From The Savoy to the founding of Brigade, Simon Boyle's story inploi Team | 03.11.2016
Last week, inploi met with Simon Boyle, founder of Brigade Bar and Bistro and Beyond Food Foundation, to discuss bending the rules, tantrums, sailing around the world, and his charitable work. A true hospitality hero, Simon’s career as a chef has taken him around the world, inspired entrepreneurship, charity work and amongst all these pursuits, he is also a published author. However, his success has come with his fair share of stress - rooted in ruthless determination, an unending desire to learn and self-improve, and ultimately an unshakable desire to create and share good food.
“If you’ve got the right kind of mind, you can use your skills differently”
Following The Savoy, how did you career path develop from there?
I worked there for three and half years, and then I went to the Chewton Glen - amazing place. I always say I learned to cook at The Savoy, but polished my skills at Chewton Glen. I then went on board ships with P&O. I had 123 chefs under me, one chef above me. That was an interesting experience. Then I left there and I went to Saudi Arabia, and I worked for a Prince as a personal chef. I got sacked because we fell out over some health and safety issues. It was there that I realised that you’ve got to believe in something – you’ve gotta fight for it.
So I left there and came back to the UK. The first time ever that I had been out of work. I just said, “Well, I need to get another job”. I saw an advert for another shipping company, based in Monaco. I wrote to them and said I was looking for my first head chef job – I was only 23. They flew over and met me, and that was the first time I realised I had some sort of value. I accepted the job as sous chef. I realised within a day that I had made the biggest mistake of my life and the food wasn’t as good as they said it was. I had a choice to make – to leave, or make them a proposal. So I sat up all night, and I wrote two letters. One said, ‘Proposal’ and the other said ‘Resignation’. I went to the Food and Beverage Director in the morning and said, “Right, here’s two envelopes, feel free to open whichever you want”. And that was it – they gave me the job. It was a really amazing experience, and it changed my life. I went to some of the best places in the world. I cut my teeth as a chef for the first time. Made some dreadful mistakes. But, after about six months, it was just the best job in the world. It was very hard to leave actually. But I did because I got a call from Anton Mosimann’s office. I wouldn’t have left it for any other reason.
How long did you work for the shipping company?
I was on the boat for about two years, and you usually do seasons on there. I was really young – too young to be a head chef. Normally you do four months on, two and a half months off, because you work seven days a week. I was so young, and inexperienced, and didn’t want anyone to touch my kitchen. I’d work for four months on and have two weeks off, and wouldn’t let anyone have long enough that they could change anything. But they liked it - they thought I was this young, feisty kind of chef. But really, I should have had the time off. It was very stressful. You needed two months off for a good reason. But I enjoyed it. I saw the world – it was just fantastic.
Your charity work to date was inspired following the 2004 tsunami relief efforts - Were you involved with the relief work?
I used to work for Unilever, for their development team, but I was frustrated. I was a chef, but I seemed to be the only one that really wanted to do good food. Then, Christmas came and the tsunami happened and I was watching the TV. A normal person would donate money, but I was going, “Well I need to do something” – you know, all these people we’d worked with – shipping, chefs, all sorts of people we’d met had been caught up in it. So I thought it was a great idea to do something physically.
I went out to Sri Lanka and I started a relief camp – it’s still open today. It’s a crazy story – I had no plan. I just booked a ticket, met these guys at the airport, and we hired a van and went to find a project to work on. So it was a life-changing situation. I learnt a lot of unpleasant lessons. But what I really learned is that life is short. I didn’t cook for people out there – but I realised at that point, that a chef – if you’ve got the right kind of mind – you can use your skills differently.
I came back, and in six months, I was made redundant by Unilever and then re-employed by them as a culinary ambassador. They gave me a soapbox to stand on - so we did some amazing work. And whilst I was there doing that, I was experiencing charities and social issues and I realised homelessness was the thing I cared about most. So that’s why I started.
So you instigated the Brigade and the Beyond Food Foundation from by ground-up by yourself?
I started a weekend business cooking in people’s homes – like parties and events, and it grew quite quickly. I then opened the back door to homeless people to train in the kitchen. I was flouting all the rules and regulations – because I wasn’t paying anybody. I was just saying, “If you want to learn, I’ll teach you, but I’m not paying you”. The DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) started getting wind of what I was doing. At one point about twenty people that I was employing – they were working 50-60 hours a week, weren’t paying them a penny – they were withdrawing benefits. They (the DWP) could have prosecuted me really – and everyone could have lost their benefits. But we sat down and had a very sensible conversation because I was saying, “Well actually, these people need this training”. So in the end, they became a partner. They still are a partner. We’re a sector-based skills academy, we bring people in, we do pay them, and we work with the DWP and they still retain some of their benefits, and we still pay them some of their money, and we’ve got this amazing system. It has changed a lot of people’s lives over the years. And hospitality has the ability to help people who can’t focus, or can’t learn, or gain qualifications for whatever reason. But you can give them the skills and the experience and they can take hold of their lives - it’s a great sector for that.
Missed part one of this interview? Check it out here: Chef’s Pass - inploi meets Simon Boyle from Brigade Bar & Bistro
This interview has been edited for publishing purposes.
About the author: Victoria Bushnell is Head of Marketing/PR at inploi.