‘Surrey’s answer to Jamie Oliver’ has come a long way from his teenage apprenticeship at the Savoy. The entrepreneurial chef founded two successful organisations: the charity Beyond Food Foundation and social enterprise restaurant Brigade, which was opened by Boris Johnson and has hosted the likes of Prince Andrew and David Cameron. In this week’s post we talk to him about overcoming life’s challenges, the skills and qualities he seeks in new recruits and the recipe for entrepreneurial success.
1. Please give us an outline of your career path so far: from your childhood dream to what you do now.
I started to cook when I was seven. When I got to about 11 food started becoming really important and I realised was never going to do any homework – I used to peel potatoes and stuff. Then I watched the BBC Food and Drink programme with a chef called Anton Mosimann and decided I wanted to be a chef. Then when I was 13 I read a Sunday supplement about the Savoy Hotel and decided that was where I wanted to work, and I started there on an apprenticeship when I was 16 – I was lucky but I worked very hard.
By that point I already knew I wanted to have my own business by 35, but first I wanted to have lots of different jobs and experiences to be able to put in the box of what I wanted to create. I actually ended up having my own business at 34 but before that I did exactly what I’d intended: lots of different things, from the Savoy (where learnt my skills) to hotels, cruise ships, working for a Saudi prince, working for Anton Mosimann himself, in cookery schools, and then developing recipes into products for Unilever.
My wife and I built up my private dining and event catering business, Beyond Boyle, in the evenings and weekends while I worked for Unilever. It grew over time and I started to realise that my wife and I couldn’t do it all on our own, so we went into partnership with the accounting firm PwC to create a business with a social objective in an old fire station in front of their new head office. This became Brigade (now on Tooley Street), a restaurant and cookery school which is basically my old business. Brigade is a social enterprise and gives all of its profits to my charity, the Beyond Food Foundation, which works with over 500 homeless people on a daily basis and has employed a total of 61 of these – 51 into full time employment.
2. So you’ve always known you wanted to be an entrepreneur. Were you comfortable with the risky aspects of it and the lack of stability?
I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘comfortable’ with it but I don’t think entrepreneurs ever are. Even though they might say ‘I love the risk, I love all that’, I don’t think they do. They want to be prosperous and successful for loads of different reasons. The thing about an entrepreneur is that they can get over the risk – they can almost blind themselves to it and go yeah but-but-but it’s going to be great, and they just fundamentally just believe they can do it.
So I’ve personally never been comfortable with it but as I’m very good at talking people into things I can almost talk myself into things too – which is absolutely the right way to go – and I can also talk investors and other people into them. (I’ve gradually learnt that’s a foolhardy way to do it – you’ve got to have the facts and figures in front of you.)
3. Do you have any tips or words of encouragement to give budding entrepreneurs?
New entrepreneurs often ignore the things that are really important, like cash flow and managing their accounts. It’s so easy to just focus on the things you love to do, rather than the things you have to do – and that’s been my own experience too. But you have to make sure you do all the things you hate doing – the admin, the filing. And if you can’t do it, find someone else who can. Don’t ignore it.
The other thing I’d say is that you have to believe more than most in what you’re trying to achieve, and you have to be relentless. If it’s what you want then whatever you’re doing, be relentless with it, follow it through and do it well.
4. What have been your most major career challenges or setbacks and how have you dealt with them?
When we decided to share the idea of Brigade with PwC I gave up the autonomy of running my own business and making decisions. That was really tough and I’m still not used to it, even four years in. The idea that when you have partners they’ve got to have a say, and they’ve got to take responsibility for things you’d have dealt with before.
Also, I lost my wife to cancer. There’s no bigger challenge than that. I was working 17 hours a day then suddenly she was ill and I had to come in to work and say ‘I’m not coming back, I need to be at home’. I didn’t walk through the door again for 10 months. I’m still going through a challenge now, being here without her and still working with the business we set up together. I’ve chosen to use little milestones to help me get through to the next thing: I lost her a year ago last April so to get me through the next year and keep me positive I set myself the goal of completing the London Marathon in April – and I did.
This is a strange time because when you’re thrown up in the air in life, at some point you’ve got to come down and go, where do I want to land? That involves my career, where I live, how my children are brought up, everything. I’ve decided I don’t want to chain myself to anything – that doesn’t mean I’m pushing everything away, I just want to free up myself to go right, what else do I want to do?
5. What single skill or quality has come in most useful throughout your career?
I used to think this was a bit of a flaw, but I think I have a skill of seeing an opportunity in people, and being able to utilise them and their strengths for something that I’d like to achieve, and going out and getting it. I’ve come to realise it’s a skill.
I’ve also developed the important skill of not trying to do everything yourself – I think that’s where I was going wrong for so many years. We were working hard and the customers were happy with everything we were doing but we weren’t making any money, and it’s because I was trying to do everything myself and I was making mistakes. The day you decide either to bring people in or to go into partnerships with people you’re freed up to do the things that you do really well, and to get other people to do the bits that you’re not so good at. So in the early days of being an entrepreneur you need to do all the things you’re not very good at, but you should get to a point where you can get other people to do them.
6. What skill or qualities do you prize most highly when choosing people to join your teams?
For me, it’s all about the story. I can see whether someone’s got the skills on a piece of paper, technically, or has the experience I need, but I need them to sit there and tell me their story, and I need to feel that that’s something that can fit with mine.
The other thing is that when I’m interviewing someone I want them to be able to tell me what I’ve done and what we – the company – are about. The majority of people come for jobs with us, whether the business or the charity, and they can’t tell me what we’ve done. They’ve not read up about it. And I think: If they haven’t read up about it then they can’t be passionate about what we do. If they come in and they can really tell you what you do then I think, OK, this person really wants to work for me. It’s a very rare thing that people can do that.
7. The Beyond Food Foundation must be a very rewarding organisation to be involved with. Has working with it and with homeless people taught you any life or career lessons?
It’s taught me that life is very fragile. There’s that saying – you’re only two steps away from homelessness – and it’s absolutely 100% true. You can lose your job or fall out of a marriage and within months, be homeless. The fact that I lost the person I love means I can teach the flip side of that back to them: that life’s fragile so you have to grab hold of everything. So I’ve learnt both sides of it.
And the ultimate thing is that you don’t need to chase the money because you can’t take it with you. What you’ve got to cherish is the people around you for that moment, for the now, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Just absolutely appreciate everyone around you and try to have as good a time as you can, concentrating on the now rather than worrying too much about the future.
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