Being ten minutes early for my interview with General Manager Patricia Cusack of the Villandry restaurant, I thought it would be interesting to walk down Great Portland Street and take a look at the surrounding area. Strolling past the entrance, I reached the end of the street and turned the corner, only to end up looking straight at the restaurant again. People were milling around all over; sitting outside on the patio sharing a light meal over crisp white table cloths; inside conversing and eating in the buzzing bar area.
I found Patricia sitting casually at the bar, enjoying a cup of coffee and talking to what looked like a friend or client of some sort. She greeted me warmly and explained the reasoning for the two entrances. Villandry is not only a restaurant, but a brasserie bar and a food/florist shop as well. While the restaurant I first passed by is a slightly more formal setting, people like to come to the brasserie for breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea as well. (And afterwards pick up a little something fresh from the shop, which has fishes and meats, 25 different breads, vegetables, dairy and, jams and more.) Villandry even has an outside catering business.
The more I listened to Patricia talk, the more enormously complex this undertaking started to seem. I begin to wonder how one person could manage all of these different areas. But Patricia has had an extensive career with a lot of different experiences to help her along the way. Spending a great deal of her childhood living in Ireland, Patricia moved back to London just over 16 years ago. In that small amount of time, she has managed to work as the general manager alongside celebrity chef Jamie Oliver at Monti's, as a restaurant manager for the famous Conran restaurant (where Princess Diana used to frequent for lunch), has worked for Harvey Nichols at two different locations, has done banqueting (along with food and beverage) at the Cafe Royal and has commanded a staff of 50 men (all with limited English) at the Tower Thistle Hotel.
'I wanted to utilise all my knowledge and experience and do something else,' she says. 'I'm always very challenge driven. I don't know. I want to sort of keep achieving and do more and learn more. I think because I'm very passionate about the business.' At Villandry, this passion is a prerequisite for the job. Patricia often finds herself running back and forth, trying to get everything done.
'The hardest thing is because there is so much going on, and there are so many different departments under one roof. The challenge is to bring a consistency and a quality to the whole business. So that's my own personal goal here.'
When asked what she has done today, Patricia almost gives me a novel.'I started
work at ten to seven, came in and met with the joiner, carpenter to decide
where we were gonna put something. Then the architect came at about seven thirty
and I spent about an hour with him, talking about the moving around of things
and where we were gonna move them. I then organized and started to set up and
open the shop at seven thirty because I'm the shop manager 'cause my shop manager's
on holiday today.' She goes on, 'I then went down at eight o' clock and I ordered
about 60 cases of wine, because I do all the wine buying as well here. I then
had a meeting with the head chef who was off yesterday to tell him about what
is going on today. And that was all before nine o' clock.'
As the manager, Patricia often finds herself taking on other peoples' roles. In a business with three different working sections, as well as a staff of 90 people, working alongside her employees is the best way to get to know them and what they do. Communicating with her staff is very important to Patricia, because it makes the entire process go down smoother, and encourages people to talk to her if they have problems.
Patricia also has a great relationship with the chefs, devoid of the shouting and screaming that sometimes makes its way into the kitchen atmosphere. 'We're partners in crime really. We support each other and together, if we work really well together, then we're going to create an even better product. And it's important that we're all heading in the same direction.'
Patricia's restaurant works as a team, but over the years, she hasn't found it easy to establish herself as the leader. In a male dominated business, some people aren't as welcome to having a female boss. But Patricia's confident tone says it all. She works hard, and eventually people start to realize she is just as capable at being the boss as any man...maybe even better. 'That's where female sensitivities are a strength for me, in that environment,' she explains. 'You're more sympathetic. I'm not saying women are better listeners, but I think they're more sensitive to the social issues or personal issues than men. And I think that's where you can learn to use that as your advantage too.'
All this hard work goes into creating the best environment for the customers. With a formal but relaxing atmosphere, Patricia stresses being discreet but flawless in your service. She looks at me and frowns while she describes the all too familiar overbearing waiter; asking fifty times if you're okay, shoving tons of dishes on the table all at the same time. This is not what Villandry is all about. 'Discretion I think. To give a really good service with discretion, without being too much around the table and to have pride in the product they're selling,' she says.
Simply put like that, her job almost seems too easy. You know, just a 500 person banquet here, a little fashion show complete with champagne, celebrities and Kate Moss hanging from a swing on the ceiling there (trust me, it really happened). Simple as pie. Or bread in this case...25 of them.
But not quite. There are always some difficulties when you're running a business of this magnitude. 'It's not idyllic,' she admits. 'There are days when everything will sort of fall to pieces. There are days you think, oh my god that's the worst day I've ever had. But you go home, you sleep on it, relax, have a little glass of wine, and you think well okay. That's the way it goes and get on with it really.'