Emma Underwood, Restaurant manager, Burnt Truffle

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th September 2015
Starting as a waitress at Gary Usher's Sticky Walnut in 2012, Emma Underwood is now restaurant manager at sister restaurant Burnt Truffle in Heswall, which was funded using Kickstarter, the world's largest funding platform for creative projects. Originally studying a history PhD and teaching at Manchester University, she worked part time at Sticky Walnut but she has fallen in love with industry and she’s been equally caught up by Gary’s enthusiasm. The Staff Canteen spoke to Emma about what is most challenging about her role, being in the shadow of Sticky Walnut’s reputation and of course, twitter! Let’s start with Gary Usher, he doesn’t hold back on social media, so what’s he like to work with?IMG_0009 He doesn’t do anything by halves! He’s the most passionate man you’ll ever meet but at the same time if he’s not interested….he’s just not interested. The first time I met him I thought he was so interesting, so passionate and he’s just on it. He knows exactly what he wants and he will get it but in such a nice, humble and honest way. He’s kept a book about how he wants his restaurant to be since he was 18. He took it travelling and everything, made little notes on how he wanted it to be – that’s what he made Sticky Walnut out of. We did Burnt Truffle together and it was a nice collaboration – he’s brilliant! He’s very good at letting me make my own mistakes – if I suggest something, he’d say ‘are you sure?’ and I’ll do it and go back to him and say ‘yeah Gary, that wasn’t right.’ He’s always taught me that it’s nice to be nice and it’s right to be humble; he’s very professional and likes people to feel the restaurant is their own home. Both Sticky Walnut and Burnt Truffle get a lot of social media attention, is that good or bad for you?
Service nightmare story: We were surprised one Monday lunchtime by a table of 6 mega VIPs: Angela Hartnett, Neil Borthwick, Mary-Ellen McTague, Allan Jenkins, Bob Granleese (and someone else who's name I've forgotten, oops...) so I was ridiculously nervous serving them. Unfortunately I managed to drop a piece of bread in Allan Jenkins's, which was absolutely mortifying. Luckily he laughed it off but I was convinced I'd ruined our chances of getting good press in The Observer forever (it didn't fortunately). Top 5 service experiences: Medlar in Chelsea - It was the first Michelin star restaurant I'd ever been to, and it was amazing, the service was really professional but still friendly and personal, I found it really inspiring. Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs - Sandia Chang is my hero. Verjus in Paris - It's one of the most perfect restaurants I've ever been to, my boyfriend was ill during the second course and they were so nice at looking after him while I carried on enjoying the full tasting menu with wine flight! Manchester House - My favourite restaurant in the North West, the service is so slick and the restaurant is like a well-oiled machine, it's really satisfying to watch; most of them look like they've stepped off a runway, particularly one called Jacob who is the most perfect man I've ever seen. My number one experience is Restaurant Story - We went there for lunch in February and were looked after superbly by Jon Cannon and Seamus Sharkey, everything was immaculate.
It’s a mix. When you put yourself in the spotlight like that, you are always going to get negativity. We do take the negative stuff quite to heart, we got a lot of stick for Kickstarter because it’s not the usual way to raise money for a restaurant. People assumed we were doing it to get an easy ride and it wasn’t very nice. You forget the reach of it, when Gary started it, it came from such an innocent place. It was just a way to vent and communicate with other restaurants and chefs – now it’s bigger than that and people see it as an entertaining account. >>>Read our interview with Gary Usher here Talking about negative feedback, how do you deal with bad reviews or difficult customers? It’s easier when it happens in the restaurant, a common complaint is that our portion sizes are too small, it’s not true but to some people it might be. If that’s the case we’ll offer to make more or give them side orders – we deal with complaints as quickly, quietly and as efficiently as possible. The customer in that restaurant is always right – if they are being offensive it’s more difficult. I had a customer tell me to go away, so I did and somebody else served them instead – it’s hard but we have a policy of biting our tongue, dealing with it quietly and however difficult they are being we make sure they are happy at that moment. In terms of negative comments on TripAdvisor after they have dined with us, we don’t take to them too kindly because it’s something we can’t solve. We do take bad reviews seriously and we will get to the bottom of it. You said you worked on Burnt Truffle with Gary but how much input did you actually have? I was offered the Restaurant Manager position for Burnt Truffle two years before it opened, it took such a long time to open. But working at Sticky I knew what Gary wanted so we were both on the same page. I wrote the whole wine list and he allowed me to make the major decisions – it sounds quite small but the decision to go with grey t-shirts and navy aprons was my idea but he loved it. There’s a grey theme at Burnt Truffle, I just love grey! I think it’s a nice, relaxing colour. We did have a debate for a long time over the staff wearing nice, cool trainers but if someone came in wearing a brand we didn’t want, what do you do? So we went with plain back shoes. You never intended to work in hospitality, what do you love about your current role? Every day is rewarding. You get challenged constantly but those challenges are always overcome; with my PhD those challenges would take six months to overcome and I might get a small reward of a nice mark on an essay or a piece of work getting published. In the restaurant all the challenges are instant and you solve them straight away. The rewards are quick and regular. Sticky Walnut obviously came first, did you feel any pressure being in the shadow of Sticky and its success?IMG_9699 Yes! It was the worst thing ever! People come in and say ‘it’s almost as good as sticky’ – we’ve been open six weeks, give us a chance! The thing about Burnt Truffle is it’s a lot bigger and we’ve only got five extra covers so there’s a lot more room to do things. We’ve got a larger stock room for wine so it’s easier to manage that, the boys have got bigger prep areas in the kitchen so the consistency is far better – it’s a lot easier to do things there. I think we will get there but the pressure has been enormous and I still feel it every second that I’m in there. Have you enjoyed your first opening as restaurant manager? I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s nice to see, not in an egotistical way, my touch on things. But oh my god it’s so stressful! We are working towards being open seven days a week instead of five, all we need for it is staff and we can’t find anyone at all.

>>>Burnt Truffle are currently recruiting with us, find their positions here

IMG_0734 You mentioned the wine list, obviously it’s not something you are trained in so how have you found putting that together? Our main supplier is Liberty and our wine rep is a gentleman called Jeremy and he was a manager for Galvin so he’s knows the industry really well. He’s from Heswall originally so he knows what works for the wine list. I went to him last year and said my wine knowledge was not where it should be and asked him for a crash course. He sent me on tastings and I did my Wine and Spirits Education Level 2. I’ve gotten really into it and I love it! There’s limitless things to learn about wine and it’s been amazing writing the wine list for Truffle. We sell every single wine off the list every week which is something we never achieved at Sticky. How important is training for you and your staff? It’s important to me to train the staff in a more social way rather than an academic way. So if we get a new wine in, we will sit down and drink it together and talk about it as a customer would. The guys in the kitchen will ask our opinion on dishes too, we did a tasting of the whole menu before we opened and everyone knows every component of how each dish is made. Everyone knows what every wine tastes like and we just make changes as we go along.IMG_0521 What in your opinion is ‘good customer service’ and what do you expect from your team? The staff have a set order of service but obviously it’s adaptable to every person. It’s most important to me that our guests feel comfortable and relaxed – that’s priority number one. We try to make the service as personal as possible, without being inappropriate. We just try to anticipate needs as much as possible, every table is different and every table expects something different. I’m on the floor constantly and a lot of the staff say they are surprised how much I’m there – polishing plates, cleaning glasses; I’m there all the time. How do you find being a woman in the industry? It can be hard, sometimes people don’t take me as being the manager straight away and I get patronised constantly but I shrug it off as their problem and not mine. I know I can manage my restaurant and the staff are fantastic, really respectful so I have no problems with that. IMG_0739I think it’s nice to have a female touch out front, I’ve noticed it in restaurants I’ve been to that are all male and you miss that homely element. I don’t want to gender stereotype but I think it definitely helps to have a woman even as assistant manager because it adds that – men can be quite brisk, professional and leaning towards being a little bit cold. What about future plans? I want to stay in it – I’ve completely fallen in love with the industry and I plan to stay with Gary forever!

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 10th September 2015

Emma Underwood, Restaurant manager, Burnt Truffle