Emma Underwood: “Neighbourhood restaurants are where my heart is”

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Emma Underwood on relaunching Holland Park restaurant Julie's

Related tags Emma Underwood Julie's Tara MacBain London Owen Kenworthy West london

The high-profile GM has left The Midland Grand Dining Room to oversee the reboot of venerable Holland Park restaurant Julie’s.

A West London restaurant that used to attract a celebrity crowd​ feels like a leftfield move for you

I’m not sure I agree. My last projects were The Pem and The Midland Grand Dining Room (which are both within large London hotels) but my background is neighbourhood restaurants that serve great food. Elements of the project are similar to what I was doing at Darby’s (Robin Gill’s Nine Elms restaurant that Underwood helped launch) and Gary Usher’s places back home in the North West (where Underwood also used to work). Neighbourhood restaurants are where my heart is.

What attracted you to West London?

It feels like the centre of gravity might be shifting a bit. There are lot of good things happening here and I suppose this move is partly in response to that. The two places that are consistently busy now are the West and Soho. There’s a lot of talent around here too. It was great to see Dorian and The Ledbury do so well in the Michelin Guide earlier this year.

And why Julie’s itself?

I like places that are guest focused with a solid identity and very high standards. But it’s mostly about the team. Tara (MacBain, Julie’s new owner) comes from an art, finance and marketing background, which are all very relevant to the restaurant business. On top of this, she knows London’s dining scene inside out. We already have an amazing relationship. Our chef-patron Owen (Kenworthy) is also wonderful. He was one of the opening chefs at Brawn (in Hackney) and was most recently heading up The Pelican, which is just up the road in Notting Hill. His restaurant journey is not too dissimilar to mine. We are both interested in provenance and working closely with suppliers. We also have Alex Ghalleb (ex-Soho House and Notting Hill’s Gold) onboard as a consultant, he is a complete pro and brings a brilliant energy.

We have seen you in a number of roles over the past few years. How long are you planning to stay at Julie’s?

Things have been unstable in the industry recently. My career pattern reflects that. I am an extremely loyal person. I’m looking for a home now and I see a very solid future with this restaurant and the team we have here. I’m approaching 40. I reckon I’ve got about five years left on the floor. I haven’t had any issues yet but working the floor in busy restaurants does take its toll physically and mentally.

What will the new Julie’s be like?

It’s going to be a classic neighbourhood brasserie. Julie’s was an institution - we want to evoke that same feel. It’s an amazing space with lots of little alcoves. You never know who is going to be around the next corner. We’re not sure if we’re going to do breakfast yet, but it will be an all-day operation from mid-morning. I’m hoping to emulate what we did at Darby’s by creating the sort of place where people come in for coffee in the morning and end up staying for lunch. Or perhaps come in for a drink at 4pm and end up staying for dinner. The menu will be a la carte, but it will also be possible to pop in for some oysters or a few small plates.

Tell us about the wine programme

Our wine consultant is Romain Audrerie (the former global wine director for Chiltern Firehouse-owner André Balazs). He is building our wine list at the moment. It’s not going to be super funky, but there will be some natural wines as is often the case on modern wine lists. Focused on Europe, it will be refined and elegant. While it will be accessible, there will also be some big references on there should the occasion demand something special.

Julie’s is a different proposition to the last two places you have worked. How will this be reflected in the service?

The service will be professional and precise, but we also want to get to know our guests, many of whom we anticipate to be local. We have not found it at all difficult to staff up. People are excited about the prospect of a highly engaged clientele and consistent levels of business. Julie’s is a front of house dream.

The restaurant is slated to reopen next month. What is happening at the site at the moment?

Julie's is a building site so we’re working out of a nearby office. At the moment we’re a small team working through menu and drinks development as well as OS&E (Operating Supplies and Equipment) and building in our systems. We are recruiting for senior front of house roles and we’re also starting to reach out to people to discuss more junior roles. We will hopefully have the whole team in place about three weeks before we open the doors for soft opening. During that window we will be doing a mix of practical and theoretical training and hopefully visiting some of our suppliers.

Tell us about the structure of the front of house team at Julie’s

There will be four departments: reception, floor, sommelier and bar. Each will be led by the head of department. I will oversee the whole of the front of house operation as general manager supported by an assistant GM and a restaurant manager. The total size of the front of house team will be between 20 to 25 people. We already have many of our key hires in place. Training is important but it all starts with employing the right people in the first place. I have worked with a lot of them before, which is wonderful. It’s critical that the team have an aligned ethos.  

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