How I Got Here: Patricia Michelson

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Patricia Michelson founder of cheese-focused retailer and café La Fromagerie in London Highbury Marylebone Bloomsbury

Related tags: Cheese, London, Café, Casual dining

The founder of cheese-focused retailer and café La Fromagerie, which has sites in London's Highbury, Marylebone and Bloomsbury, on how a disastrous skiing day led her to launch her business.

Why restaurants?
Well, not quite 'why restaurants', as La Fromagerie is a retail food business, but I always had a burning ambition to be able to serve food from our own kitchen into an eating area within the shop to showcase the produce and what you could do with it. If you were enjoying the food then you would pick up the ingredients in the shop to take home. We work with all the fresh produce, dairy, larder, charcuterie, wine – every single area of the shop is involved in the kitchen menu.

Tell us something you wish you had been told at the start of your career?
Well, I was told something right at the start that was 'you will last six months', which as you can imagine deflated me for five minutes and then I said to myself I will show you what I am made of and my passion and belief in what I want to achieve will make it happen. So I was pleased in a way that I had that jolt from someone established in the food business who saw me as a fool, but many years later shook my hand and congratulated me and admitted it was a misstep on their part.

What’s your favourite restaurant or group of restaurants (besides your own)?
There are many individuals that I admire and most of all it is the small start-ups who stay true to type and grow at their own pace. I love River Café because Rose Gray still emanates from every pore even though she is not around. It is such a joyful place to eat and also to be seen – part of restaurants is the theatre and show as you walk to your table and enjoy your evening.

What motivates you?
My alarm clock! If I could stay in bed all day and work from my bed I would! But my alarm clock and cat get me out of bed every day...

What keeps you up at night?
I find it difficult to wind down as my brain is always fizzing – especially late into the night. I wrote both my books mostly at night – from 8pm-2pm or 3pm or even through the night. I try to switch off but I remember all the things I haven’t done, haven’t ordered, haven’t followed up and I start doing emails.  I am told off all the time by my colleagues about the lateness of my emails.

Which colleague, mentor or employer has had the biggest influence on your approach to the restaurant business?
I have to say the answer to all three of the descriptions is Sarah Bilney who has worked with me for over 20 years, is a shareholder of the business as well as a director.  Her childhood was spent in her parents small Devon hotel with a dining room where her mother’s wonderful home made cooking was English to the core with influences from their holidays in their camper van abroad.  Sarah and I are very different but that difference has made for a wonderful selection of products, and Sarah’s can-do attitude to any obstacle or bump in the road really buoys up not only me but all the team.

How often do you check your email? 
I am a bit obsessive about checking emails and replying quickly and following things up.  Otherwise it simply goes out of my head and gets forgotten or I am up late at night catching up.  I also love to check into Instagram when I want a bit of distraction – I am very nosey.

How do you let off steam?
I have four grandsons and I let off steam with them – they take me completely out of my normal zone, and I just love being grandma and doing games, reading, bath time, you name it. I feel utterly revived after a few hours with them.

What’s your signature dish to cook at home?
I don’t cook as much as I used to. When Danny (my husband) suddenly and unexpectedly died from Covid in April 2020 I spent three months cooking all the dishes he loved – it was just something I wanted to do, from beef stews, roast chicken, soups, savoury and sweet pies – I couldn’t stop and my daughters didn’t need to cook anything as I was always bringing over dishes. When my grandson Oscar piped up that my beef in red wine was the best stew he’d every eaten and could we have it again, I knew that was my best dish as Danny loved that too.

What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?  
When I finally found my way down the mountain that fateful day after a disastrous skiing day [see bio], I ate a bit of cheese bought from the local cheesemonger and was thrilled by the taste and how it revived me. I told my husband and begged him to take me to the farmer’s market the next day in the main village and I spoke with the cheesemaker of the cheese I tasted and in my bad French asked for some cheese to take home. He interpreted my request for ‘piece’ as a whole cheese so when he brought it up to the chalet (35kg) before we were leaving I was shocked but told Danny to buy it, and squeeze it into the back of the car, and we would figure out what to do with it on the 16 hour drive home. The rest is history.

What was your dream job growing up?
I had an Enid Blyton childhood growing up in the 50’s by the seaside. Lots of friends my age cycling and going on adventures all through the summer holidays. I wanted to be a shopkeeper of very expensive beautiful things from clothes to objects and I would create a shop in my bedroom with my mother’s gloves, scarves, jewellery etc. and invite the family to come in and shop.  That was about eight or nine years old, and then at 10 I went to drama lessons and literally fell in love with acting and being someone other than myself – and I wanted to be an actress. Well, one of the ideas became a reality!

Best business decision?
Throwing caution to the wind in 1991 and starting up my own business.

Worst business decision?
Not doing it years earlier as I am now 73 and I wish I had started 10 years earlier or not been afraid of my own abilities.

What piece of advice would you give to those looking to climb the rungs in the business?
Know your core – what moves you to do something and keep doing it and believe in it no matter what. Not being afraid to make mistakes as they allow you to move through that and get better at what you do. Don’t ever go for the quick way through, go round and round and round until you get to the middle – it’s all those twists, turns and adventures that make you a better business person and your business more interesting.

If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry today, what would it be?
Not be so caught up on who is best, who is hottest, who is going up, who is going down. Judging and being judged – it’s a really hard industry and if you are always worrying or fighting for a star or controversy it’s defeating the object because cooking for others is a way of making love and showing your passion. Enjoy it, embrace it and live it.

Bio

Born in Westcliff on Sea in Essex, Michelson left school at 16 with 100 words per minute (wpm) shorthand and 65 wpm typing. "My claim to fame is that I can talk to you and type at the same time without making mistakes," she says. Before launching La Fromagerie in 1991, Michelson had no experience working for a food business - save for helping her brother become a restaurateur in his 20s. Her love of cheese began whilst she was skiing in the alpine resort of Meribel, had a tumble, lost her bearings and her ski party, and took the rest of the day to ski down the mountain.  The end result was buying a small piece of cheese from the local cheesemonger on her way back to her chalet, and falling in love with Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage.  She returned to London with a 38kg wheel shoe-horned into the back of her car (because of her bad French she ended up with a whole wheel instead of a large slice), which she sold from her garden shed when she got home, then graduated to a weekend stall in Camden Market a few months later and before long opened a tiny shop and then moving to her current premises in Highbury nine months later. Today La Fromagerie has sites in London's Highbury, Marylebone and Bloomsbury, which operate as both retail units and cafés. It also has an online shop.

Related topics: People, Profiles, Casual Dining

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