Flash-grilled: Emma Underwood

By Georgia Bronte contact

- Last updated on GMT

The Weekender Interview: Emma Underwood
Emma Underwood is a rising star of the restaurant industry's front-of-house scene.

After leaving her PhD to work with Gary Usher at Sticky Walnut, Underwood went on to join Where The Light Gets In, and is now manager of Mark Jarvis' London restaurant, Stem. 

What was your first job?
I’ve always liked being stupidly busy so as soon as I was old enough every weekend I would work during the daytime in a little cafe and I would then spend my evenings working in a restaurant. I loved everything about it, although in honesty I spent most of the time skiving off in the kitchen eating chips with my friends.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?  
I go through phases of eating the same thing every day for weeks. At the moment it’s Frosted Shreddies, last month it was ham and tomato croissants. My current Sunday evening ritual is a plate of burrata and a bowl of pasta at Pastaio.

What’s the best restaurant meal you’ve ever had?
Easily Where The Light Gets In, I visited it last March and had the most incredible experience to the extent that I handed in my CV still half drunk the next day. The attention to detail and the sourcing of products and wine is incomparable.

What industry figure do you most admire, and why? 
I wouldn’t be working in this industry if it weren’t for Gary Usher. He has grown his businesses with a winning combination of honesty and passion and the advice he gave me during my 5 years with him will stay with me forever.

If you weren’t in restaurants, what would you do? 
I was teaching Modern History at Manchester University and pursuing a PhD in anarcha-feminist history when I started working at Sticky Walnut part time to help fund my studies. It’s likely I would have completed my thesis and pursued a career in academia, although I’m very happy that I chose the path that I did.

What is your biggest regret?
I sometimes feel relatively inexperienced in my position as I’ve only been working in restaurants full time for 6 years whereas all my peers have been doing it for 10 years plus, however I feel this fuels my motivation to learn.

Pet hate in the dining room?
People that hate other people’s habits in dining rooms. A table in a restaurant belongs to the guests around it and no one else. It is their special time with one another and how they choose to spend it is up to them. I love a noisy riotous table as much as a couple enjoying a quiet intimate moment.

What’s the oddest thing a customer has said to you?
I find it weird when people ask personal questions. I used to get asked loads about my tattoos, which for me is a strange thing to ask a stranger. I suppose when working front of house you’re almost seen as public property, but I really can’t stand it.

What’s the restaurant concept you wish you’d thought of?
To me the best restaurants are simple and accessible with a focus on hospitality. There are so many places in this country that absolutely nail this: Anglo, Clipstone, all of Gary’s restaurants. These are the best type of concepts in my opinion.

Describe your service style in three words
Relaxed, friendly, precise

Most overrated food?
I really hate pepperoni

Restaurant dictator for a day – what would you do?
Asking about waitresses’ tattoos would be banned...

What’s the worst review you’ve ever had?
When I’d just taken on the role as assistant manager at Sticky Walnut I was left to run a Sunday service on my own for the first time and I was really nervous about it. We had a table who didn’t like where they were sitting so I showed them to the only alternative table we had and they didn’t like that either. They wrote a scathing review on Tripadvisor and personally named me. I was so upset I had a little cry on the fire escape. Gary, of course, wrote a brilliant response to it and gave me really wonderful advice that stayed with me: to not focus on the guests that bring you negativity but instead think of the ones that you make happy. I’ve since learnt to take difficult guests with a pinch of salt.

If you could serve anyone in the world who would you pick, and why?
My mum, she’s always been immensely proud of me. I was so worried to tell her I was giving up my PhD but she has been so supportive of everything I’ve done since. She’s also a pleasure to serve as she gets very drunk after one glass of wine.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?
Firstly, make sure you absolutely love it because it isn’t going to be easy, and then make sure you learn from everything and everyone. Ask questions constantly and always carry at least one Moleskine.

What do you cook at home on your days off?
I don’t, I always live with chefs

What’s your earliest food memory? 
My mums treat of tinned pears as dessert. She was not known for her culinary skills.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Always carry a Moleskine was from my wonderful Liberty wines supplier back up North, Jeremy Cowan.

What’s the closest you’ve ever come to death?
I had an accident sailing as a teenager, I got trapped under a boat. It was horrible and I couldn’t stand water on my face for a long time afterwards.

Where do you go when you want to let your hair down?
Well I’ve just moved to London so I’m spending a lot of time running around the city with my friends. It’s a really exciting place.

Tipple of choice?
A good glass of wine

What would you choose to eat for your last meal?
Beans and cheese on toast.

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