's night and day. But that momentum will be lost if we can't find the staff."

Conceding that “our focus and energy should be on moving forward,” he added, “we have to acknowledge that our behaviour and mistakes made have made this situation worse because we didn't learn our lessons before," and people who have been successful in the past twenty years have been so despite negative behaviours, not thanks to them. 

"I think they would have had more success if their approach was different - they would have retained more staff."

"Having people recognise that fact and saying 'I'm part of the problem, so I want to become part of the solution,' that would be very powerful." 

In his own experience working at The Fat Duck, he remembers, "I was getting frustrated because my teams weren't doing what I wanted them to do, and Heston [Blumenthal] said, 'what are you not doing that's creating that?' So instead of my frustration being with my staff, my focus was on what I wasn't doing," may that be signage, training or general communication. 

"When you have that mindset, your approach to the issue is completely different. Instead of being frustrated and blaming others, you're going, 'okay, I've got to be self-critical.'" 

"As a manager, that was very insightful because my entire thought process changed."

Focus on what you can improve on

Having recently become a father, Simon is at the grips of what sleep deprivation can do to a person, and can attest first hand that overworking teams and pushing them to extreme tiredness and stress levels increases the likelihood of unacceptable behaviour. 

"It does impact my ability to manage my emotions - when you make people work excessive hours in a hostile environment, inevitably, as a human being, we are going to react poorly to moments of stress and frustration. 

"So yes, there is a stigma about the way in which people are treated, but we are creating it by making these people work 50-60-70 hours with little sleep."

"You are continuing to make the situation worse because of those conditions." 

Dialling back

For both Matt and Simon, while many challenges lie ahead for the industry, so too do many opportunities.

"Hospitality is the second biggest employer in our country, so it's going to be massive," Simon said. 

In the past, "small Michelin restaurants would have the same team for five-day weeks for consistency and would often close for Christmas and in the summer. It worked, because you would work together, you would be off together, you could plan things, you could programme maintenance.”

Not wishing to cast too strong a judgement, he said, "owners and directors got greedy and started to open more and more, and became 7-day week businesses.

"The energy and the effort required and the reward of that is marginal, and the only people lining their pockets were not the staff, which made it a short-sighted approach. I can see that coming back - back to a five-day week, where it is cleaner, better and for 5 percent less profit, you've got long-term stability. 

"Success is definitely longevity. You do not want to be successful for three months, you want to be successful for years. I think that will come back, and it is already happening. That will help our profession."

"Some things that we did well in the past, we need to go back to - as well as reinventing ourselves and moving forward with more innovative ideas."

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 1st July 2021

'Our focus should be on moving forward, but we have to acknowledge that our mistakes made this situation worse'