Michelle Chillingworth has been part of the Corbin & King family for over seven years. From spearheading Private Dining for the group when she first started, to more recently overseeing Fischer’s as its General Manager, we feel very fortunate to now welcome her into the Covent Garden fold.
Just one month into the role, we thought it timely to share a little more about her background so we went ‘Behind the Scenes’ to find out more…
Have you always worked in hospitality?
I have and studied it at University in fact. When I left I was tempted to go straight onto the floor again, but I knew that was something I could always go back to and another side of the business was tempting me – Private Dining and Events. I started working at a 5-star hotel in Surrey that gave me such a good grounding for working in the world of hospitality. However, I was always more interested in food and soon got a job with Gordon Ramsay where I worked for 6 ½ years, starting as a Private Dining assistant and leaving as the Private Dining Manager. While I was there, I looked after all the restaurants, private rooms and chef’s tables – it was so exciting, especially with the likes of Angela Harnett, Jason Atherton, Marcus Waering and Mark Sargeant being there at the time. It was real fine dining in a high-pressured environment; every detail demanded attention but I loved it.
How did you end up working for Corbin & King?
I wanted a new challenge and felt I had two options – to go into another restaurant group or back into the hotel world. Then, my CV landed on Leika’s (Zuleika Fennell – C&K’s Managing Director) desk when The Delaunay was just opening and I was tasked with basically starting up the Private Dining side for both it and The Wolseley. There were no templates or booking systems in place so it was an exciting opportunity – I wanted to be able to set something up from the beginning.
A few years later, I was asked if I’d ever thought about going back onto the floor. For me, it wasn’t an alien prospect having done so in the past and it was something that had always interested me. Following a few months at The Wolseley as a Floor Manager, I moved to Fischer’s about 6 weeks after it opened as Restaurant Manager and took over a year later as General Manager. And now, after all these years, I could never imagine doing a 9-5 job again to be honest and have never looked back.
Fischer’s was great and I learnt an incredible amount there. With a smaller restaurant, everyone has to do everything and especially with a restaurant that isn’t yet established you have to be really considerate of that when you’re thinking about menu and pricing etc. I learnt so much.
What is your approach now that you’re at The Delaunay?
Just one month in, I’m getting to grips with all the different elements of the restaurant, not forgetting The Counter… There’s a lot going on there which is exciting. I want to very much include them in our whole operation. The good thing is that there are so many people who have been here for so long and know what they’re doing. It’s a particularly busy time of year at the moment but that’s the right time to be starting – I did a 350-cover dinner during my first week so I’ve well and truly been thrown into the deep end.
The most important thing for me in the first instance is getting to know the staff. If they’re not happy, they’re not going to give a good service or enjoy working here and that would impact the customers. For the first few weeks, it was really about getting to know everybody, getting to know customers and making sure that we curate a happy environment for all. It’s also about planning, constantly thinking forward and ensuring good communication between the different departments – everyone helping each other out makes the world of difference.
Where do you see opportunities?
Pre-theatre is a huge opportunity for us and afternoon tea. They can often be the toughest services though because they’re very quick. You have people coming in for an occasion, not necessarily people who visit us all the time – and you have that one opportunity to make a good first impression so that next time they’re around, they’ll want to come back. Also, with afternoon tea it’s a service of course that isn’t a necessity – it’s an indulgence and people have high expectations. Our Viennese Afternoon Tea though is happily very well received – it’s not your usual offering, impressive and extremely good value.
How is it being in the heart of London’s Theatre Land?
Pre-theatre is a very busy service for us which is great. Again, the team here are fantastic – often doing 150 covers in the space of an hour and a half. The kitchen also do a phenomenal job – customers need to be in and out quite quickly with some just leaving themselves under an hour.
Post-theatre however is something we’d like to grow more but people’s dining habits have changed… Going to the opera and having a drink afterwards just doesn’t happen as regularly any more. We run many show and dinner packages throughout the year that are always enjoyed by our customers – the Tina Turner musical is playing just across the road at the moment for example, but it’s exciting to think about ways to further that side of the business. For example, there’s an opera currently being performed at the Royal Opera House that has a fairly long interval and people come here for a quick bite during it before heading back to their seats.
Also, Covent Garden is such a fantastic place to be, regardless of the numerous theatres. There’s always so much going on, Somerset House is just down the road for example, you’ve got all the law firms, King’s College, LSE etc.
Would you recommend hospitality as a career?
Definitely. It’s hard work; you really have to enjoy it and enjoy being around people, but I would definitely recommend it. The opportunities that you have and what you experience is really quite special. I always have things to talk about as every day is different. It can be very high pressured, especially at this level – it feels like you have a family of 100 people to look after, especially with staff who are away from home. You have to be with them through various things but that makes it incredibly rewarding, too. Certainly I make the most of my time outside of work, and I think it’s fair to say even more so than I did when I had a 9-5 job.
What advice would you give to those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Considering the current staffing situation within the hospitality industry, it’s so important to have a good grounding in psychology actually, as well as a thorough understanding about the food and wine of course. Also, it’s not just about the staff – so much is about the customers – knowing how people think and how they act; reading a situation is vital.
Work experience is the best start you can have – I began working in restaurants when I was 16. My degree also meant you had to do a placement, so I worked up at Gleneagles for a year and gained such a wealth of experience from being there. I’d say if you can get into a good restaurant group and do courses on the side, you can really thrive. It’s not unusual at all for people to come into the business as a junior waiter and progress to manager level. There is real scope here to grow, it’s just down how much effort you put in.
And finally, you’re probably being asked where Fergal has gone?
Regularly! I’m pleased to say that Fergal Lee, having steered The Delaunay ship so brilliantly for the past five years, remains in the Corbin & King family by returning to where he first started – The Wolseley – as General Manager.
And then (to pre-empt the second question that undoubtedly follows), Dan Craig will in turn move from our Piccadilly flagship to become General Manager at Corbin & King’s new restaurant in St John’s Wood, Soutine. Set to open in Spring 2019, I know the Marketing team will be sure to inform you of its progress should you be interested in hearing more a little nearer the time.