Karen Cross has worked her way up to an assistant restaurant manager role at one of the country's most respected establishments, all while overcoming language barriers and winning the Gold Service Scholarship 2019. Katherine Price meets her
Karen Cross likes a full plate. The assistant restaurant manager at the two-Michelin-starred Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, lives for a challenge, whether it's taking on the Gold Service Scholarship straight after maternity leave, completing four Tough Mudder events or undertaking a consultancy project with the Edge Hotel School in Essex on top of her day job.
Cross (née Gruet), 29, hails from Angoulême in southwestern France. She studied hospitality for three years at Lycée Saint-Joseph L'Amandier and received a bachelor's degree in hospitality, marketing and management at École Hotelière Savoie Léman in Thononles-Bains before moving to the UK in 2013 to improve her English and landing a job as a commis de rang at Le Manoir.
Despite developing a love for hospitality early on in life, while playing waitress at family dinner parties, Cross' mother was against her daughter pursuing a career in hospitality, under the impression that the industry was incompatible with having a family. It's an attitude that Cross has sadly also seen in the UK, for example, in a conversation she once overheard at a table booked for a 21st birthday.
"The family were saying to their son, ‘you'd better go to university or you're going to finish up like these guys,' pointing at us," she says, visibly shocked. "I thought, ‘I've been to university too! I've graduated, I've got a bachelor's!' It's such a shame, you can do so much and progress so quickly and it's a really exciting industry. You can be given a lot of responsibility at a really young age."
Cross says that the flexibility of her employer has meant she doesn't have to leave her daughter at nursery all day like she would with a 9-5 job. The restaurant is closed for lunch service three days a week, and husband Bradley, who works as kitchen manager at Le Manoir, does split shifts, so she tends to work dinner services while he does breakfast and lunch.
"We want to be here, we want to work, so that's been great," she says. "You're a mum… but it doesn't mean you can't work and do a fantastic job in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant."
She says executive head chef Gary Jones and her restaurant director Mourad Ben Tekfa have been "so good", while founder Raymond Blanc's ‘treat them like family' approach extends to staff as well as guests, creating a nurturing atmosphere that welcomes parents in what has traditionally been seen as a ‘family unfriendly' sector.
Indeed, her daughter Elizabeth, nearly two, seems just as happy running around the hotel as the staff are playing with her. It was shortly after her maternity leave that Cross decided to apply for the Gold Service Scholarship, a competition for young front of house professionals. "I felt like I had to go the extra mile. I don't know why I felt this, but I wanted to feel like I was still in the game," she explains.
Her preparation for the competition included researching wines and producers, as well as making cocktails, opening scallops and carving Wellingtons. Thankfully, her team at Le Manoir were obliging, which she says helped: "I wasn't doing it in a corner on my own – everyone was on board."
Despite making it to the finals, even then she didn't believe she was in with a chance of winning, revealing a self-consciousness about her English: "Even though I know my English is not bad, I always feel like I won't understand what people are saying," she says. "British people love jokes and sometimes I don't get it. Sometimes I get a bit apprehensive."
In fact, she was shaking so much during the final that she dropped her table's bottle of water. Thankfully, she didn't let it put her off, and she was named the 2019 Gold Service Scholar in a ceremony in Claridge's hotel in London this time last year – although she still struggles to believe it. "Sometimes it's like, ‘why me?'" she asks. "Me and my husband, we don't feel ‘talented', we just work hard."
Eyes on the prizes
As part of her scholarship year, so far she has claimed prizes that have included a trip to Laurent-Perrier in Champagne, completed a Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 2 qualification, spent a week working at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and worked in the royal tea tent at Buckingham Palace. She was due to work at the state banquet at Windsor Castle last summer to welcome Donald Trump to the UK, but couldn't because of the heightened security.
"All these prizes on this list and you have to pick… I don't want to pick, I want to do them all!" she laughs.
Cross is also the first scholar to undertake the prize of a consultancy project with the Edge Hotel School in Colchester, where she and a student are presented with a real-life business challenge.
"I looked at all my choices, and I thought I probably won't go back to university ever to study something different, and this is an opportunity for me to learn something else," says Cross.
Not only did the time in Thailand at the Mandarin Oriental allow her to experience a different market, style of hospitality and a hotel with multiple food and beverage outlets, but the educational and networking opportunities that have come her way have boosted her confidence in her role. For instance, she now feels more comfortable recommending wine pairings in the restaurant, rather than always deferring to a sommelier.
"I think the whole idea of the competition is to be out of your comfort zone, to challenge yourself and grow from it," she says. "I'm confident in my skills and abilities work-wise, but as soon as I'm in a group of a lot of people I lose my confidence right away. But I'm working on it. I'm a scholar now, I'm involved in every [Scholarship] event. I know it will push me."
Pushing herself outside of her comfort zone is a strong motivator for Cross. She remembers arriving at London Stansted Airport in 2013: "My English back then was not great at all… it was so scary," she says.
Her original ambitions were in pastry, but she realised that she would need to be front of house to really improve her language skills. She points out that young people crave knowledge and development, and employers need to meet this if they want to attract and retain young people in the hospitality industry.
She says Le Manoir has given her both development opportunities and a positive work-life balance, which is why she has been there for nearly seven years. She now wants to expand her knowledge of other aspects of the business, such as finance and events. It's part of the reason she has no plans to return to France – she argues that the trust and progression opportunities for young people are so much better in the UK, where they can be in charge of managing a hotel or restaurant from a much younger age.
When asked about her plans and development, Cross says she that when she was younger she says she dreamed of owning her own tea shop and bakery. However, it's not something on the cards just yet and she says there is so much she still wants to learn at Le Manoir, and from her newfound world of opportunities through the scholarship.
She says: "The competition is a great way to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone, improve your knowledge, meet people who share the same passion about hospitality and really just open doors."
Karen Cross' CV
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
- July 2018-present Assistant restaurant manager
- January 2017-July 2018 Head waitress
- January 2016-January 2017 Assistant head waiter
- October 2014-January 2016 Chef de rang Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
- April 2014-September 2014 Chef de rang Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
- January 2014-April 2014 Demi chef de rang January
- 2013-January 2014 Commis de rang
The Gold Scholarship trustees on Karen Cross…
"Karen has embodied the spirit of the Scholarship over the past year, and it is clear that she fully understands the essence of classic, good, front-ofhouse service, presented in an understated way. I have been pleased, as well, that Karen has taken it upon herself to mentor other candidates for the current Scholarship process, exhibiting true leadership qualities."
"Karen is a worthy winner and has benefited from a host of great educational experiences that will continue to enhance her wonderful qualities. We have seen a growth of confidence throughout the year."
The Gold Service Scholarship 2020 finalists
- Rémya Baben, assistant restaurant manager and wine buyer, Wild Honey St James, Sofitel London St James
- Claudio Bosio, assistant maître d'hôtel, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
- Elizabeth Forkuoh, FBS junior assistant manager, Strathearn restaurant, Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Perthshire
- Lauren Frid, restaurant supervisor, Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental London Hyde Park
- Clement Gosselin, head waiter, Jean-Georges at the Connaught, London
- Stephen Kelly, footman, Buckingham Palace, London
- Andreia Monteiro, conference and banqueting supervisor, Macdonald Randolph hotel, Oxford
- Andrea Nuninger, restaurant host, the Scarlett hotel, Newquay, Cornwall
The 2020 Gold Service Scholarship winner will be announced at a ceremony at the Berkeley in London on 12 February 2020.
The previous winners: where are they now?
- 2013 Rebecca Clough – people and culture manager, the Dorchester, London
- 2014 James Fleming – reception manager, the Stafford, London
- 2015 Daniele Quattromini – operations manager, Northall restaurant, the Corinthia London hotel
- 2016 Jennifer Santner – general manager, the Dorchester Grill, London
- 2017 Stephanie Beresforde – restaurant manager, the Pig at Harlyn Bay, Cornwall, opening in the spring
- 2018 Michael Staub – in-room dining manager, Rosewood Sand Hill, San Francisco, US
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