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Craig Jackson Of Ginger Hospitality: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur

You never know who’s gonna walk through the door, so keep your standards consistent, and treat everyone — customers and colleagues alike — with the utmost respect.

As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Craig Jackson of Ginger Hospitality.

Winning one of the restaurant world’s highest honors, a Michelin star isn’t exactly easy, but hanging on it certainly is, but Craig Jackson has had more than a decade of running restaurants with Michelin’s rare seal of approval. In a career spanning 18 years and accolades such as Hotel of the Year and an Acorn Award (for those restaurant pioneers under 30 years old), Jackson has consistently lifted the bar of service in the industry. His longevity at the top already is enviable.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?

I went to private high school where a career in hospitality, bizarrely, was frowned upon. They wanted me to follow the traditional track of university. But many of those types of schools like being able to sell prospective parents on a percentage of students going to prestigious universities, whether it’s the right path for a student or not. I certainly had the grades for uni, but while I was still at school, I accidentally fell in love with hospitality.

I had started working part time with chef Nigel Haworth’s Ribble Valley Inns Group. It was high end dining, so many of the customers were there to celebrate. And I vividly remember those celebrations, the birthdays, engagements, weddings. It was a wonderful atmosphere to work in, where people are celebrating all the time! And beyond that, there are regular customers with high standards and expectations; getting to know them and look after them and know that I had given great service was motivating.

The general manager at the time, Andy Morris, ended up being the Operations Director. He said to me: “You’re actually really good at this, you thrive in this environment, people like working with you and customers enjoy meeting you. What do you think about doing this for a living?

So at 18, I followed my gut instinct instead of what my school said I should do. Throwing caution to the wind, I rejected university and stayed with Ribble Valley Inns. Joining their management trainee scheme, I was introduced to all aspects of management of a high end pub group, including HR, finance and the luxury market itself.

My friends were stuck in classrooms and I was learning in the real world and making money. Taking on more responsibility, I was able to rise through the ranks, and I just loved it. I became a General Manager for Ribble Valley Inns, and went onto work at the London 2012 Olympic Games, looking after Team USA and Team Great Britain throughout, and enjoyed many more adventures in fine dining.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

So I worked in front of house, rather than the kitchen. It is an integral part of the restaurant experience as it connects the kitchen with the diner and comes with the burden — but also the honor — of ensuring smooth relations throughout the operation. Even one of the roles, “Maître D” comes from the French for “maestro.” My role was to orchestrate the overall experience to leave diners with the clear impression we set out to achieve, regardless of the restaurant concept, be it casual luxury or more formal. Regardless, high end dining was my focus.

For me, what drew me in was the ability to deliver consistently award-winning service that gave diners highly memorable and pleasurable experiences, day in, day out, regardless of who walked through the door.

It saw me look after ordinary people as well as the world’s most powerful people, such as Condoleezza Rice when she was US foreign secretary, and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

An interesting one was serving Her Majesty the Queen. You know, if you’re from England, there’s no greater honor than serving The Queen. This is the head of state who, throughout her long life, has experienced the best service there is to be had, in every corner of the world. So the pressure was on, when we ran the famed ‘Maundy Thursday’ service with Ribble Valley Inns.

It might sound strange, but ultimately, you treat a dinner for The Queen and her guests like any other. When your normal standards are as high as it gets, you’re called to serve because of those exacting standards. So you just focus on the usual consistent service that you have earned such a great reputation for.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

It’s a simple answer: the hours. The hardest thing everybody in the industry will say is the long hours and the fact they happen when everyone else is on holiday, or enjoying their weekend. So at the beginning, adjusting to missing family and friends’ celebrations, such as birthdays, is hard. I’ve canceled vacations too often.

Being separated from family are key moments in it that you can’t get back. But there used to be an almost macho element to the brutal hours, crazy long days and huge services were badges medals of honor. In one restaurant, we did over 500 covers in a day, and that became our benchmark. We were surviving on soft drinks and the odd snack, running on fumes really, but it became a sort of point of pride. Now, of course, that whole culture is changing to a healthier one.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

As a front of house expert, it’s about creating a service and atmosphere that customers are crazy about. Key to that is the relationship between chefs and general manager. It takes a passion and effort to create and maintain, but it’s a special, unique relationship. You’ve got to have each other’s back at all times, particularly in front of your staff.

The other element in fine dining is, you can have someone who has saved up to come to the restaurant once — it’s an extremely special moment — and on the other hand you have a customer who is there every week. Arguably one isn’t used to fine dining experience and won’t know good service from bad in your restaurant, whereas the other does. Who should you treat better?

It’s simple, you treat both the same. You never know who will walk in the door, a trainee nurse or a world class surgeon, a world leader or a retired elementary school teacher. Being warm and welcoming with everyone, enjoying meeting every customer is key.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Now you’ve really put me on the spot! Well there are different versions of this, but my 21st birthday meal was pretty perfect. I’d already been working in hospitality for five years, three of them full time, so I was quite fine dining ‘literate’. Secretly, my family booked The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant and the world’s number one at that time. And my boss, Nigel, arranged for Heston, who he knew, to come and chat with me and present me with a signed copy of the legendary Big Fat Duck cookbook. Wow, it was just amazing.

That said, my first boss, the Michelin star chef Nigel Haworth, and I are still friends, and neighbors. And I still love his cooking so, so much. If he’s reading this and fancies knocking on my door with a plate of something delicious I’ll open a bottle of wine!

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My inspiration is people, and giving them the most memorable pleasurable experiences. But the way I’m going about it has changed. Thanks to the staffing crisis post-Covid, I have now turned my passion to getting people into hospitality careers, with Ginger Hospitality. So, rather than creating the perfect restaurant experience, I’m encouraging young people into careers in the sector, and working with some of the world’s best restaurateurs to find them the best chef and front of house talent out there. So you could say I get my inspiration from finding the next generation of hospitality talent that will deliver memorable meals in the years ahead.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Yes, as I just mentioned, my focus now is on the next generation of mind-blowing talent in fine dining. The restaurant sector is all about giving people pleasure and great memories, and my goodness we all need more of that, don’t we! But the pandemic and the long hours culture have combined to make it hard to get new talent into. The changes being made and the opportunities for talented chefs and front of house staff are growing fast. So I want to be able to introduce the new wave of hot talent into the sector.

What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Well, not too long ago, pre-pandemic, 90 hour weeks were acceptable, but they’re not anymore, and people are doing better hours. Some chefs are now doing three night weeks, long shifts, but three days instead of five. That will help with the burnout issue.

Improving food for staff will also help. The poor access to healthy meals and snacks combined with the brutal hours meant some staff were turning to drugs and alcohol. But now, I’m seeing more restaurants, bars and hotels, introduce healthy meals, snacks and break times. Gone is the energy drink on the run, and in are kale smoothies and vegetable snacks.

So for me, achieving a healthier approach to hours, rest and nutrition will help.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. A great restaurant is about consistency and personality. From one visit to the next, and one customer to another, the service should be the same high standard. And it should have a distinct personality that distinguishes it from others, and even be able to show the chef’s creative instincts and personality from plate to playlist. Fortunately I learned this very early on, as Nigel Hawthorn, the head chef I worked with for many years, earned his first Michelin Star in 1997 and wasn’t going to give it up!
  2. Nothing lasts forever. So you win a Michelin Star and you have it for life, right? Wrong, you have to re-win it again and again. And also, the economy and tastes change. With one of the groups I worked at, I had left but they lost a few venues that I oversaw. Even though I was no longer there, it still hurt. So you have to be resilient and open to evolving with the market, but you also have to keep hitting the highest standards consistently.
  3. The hours can be tough. At The Three Fishes restaurant, one of the country’s finest at the time, we were doing 90 hour weeks and missing important family and friend celebrations and vacations. It was a baptism of fire. But perhaps if someone had told me to expect that, I would never have worked in hospitality! Thankfully now the hours culture is changing for the better.
  4. Give guests ‘magic touches’. For me, the human touch is the greatest thing in restaurants, and often materializing this in little surprising ways can have a big effect on guests. Over the years, I learned this and adopted a personal system of what I called ‘magic touches’. A magic touch is something like remembering a guest’s favorite drink, or if they come in regularly, I would give them a surprise glass of fine champagne to thank them for their custom. Michelin inspectors don’t measure it, and guests don’t expect it, and economically, it doesn’t follow a strict, straightjacketed model, so there seems to be no rationale for it. And that’s why it works, others don’t do it, guests love it, and they come back because it makes them feel unexpectedly special and valued.
  5. Enable the staff to feel like they too are the restaurateur. The ‘magic touches’ was an evolution of me feeling more ownership in the business. It was about me understanding the business needed repeat customers, and generating ‘human touch’ ideas around what would make them feel special and act loyal. So I think it’s good to feel like you have a real stake in the business and ensure your trusted senior staff do, too. Give them the freedom to do ‘magic touches’ or recommend improvements (within reason) and guests will feel the benefits, as will you.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Well, given I’m working with so many establishments, like choosing a favorite child it feels unfair to pick one that I work closely with! So I’ll pick one I don’t work with. It’s a very humble place in the north English coast called the Fish Shack, and they’re seafood platter is to die for. It’s local lobster, oysters, salmon, cockles, shrimps, and accompanied by English sparkling wine. It’s super rustic, welcoming and the food is delicious.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but I really believe in it. You never know who’s gonna walk through the door, so keep your standards consistent, and treat everyone — customers and colleagues alike — with the utmost respect.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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