Belgian national Pepijn van den Abeele has been manager of London burlesque club and cocktail bar, Volupté since November 2011. He worked in a variety of jobs in hospitality in Belgium before moving to London in 2006 to take up the role of manager at Caribbean restaurant Cottons.
How I got to where I am now:
I didn’t actually set out to work in hospitality, working in music was what I wanted to do, but I got into hospitality through a series of part-time jobs and have made it my career.
I started out as a kitchen porter when I was 14 in a restaurant in Antwerp as a way of earning some extra cash while I was at school. From there I went on to be a commis, then to a waiter and then, when I was old enough to be a bartender.
I left there when I was 18 as I’d finished my studies and was taking a year out to go and live in Paris to study French and Social Politics at the Sarbonne.
It was when I went back to Antwerp to study jazz and music composition (I’ve got a degree in Jazz) that I went back into a job in hospitality, working part-time behind the bar at the Radisson and the Hilton.
The kitchen is the place of creativity, but I realised that you can actually be creative behind the bar too and you get to have contact with the public, so I decided that was where I’d rather be.
I was still studying at this point, but once in a while I also did some work for some catering companies, covering events and they liked the way I worked, so they asked me to do some project management – organising catering for weddings and running the catering for VIPs at a football club in Antwerp.
I finished studying and was trying to pursue my music, but realised it wasn’t happening so I took a job at the European Commission in Brussels, doing catering for council meetings and using the experience I’d gained in Antwerp, but after a while I had to stop because of a back problem.
The bad back meant I couldn’t work or do anything for two years – I was literally on my back for two years - until I had an operation to repair it. When I was back on my feet I decided I was going to do something different so I moved to London.
It’s hard to get a managerial position in a city you’ve never worked in before, but after a while of searching I was lucky enough to get a job as a restaurant manager at Cottons in Islington, which I helped officially launch and where I stayed for five years.
I think my bar experience had helped me land the job as it’s also a cocktail bar and they put on live events, so I brought into it my love of music too.
While I was there Volupté approached me about working with them as general manager and I couldn’t say no. As GM I’m responsible for the kitchen and I oversee what the bar managers are doing and the floor managers.
My biggest challenge:
Opening Cottons was a big challenge. It was a new venue in a new city for me. I was quite proud to be there for five years.
It’s also been challenging to keep things going in my current job. Volupté had been open for about six years when I went into the role and for the first three to four years of trading there had hardly been any competition, but now there are a lot of burlesque venues in London and so now you can’t just have a show experience, you have to come up with new ideas to bring customers through the door.
My greatest achievement:
I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved so far in London and that people in the industry are recognising my talents, but coming back from my illness is the biggest achievement for me. I thought I would never walk again and that was pretty hard to take in, but six months after the operation I was jumping up and down again. I was the first person to recuperate from that kind of operation so quickly and I’m so proud of that.
My advice to those wanting to make it in the industry:
Don’t be afraid to start low and work your way up, because it’s the best way of learning about the industry. It can take 10 years to get into the job you want.
I’d also say, even if you get to that desired position you shouldn’t stand still – you need to stay on the ball and keep an eye on what else is out there. So many people think they will open a restaurant or bar and that’s it, but if you want it to be successful sometimes you have to look at what else is out there and not be afraid to reinvent yourself if you want to stay ahead of the competition.