In Conversation With: George Hersey
We first heard of George Hersey when plans were announced for a new restaurant in Carbis Bay: The Ugly Butterfly by Adam Handling. George is GM at Adam Handling’s Restaurant Group and has led the new restaurant to its opening, as well as managed and opened many of Adam’s other locations across the UK.
He speaks with the wisdom of a man born long before 1992. Voicing refreshing reason, balance and sustainability in an industry known for opposite behaviour. George uses the magic of a genuine work-life balance to inspire his staff and keep them at their best. More ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’. It’s a simple philosophy; wrap young staff into genuinely loved restaurants and restaurant culture, make sure they’re learning from the best in the business, and bring them up through the ranks, producing the best above- the-line staff you could ask for.
He’s also leading the group in a firm direction: holistic sustainability. Not just organic produce, but a sustainable approach to sourcing, production, working and opening restaurants. George is a man looking decades ahead for Adam Handling’s restaurants and asking some abstract questions in the meantime; exactly who do they want to be, and what do they want to represent in the future?
George, hello. Where are you?
I’m here at the new Cornwall site knocking through walls. Busy times, we're changing things up. Getting there. We could only get here on Thursday and we’re opening next Wednesday... It’s all pretty full-on. I’ve been up and down to London every few days too... yeah, full-on. I’ve just got here from the The Dorchester, actually.
What was happening at the Dorchester?
I was there for the young waiter awards. It’s a global competition, celebrating young people in the industry and trying to get them more encouraged to join up and progress, trying to give back, you know. I was a head judge there so it was great to stick around for the whole event and the awards. It was really good, one of those things, you know; you need to promote young people in the industry and get them excited about it. There’s such a hiring crisis at the moment all over the country, so you’ve got to look after the people you’ve got and showcase an industry you want to be part of from a young age, not just a stopgap. As employers, it’s so important to motivate our staff and keep them happy.
You guys seem to have built such a big, happy team, and you’re performing to a super high level. How do you keep the culture and the vibe up when you're growing and hiring new staff too?
Everyone has their own methods of how to do it. I think the most important thing to me is to treat everyone with a different, considered style. Overall as a team, we try to create a positive culture and it’s, you know, motivational. That links into our ethos. When we talk about sustainability it’s not just where we’re sourcing produce, it’s also your mental health, wellbeing, and work-life balance. That’s how you keep it sustainable within the business, it’s the work culture within the company that keeps it sustainable, it’s a thing we work on at all levels. For me, it’s about leading from the top, and having our managers be a good, motivating example to the younger staff so that the younger staff think ‘ok, I like how this person works, I want to work like that in the future.’ That’s why we sort of abolished the hierarchy system in our group, really something that I learnt in Copenhagen at Noma with the guys there; they’d abolished the hierarchy level and treated everyone as one team. They’d call the glass carriers the ‘back of house warriors’ and really empower people in unattractive positions, and then even the head waiter does that job too. They’re all on rotation throughout the week. We bought that here and it’s created a more fluid working environment and one that people feel more a part of and more comfortable inside of; because no one feels less than anyone else. I think that’s why we retain staff so well. My role is really about development, forming development programs, focusing on each individual, and pushing them in a way that they are passionate about and excited about; and that’s regardless if they’re going to move on or not, we want to get the best from them. It’s about, ok, how do we bring people up from within. We almost never hire senior management, we bring them up from the bottom. In The Frog in Covent Garden, our restaurant manager started as a waiter four years ago, he’s worked his way up. Both assistant managers worked their way up too, they were waitresses. We want people to know that if you work hard then you can get where you want to be.
Most importantly, I want my ethos to be aligned with those members of staff so that we share the passion. If you don’t have sustainability and nature and sourcing at heart, it’s not going to be the right environment for you because that’s what we’re all about; that’s what we’re striving towards. I say quite bluntly to people, that I want our mindset to be aligned. We don’t do this as a stopgap, it’s certainly not a joke, this is a really serious project for us, and if you can’t be motivated by proximity to the ocean and being close to nature and a supportive team and managers then you’re in the wrong place. I mean, what more could you want?
You seem to really have your head screwed on tight when it comes to leadership, company culture, and looking after people important to the group. All the things that really matter internally to keep the engines firing long term. Where have you picked that up?
I think it mostly stems from my perspective of work, I’m a total workaholic so of course, I’m really passionate about what I do. It’s been about immersing myself in the hospitality industry, certainly in London over the last few years it’s been a real eye-opener to see what people are doing, and how people are inspiring their workforce. I really like to learn from people who are championing this stuff. When I was in Copenhagen at Noma, Yvonne Chouinard was, like, having a meeting with Rene about a project they’re doing together, then Rene does an hour speech about what they’re doing and how they are working. I’d been there for like six hours and all this stuff is already happening, it’s incredible. So it’s about... connecting yourself with the right people. I think obviously people like Doug McMaster; he’s really leading the path of sustainability in restaurants. Everyone can learn from him, from his energy and his passion. His food too is quite frankly delicious. I think everyone is doing it now, like in London you can’t really avoid putting it (sustainability) as a focus. Simon Rogan’s group have been a huge inspiration to me over the years. Their farm to table ethos is something that I hope to be able create myself over the next few years and feel it’s the next step for our group. I hope it’s something we can start doing in the next few years. It’s where I want to be in ten years but in Cornwall. The new culture in London, especially the new restaurants, is really exciting. Restaurants like KOL by Chef Santiago, Coco...
It’s better now that sustainability isn’t being raved about so much too, it’s just an integral, standard part of what we do now. I don’t want to plaster it on everything; I‘d rather be authentic in everything we do. Authenticity is so key for me, I like to be authentic in what we're doing. There’s too much greenwashing going on, too much talk for talks’ sake. Even if you do the smallest thing, do it authentically and do it properly: that will make the difference. Really, I think it should be normal to be conscious of what you’re doing and what you’re putting in the bin. For this restaurant (Ugly Butterfly) it’s going to be about that. We utilise all offcuts, you know, lobster going into the restaurant, lobster shell soup in the bar. A whole flow to use the whole produce. It’s down to us to explain the concept, rather than just saying, look at us, we’re re-using. We want people to come to have the à la carte, come and have the taster menu, come and have the bar menu, and understand how we’re using produce. Every cocktail contains waste from the kitchen, shrubs and herbs and more. We’ve got Pentire in there because we share an ethos and we love the product, that’s the whole point.
I can totally relate, being by the sea and having that ethos, spending time with your team, it’s good. It feeds into focus, being a good person and doing better by your staff and life.
Yeah I think when you’re really fried, and your mind is going nuts, you’ve got to call it. We took the team to Praa last week for a paddleboard, a swim and a bit of rock jumping. It’s a total game-changer, completely refreshing and you get back to work, feeling great. The staff here share that love for it and any kind of submersion in the water makes you feel so good. We say if you want to move to Cornwall, come for the lifestyle and the water too, not just for the job. I always make time for it, if that means getting up at 6am to surf, then that’s what I do.
Summer’s easier when it’s light in the morning or the evening. We encourage everyone to spend time outdoors and go for a surf if they can. We definitely are more than colleagues, we bump into each other in the surf, down at the estuary for a swim. It’s great for the team and keeps the morale up for sure. We’re all surfers so in the winter we’ll surf at lunch and work an extra hour in the evening, not to mention I actually think it increases productivity. We’re much more settled after a surf; with a growing company your focus is so important and doing fewer things in a more impactful way is essential, so if you can enjoy it and work that way, then great. Humans are not made to sit at desks, so we try to get out as much as possible.
It’s such a good way to live and work. That’s the balance really; how can your work and your life co-exist and thrive.
Last question, what are you most excited about with the restaurant opening?
Ah, super excited about this ex-dairy beef we’ve been getting in. There’s this cool place down here called Homage to the Bovine, down in Stithians. I’m not even sure what they’re doing at the moment, they’re rendering the fat I think. Because it’s ex-dairy it has this crazy milky texture. I think most people won’t recognise the taste, it sure doesn’t taste like supermarket beef. It’s got this crazy dark-yellow fat. We’ve got a dry ageing fridge in our restaurant on show, so we’re dry ageing that, chop the fat off and render that down to this beautiful golden liquid, that’ll be covered in Lobster tails. We used to use Wagyu beef, Scottish Wagyu, Adam (Handling) is a Scot so makes sense. So we’ll cover the Lobsters in beef fat, with kimchi, then we cook on the barbecue. So you’ve got like smoky, fatty, surf ’n turf style smoky beef fat with Lobsters. It’s gonna be like a steak but it’s actually a lobster tail, then utilising that, we’ll use an actual fillet of the beef on the A La Carte, and the trimming makes the tartare in the bar. It’s cool.