I would like to thank Michael for (as always) his generous hospitality and being additionally generous with his time for this interview.
* * * * *
Counting both The Three Chimneys and now Loch Bay, I have eaten meals at Michael’s restaurants over half a dozen times now and I have fabulous memories of his food. But even more than that, what stands out with Michael for me is the warmth of his hospitality. Unsurprisingly then, as soon as Michael and I start talking restaurants, the conversation is not about the kitchen, but the customer. Michael explains:
If you are going to invite people to your restaurant, you genuinely want them to be there, and if you can convey that, then that’s step one. From the customer’s point of view you want to feel as if, ‘hi, I’m coming to your restaurant, I obviously want to have a good time, do you want me to be here?’ [is answered by] ‘Yeah, we’re absolutely delighted you’re here’. Everyone’s happy then and that sets the tone.
And there has to be a sincerity to it. As Michael goes on to say:
The customer is now more informed, more educated, got more choice, there’s much more quality out there, they’re going to tell straight away whether or not you’re being genuine right? So you have to be genuine, you have to believe in it, you have to be passionate to be able to do that and that’s what I think is most important.
Michael is also keenly aware that each customer who comes through the door is a new opportunity, and that might be a new opportunity to form a new relationship, a new opportunity to create a regular, or simply a new opportunity to have that customer become an ambassador for your restaurant by telling all their friends what a great time they had with you.
Connecting with people successfully has been at the root of Michael’s success I feel as much as his technical ability in the kitchen. Not untypically, the origin of this relates to his own time as a young chef when he came down to London just 19 years old.
His first job was at Le Gavroche at the time when Michel Roux Jnr had just taken over, but Le Gavroche didn’t then provide the environment Michael needed:
It didn’t really work out for me… I was green, very very green, coming from here and going down there and I was just completely out my depth, I couldn’t get my head around it at the time.
With the self-awareness to understand that the situation was not right for him at Le Gavroche, an opportunity arose for Michael to work under Jeremy Lee, who at that time was Head Chef at Alistair Little and had previously worked with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum also. Michael would work with Jeremy for the next 4 years. Michael describes Jeremy and his influence:
Sincerity. He was genuine, from a leader and from a management point of view, Jeremy always led from the front… I think he saw in me that I was genuinely wanting to cook, and learn to cook, and was passionate about food and restaurants, having a passion about restaurant life and all the things that entails. He had all that. So it was his passion, genuine passion that inspired me and still does.
And as Jeremy himself has said, a happy kitchen makes happy food. Michael continues:
What I couldn’t find at Le Gavroche, because it was establishment, I needed a lot of attention because I was so green, I was quite demanding and saying look, I need help here, you need to help me, but he [Jeremy] was able to do that, he invested his time in me.
That Jeremy was willing to invest in him has been a critical influence for Michael since and in turn, he seeks to invest in the young chefs in his kitchen. As Michael now sees Jeremy’s mentoring of him as a young chef:
It’s a reference point for me on a daily basis.
Spend time with Michael in the kitchen and that vibe is very much apparent. This approach for me resonates with the best qualities of not just good managers but good leaders and it is interesting to note that Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager, says in his book Leading that:
It is so much easier to produce a consistent high level of performance when you nourish youngsters, help them develop and provide a pathway to success.
Michael himself recounts a story of a young chef who discovered that not all head chefs can deliver on leadership regardless of the quality of their cooking:
I had a chef once who worked for me and then he went to work for someone else, this was a really young keen chef, very driven and single minded in his ambition, and then he came back and I said what didn’t work out for you? And he said, coined it in the phrase that ‘well you want a chef who you’d go to war with, to lead you into battle’, that was his description. And the chef that he was working for wasn’t that so he didn’t feel inspired, and there wasn’t an emotional investment.
For anyone who thinks that they are too busy for leadership or that there’s no real return on the investment since staff have to do what you say anyway, it’s demonstrable that the reward to Michael’s business has been huge. London restaurants like to complain how they have difficulty getting staff but consider this: the Isle of Skye has a population of around 10,000 people, which compares to my own borough in London, Tower Hamlets, which has a population of 284,000. How then do you attract (and keep) staff who have the talents to cook at a Michelin starred level?
First and foremost, the team that I had established in Glasgow [where he opened restaurants prior to moving to Skye] wanted to come and work with me again. So even then, that investment I had made which I had been taught by Jeremy – be a good person, honest and compassionate as possible – was paying off.
When those behaviours become ingrained, you don’t doubt them or the results. For those who are concerned that the investment might go to waste, Michael suggests:
I think it [the payback from caring for your staff] will always happen if it is genuine, because I never forgot how I felt when I needed to be understood and I didn’t even understand myself, and I needed someone with more experience in the industry to help me. And then that’s invaluable and then you think ‘thank you’ and you become loyal to that person.
The result was that he took three staff with him to Skye from Glasgow including Kevin McLean who was Michael’s head chef at The Three Chimneys, staying with Michael there for 10 years, eventually resigning at the same time as Michael. But even with that support from his Glasgow days, staffing is ‘a huge logistics problem in this part of the world’ and investment in the staff is one way to relieve some of that pressure.
Michael’s cooking achievement has been well recognised with accolades such as a Michelin star and his achievement as a main course banquet winner on Great British Menu. But what I first saw as his warming hospitality I now understand to be part of a larger skill set around connecting with people, and his talent in doing this is as impressive as what he delivers up on the plate. Michael provides his team with genuine leadership, offering his staff respect, guidance, empathy, a road map to success and natural authority (as well of course brilliant technical skill). Every leader should ask himself/herself from time to time, why should anyone want to be led by me? In Michael’s case, the answer is clear – he wins over hearts and minds to achieve the essential emotion buy-in. Derived from inspirational leadership provided to him by Jeremy Lee at a time when he needed that, these values have centred Michael’s core belief:
If you don’t have staff, then you don’t have a business.
* Part 2 of my interview with Michael Smith talking about the business of restaurants and opening Loch Bay will be published shortly.
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