A fellowship developed from distinct backgrounds

This year Restaurant Associates has built on its rich culinary heritage by going back to the core importance – food and people. At the forefront are Alice Woodwark, Managing Director and David Simms, Culinary Director. With an ensemble of skills and experiences at their fingertips, the duo hold clear perspective on where they want the business to be and a robust spirit to get there. 

EP met the relatively new leadership team at the new restaurant Bryn Williams at Somerset House, to discover what drives them and how Restaurant Associates, is taking a genuine innovative approach, built on strength and depth.

It’s fair to argue that many may not know of what Alice and David have been up to, but there are fair and valid answers to that question. Since both taking on new positions in the last five months, they have simply got on with the job and have already activated solid plans to focus on firstly the food offer and secondly, but equally as important, the people within the business.

Both are hugely experienced in Compass Group UK & Ireland, Restaurant Associate’s parent company. Alice having most recently held the position of Managing Director for Chartwells Independent and David returns from the Corrigan Collection, where he worked as Managing Director, and was previously Group Hospitality Executive Chef from 2005-2011 at Restaurant Associates. When one spends time in their company they will see the warmth between the two of them and an interaction built on equal respect. The most obvious question to ask is how they have found the relationship so far.

“We’ve been so focused on the business priorities that we haven’t really reflected on how we are working together.” Answers Alice openly, an approach which naturally carries on for the two of them during the conversation. “We’ve put food and people front and centre and have complementary backgrounds and experiences and that has become a huge benefit.” Adds David. When reflecting on their work so far, they jest about how Alice can’t cook a pie, but David couldn’t create a pie chart. Its clear to see a humorous relationship between the two which is often needed. Alongside a resilience and strong desire, fun and enjoyment are also important.

Whilst Alice and David are new leaders at Restaurant Associates, the business has thrived since its original founding in New York in the late 1950s. Having joined Compass Group in 1997, the business arrived in the UK in 2001. Alice nods to this heritage and explains that the business was built on the principles of providing local quality food each and every day. A legacy they are keen to continue today and they have established a vision which is built on three core values; authentic, credible and consistent.

David explains why these were chosen, “You need to keep things simple but words must also have depth to them. We have ensured that everyone from the kitchen porter to the top senior management are aware of the core values. All we need to do is ask if what we’re doing is linked to these values, if it’s not then why are we doing it?” Alice adds, “It’s essential that we have a clear message and we have linked those words to three more; natural, fresh, sustainable. These intertwine with each other and ensure we are achieving our vision.” David applies the latter three centrally in his food philosophy, which has been crafted by both his time with Restaurant Associates, but also whilst working in other prestigious locations.

“When I came to London I worked at Roux Fine Dining and learnt lots about the food aspect of this business and then developed my knowledge further by working on the high street and developed knowledge on the commercial elements around businesses. In the latter you are very much living and dying on what you do and although catering can sometimes be seen as protected and sheltered by a corporate blanket, you have to act as if it’s the exact same challenge.” Alice explains, “If you look at Roux at Parliament Square, set in a beautiful Grade II listed building in the heart of Westminster, this is very much a stand-alone restaurant as much as a Restaurant Associates location. It isn’t shielded by the Group and so we have to always think about how we ensure it’s a leading restaurant setting and also take their service ethos, which is of the highest standards, and apply this within our other operations.”

It’s clear that Alice and David have formed a strong bond since working together and David cites he is much happier having returned for the simple reason he gets to see his family more, as well as loving his job. “I learnt so much working elsewhere and wouldn’t change any of it, because I achieved what I set out to do and now have other targets to fulfil.” Alice jokes it’s also because there’s a very good coffee machine in the office, an area in the food and beverage collection which both are actually very passionate about.

“Coffee is such an important part of the overall hospitality offer. The level of detail between a good coffee compared to a bad coffee is staggering.” Alice explains. “There is a great need for a depth of knowledge, so a quality beverage is delivered,” she adds. Coffee and hot beverages have the power to keep people within a building so it’s wise to look at how an artisan offer from small producers who create a strong offer, can make a difference to people in both business and leisure environments. A great example of this is the partnership with Hej coffee, which they have implemented across a number of client sites with great feedback.

David explains why he is so passionate about this part of the business, “You are only as good as the last thing you do and so we need to make sure all beverages are of the right level for our clients and customers. Going into a meeting room where a cold and bitter pot of coffee sits on the side doesn’t help anyone. It’s all about the experience and we have been exploring how we can utilise technology in this situation to make it even better.”

Alice and David are undoubtedly focused on the food and beverages people are enjoying each day, but equally understand that without good service, the food offer can not have the desired effect. Their Talent Labs are focused on five core areas: food, coffee, service, careers and retail – training can range from a full apprenticeship offer to a Punjabi cooking course.

“We can have someone from Canary Wharf and another from Hull take part in some courses and build up their networking skills at the same time. They become a strong part of the family and feel part of a community.”

Restaurant Associates launched its Talent Labs nine months ago. Since then they have held 80 sessions, which have been attended by over 500 colleagues. With different levels available, all employees are able to take part and build their knowledge and skills. David was blown away that when returning to the business he found head chefs who were apprentices when he was last with Restaurant Associates. This shows a strong commitment to people and he wants to ensure all staff have the opportunity to develop in similar ways.

“Every operator needs to hang on to their talent and nurture them. The hospitality industry is so unique in that someone can join as a kitchen porter and build themselves up to become skilled in artisan production. We can help craft such rounded individuals and whilst we would never force anyone to enrol, for those who are passionate and have the desire, they can map out impressive career paths.” David explains.

“We can have someone from Canary Wharf and another from Hull take part in some courses and build up their networking skills at the same time. They become a strong part of the family and feel part of a community. It’s vital we never forgot the importance of relationships and also explain to people why they are doing something. It provides such a strong sense of purpose.” Alice explains.

When asked of the future Alice and David emphasise that the work is never done when it comes to food and people. Both will remain at the forefront of their development and they will continue to embed their core values to ensure no one is simply working without a mission or purpose. Together they are also working hard on their sustainability agenda which sits under their ‘authentic’ value.

At the same time David indicates that they are also ensuring they are educating their clients with their food knowledge. He mentions an example of how drinking certain coffee beverages can contain 18 ounces of milk and that many don’t realise this can impact their productivity and approach to work. By working with their clients, Restaurant Associates is ensuring a strong relationship built on trust.

David and Alice naturally complement each other’s skillsets and have a vision, built on a strong food philosophy and entwined with a nurturing approach to their people, which is driving them forward. Their belief is on the customer experience and to ensure this is always at the highest level and the pair focus on the core, which can so often be forgotten. Sometimes it’s the simple things that need to be done right and the rest will follow.