Emma Underwood is general manager of Burnt Truffle in Heswall on the Wirral, owned by chef Gary Usher. She has joined forces with food writer and performer Anna Sulan Masing to launch the Switch, a front of house initiative to mirror the chef’s stage. She speaks to Janet Harmer
How did the Switch come about?
Anna Sulan Masing and Dan Doherty of Duck & Waffle founded the TMRW Project, a platform for people in the industry, particularly those early in their career, to grow, learn and connect with one another. Originally it was chef-focused, but this year it has broadened out. Dan found stages really useful as a young chef and suggested the same could be done for staff out front. I became involved after meeting Anna earlier this year, having recently been on a stage myself, at Paradise Garage in east London.
How will the scheme work?
We plan to pair up restaurants that are different to one another, to enable them to ‘switch’ staff for three to five days. The absent member of staff will have their hours covered by the person they have switched with and they won’t lose out on pay. It will take place on the week commencing 10 October.
How will swapping front-of-house staff between restaurants help the careers of individuals?
There is a really strong, growing sense of community in this industry, and I think the project will help develop individuals who will be able to share ideas with one another. It will also break the monotony of working life – a change is as good as a holiday!
Hopefully staff will return to their workplace with a renewed interest in the industry, new knowledge and a bigger support system and network. As a career choice, working front of house isn’t always at the top of everyone’s list, but we hope that the Switch will help demonstrate what a rewarding career it can be.
How will it benefit restaurants?
It will provide a learning, development and training opportunities for staff. Restaurants will get the chance to be exposed to new ideas and influences.
We want the Switch to have a really big presence on social media. Participants will be encouraged to blog and tweet using the hashtag #FoHSwitch, which will help create a community and build an exciting narrative about front of house.
You had an unusual route into hospitality, having started a PHD in history. Why did you decide to give up your studies?
I have worked in restaurants since I was 15 and always loved the buzz. I followed the academic path because I felt it was the ‘correct’ thing to do, but I fell further in love with the industry when I joined Sticky Walnut in 2012 as a part-time waitress. I was coming up to my third year of my PhD when Gary offered me the job of assistant manager. It was really heartbreaking giving up my thesis, but I have never regretted my decision.
What would you say to encourage young people to join the industry?
That it isn’t easy, but it is hugely rewarding. It’s one of the few careers where you can clearly see the results of your hard work by making guests smile and helping colleagues to learn and grow. It is vital, however, to find the right restaurant for you.