You two don’t sound like Londoners. Where are you from?
Jill: Tipperary, southern Ireland.
Mike: Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand.
How did you meet?
Mike: One of the most romantic nights of the year, New Year’s Eve, 1995, at what was one of the hottest tickets in town, the Kensington Place New Year’s Eve all-nighter. I ran the KP bar and Jill was the Maitre D’ at the sister restaurant, Launceston Place (nearby Michelin-starred restaurant). Hey, it was written in the stars.
Were your parents in the hospitality trade?
Mike: My father’s a hairdresser; he pioneered unisex hairdressing in New Zealand. My Mother was involved in the business then, but is currently part of New Zealand’s ever-expanding film industry.
Jill: My Dad worked in food quality control, mainly dairy products. My mum was a great home cook. She also developed a dance school and taught Irish folk dances to keep the tradition alive. She encouraged youngsters to dance boy with girl, never just girls together. When she passed, I couldn’t believe the number of couples who told me that my mum was the person who matched them at dancing class. I didn’t know my mum was moonlighting as Cupid.
How long have you been working together?
Mike: Since just after we got married in 1997. We’ve managed great places together in New Zealand, Ireland and, laterally, in London.
How did you end up in Southfields?
Mike: When we returned to the UK in 2002, we settled in Putney. I was one of the management team at the Earl Spencer when it first opened in 2004 and it won the Evening Standard Pub of the Year Award. Jill and I then moved on and bought a delightful pub in West London (the award-winning Anglesea Arms in Ravenscourt Park), but when we heard the Earl Spencer was for sale two years ago, we wanted to return to this area and do at the Earl Spencer what we had just accomplished at the Anglesea Arms.
Why the Earl Spencer?
Jill: When we first arrived here, the thing I loved about it was what Michael calls the “real estate”. There’s plenty of space for guests to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Finding and making a pub is a creative work and we give it our heart and soul. We wanted to invest time into working out how to physically and emotionally affect change in the main bar. We drove around with a mental picture in the back of our minds and we would spot something, a lamp or picture, and think, that’ll go well there. It’s happening all the time, but it’s important to progress slowly. There is no formula or theme.
Mike: It’s a work in progress, a mixture of the old and the new. It’s traditional and comfortable, with a nod to the modern. There’s a mixture of antique merit coupled with modern art. It’s designed for everyone and people use it for all sorts of things. Upstairs we have theatre groups, quizzes, book clubs, meetings, christenings, birthdays… There was a time when the Conservatives were having a meeting upstairs and the Labour Party was meeting downstairs. We keep things informal here. Many pubs seem to be assuming a restaurant approach to the guest experience. There seems to be an imperative to buy or at least to be sold to. The Earl Spencer ethos is to allow the guest to decide how to use and enjoy what is so clearly on offer.
Why should people eat at the Earl Spencer rather than at home?
Jill: It’s all about comfort, choice and quality. I am really Jill Blogs when it comes to eating out. I completely empathise with all the elements of going out to eat, whether it’s with just one guest – for example, one’s husband or girlfriend – or with family members, young or old. I try to always think about how and why one would choose to use the Earl Spencer. We have an open fire in winter, a lovely garden in summer. We’ve just added an awning for those who want to have a cigarette in comfort. One of the first changes we introduced was to set up a table reservation system. In my experience, one of the most frustrating elements of eating out is getting a table. Everyone has busy lives; we travel long distances to work and home. The last hitch you could possibly want when you head out to join your friends for dinner is the irritation of being made to stand around waiting for the mythical table. I know you’ve already had to get yourself home, freshen yourself up, and get yourself down here: you don’t want to wait to order. Speed of service is important. We aim to set up each table with a basket of freshly-baked bread and butter as soon as the food has been ordered at the bar. My belief is that at least if you are seated and have some delicious bread to munch on, all will be well with your world.
Mike: The whole point of a pub is it’s where people come to socialize with each other. We’re open seven nights a week. It’s important for families, friends or colleagues in the neighbourhood to meet each other in a social setting where everyone can relax.
How would you describe your food?
Jill: How can you define “more-ish”? The backbone of the menu is classic British dishes that we all know and love: fishcakes, casseroles, cod and chips, ice cream… We make all our own desserts. We make our bread every day and we smoke our prawns over apple and oak wood chips. If it’s delicious and gets good customer feedback and we think people might want to have it again, it goes on the menu. But we change it regularly, sometimes twice a day.
Mike: We have extremely helpful and reliable suppliers. They offer us new ingredients, seasonal stuff, spring vegetables or winter game, foraged vegetables et cetera.
How would you advise a novice publican?
Mike: When people tell me they want to run a pub I always say, don’t do it – slightly as a joke and slightly seriously because you hand your whole life to it. We’re living it: we live above the shop. If you’re prepared to do that and constantly think from the point of view of the customer, to see the pub from their point of view… Every day we sit at a different table in order to figure out: Is there a draught? What’s the light like here at this time of day? What’s the view? We don’t have a favorite table because they should all be our favorite table. If you can’t empathize with customers, you shouldn’t be in the pub game.
Given the hard work, do you do it because you can’t stop yourself?
Jill: If you do something well and people enjoy what you do, you get a kick out of it. Deep down, I believe in what I’m trying to do. Joni Mitchell has a song about souls touching souls, about being the waitress at the banquet of life. I’ve found a small theatre where I can deliver that. There is a symbiosis between backstage and front, between what goes on in the white heat of the kitchen and the ambient lighting out here. You have to balance the speed and integrity of the kitchen and let it flow smoothly out front. It takes time to learn it and you have to learn from great people, but I’m lucky: I learned from the best and I thank them all.
It’s clearly a vocation for you both. Could you do it without each other?
Jill: I wouldn’t want to do it without the beautiful Michael. He’s the captain of the ship. If an iceberg emerges, he works out what we’re going to do.
Mike: We complement each other. And there’s a sense of family with the team.
Jill:. It’s a theatre of dining and there’s a lot of sweat and tears behind the grease paint. If you think about the inns of old, you picture a scene of mutton stew on the fire and tankards of beer. You sense it’s a respite from the wind and rain; you sense a real comfort. People often talk about comfort, but you don’t often find it. There may be the good food and the fire, but something’s missing and that’s our job to find it and hold on to it. It’s the greatest act of kindness, and a privilege, to welcome someone in from the cold.
Thank you, Jill and Mike. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you.
THE EARL SPENCER
260-262 Merton Road