How I Got Here: Paul van Zyl

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

How I Got Here with Paul van Zyl owner of The Conduit and Warehouse in London's Covent Garden

Related tags: The Conduit, Private members club, Restaurant

The owner of The Conduit and Warehouse in London's Covent Garden on working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the need for solidarity and collaboration within hospitality.

Why restaurants?
For me, food is such an important medium for storytelling, especially when it comes to social change. All of our suppliers has an incredible story to tell, from Hodmedod’s, who aim to reintroduce disappearing and forgotten British pulses and grains into their soils and onto plates, to Heilala Vanilla, who harvest high-quality vanilla from Tonga, which enriches both the land, and its people. Food is the best for bringing people together. Many of the most productive, inspiring conversations I have at The Conduit (and outside The Conduit) have been over a meal.

Tell us something you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
Focus on doing a small number of things exceptionally well.

What’s your favourite restaurant or group of restaurants (besides your own)?
Every time I eat at Dishoom, it feels like the first time. I am a fan of Shamil [Thakrar], one of Dishoom’s founders, and I have a great respect for what they are doing there. At The Conduit, we’ve adopted one of Dishoom’s “mantras,” which is to put our staff at the top of the agenda at every leadership meeting. They are always pushing the boat out on what it means to be an ethical and sustainable hospitality business, including some interesting new work on the carbon accounting of their menu. Plus, the black daal is amazing.

What motivates you?
Our community is a huge source of motivation for me. I derive my energy from people and conversations, so being away from The Conduit during lockdowns has been really challenging. Hosting one of our trademark panel discussions in the evenings is the best way for me to recharge my batteries.

What keeps you up at night?
There are a lot of things, but the biggest one is the climate. At The Conduit, our thematic areas cover many issues, including racial justice, gender and sexual equality, education, and skills, et cetera. We also recognise however, that climate change compounds and widens every systemic gap that we have in society, and that without the Earth, we can’t fight for anything at all.

Which colleague, mentor or employer has had the biggest influence on your approach to the restaurant business?
I served as executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As part of this role, I had the exceptional privilege of working closely with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who recently passed. Archbishop Tutu instilled the importance of “Ubuntu” into all of us at the Truth Commission. Ubuntu is a South African proverb meaning “I am because we are,” or that we owe who we are to our link to others. We are stronger, better, and more productive because of our community, and this is something that I try to thread through the entire business.

Best business decision?
I think Covent Garden is the perfect home for Warehouse, and The Conduit. Every time I walk around the neighbourhood, I spot something that I haven’t seen before. There is a sense of community here, and a brightness around us in the form of good food, art, and entertainment.

Worst business decision?
Probably opening a hospitality business in a pandemic.

What time do you wake up?
Usually, 5 hours or so after I go to sleep.

Coffee or tea?
Coffee.

How do you let off steam?
Cycling with a good podcast.

Do you prefer a night on the tiles or a night on the sofa?
Everyone who knows me well enough, knows that my greatest weakness is the dancefloor.

What’s your signature dish to cook at home?
I make an excellent spinach, roasted walnut, and lemon zest pesto.

What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?
Bungee jump on the way to the trial of South Africa’s former Apartheid President (PW Botha).  I was the main witness against him.

What piece of advice would you give to those looking to climb the rungs in the business?
I think it’s vital to have a mission and then to convey it through inspirational storytelling. It’s much easier for people to connect with your business and to feel like its mission is more than just making money when you have a message and it’s well conveyed.

If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry today, what would it be?
I think the pandemic has shown the need for solidarity and collaboration within the restaurant industry. Things are beginning to shift, but it will be critical for us to maintain this momentum to really thrive. One of my favourite events at The Conduit this year featured leaders from the hospitality industry discussing the meaning of ethical and sustainable hospitality. We had my friend Shamil on the panel, alongside Jivan de Silva, Nando’s strategy and transformation director; Giles Gibbons from the Sustainable Restaurant Association; and the fabulous Kiwi chef Chantelle Nicholson. All our panellists had great insights, but I particularly loved Chantelle’s practical advice to chefs who want to start measuring their kitchen’s different waste outputs but don’t know how to get started. Just have a look at how many different coloured bin liners you’ve been ordering at what frequency. I think there’s a lot we can do to demystify the journey to creating sustainable kitchens. 

Bio

Born and raised in South Africa, van Zyl began his working life as a human rights lawyer before moving on to co-found sustainable luxury fashion brand Maiyet in 2010. Maiyet bills itself as 'celebrating and cultivating traditional design and culture by partnering with global artisans to incorporate handcrafted details into the collections', a strategy van Zyl says he has subsequently brought with him to Warehouse. Following the transition of Maiyet into The Maiyet Collective, in 2016, van Zyl founded members club The Conduit in London's Covent Garden.

Related topics: People, Restaurant, Profiles

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