A Conversation with JP Reynolds

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jp reynolds

While I was working on my memoir, My Culinary Love Story, I asked several friends to read the rough drafts. JP Reynolds was one of those friends and he asked great questions that helped me pinpoint some ideas. But there was a lot to our conversation that didn’t make it into the book.

First, what you should know about JP — he is a wedding officiant who I have had the pleasure of hiring several times for our wedding clients at Good Gracious Events. But more than that, he is a great LISTENER!! I suppose that’s what makes him so great at what he does. It was wonderful to talk to him about my story and the questions he asked gave me further clarity on my memories and how to write about them. There are things here that made it into the book, and some that didn’t (maybe they will make it into Part 2)!

So, without further delay, let’s get into our conversation!

JP: It seems that you had two loves when you were in your twenties that shaped you. How did the love of your future husband, Dennis, intersect and influence what you brought to food and hospitality?

You are totally right that it’s a multi-pronged story about how several passions in my life came together and changed me forever. A chance meeting with the owners of a restaurant named Blostin’s and meeting Dennis, started me on the path I am still on today in terms of hospitality and culinary — a world I knew nothing about except I enjoyed cooking and loved to entertain at my home.  

And that’s where the story begins. I met my first husband David at 18, married at 21, had children at 23 and 24 and divorced at 26.  That was a whirlwind time of domesticity, and I never really gave ANY thought as to what was beyond it.  

By the time we divorced, I was in survival mode.  Having two children didn’t give me much chance to think about how I would climb out of the situation I was in. I only knew secretarial and bookkeeping work and found myself doing bookkeeping in the evenings when the children slept to make some money.

Blostin’s | watercolor by Janette Carpenter

Once I took the job at Blostin’s, having to move myself and the children from the family community top a flat above the restaurant, I discovered another part of me – the woman I had not really explored. After all, I had been on the path to marriage at 18 and then a mother at 23.

My love story in the book is focused on Dennis. I always returned to him even though I had many dates with others. Our relationship was strongly intertwined with a career path that I did not even think about having and it’s why we came to America. Coming to America would not have happened without Dennis as it was him that had the opportunity.

It was during this time that I realized Dennis was special and not like the other men who come into my life, but it took me a fair time to let him into my heart.  During this period, I was growing and maturing, and I was feeling an independence that I never felt before.  Who needs a man was my mentality. The book expresses we both had a passion for food and wine and with that our love grew stronger as time went on.  Besides he was cute and had all the wonderful qualities one would want in a partner. 

Dennis and me in the early days in England!

JP: Is this the “origin story” of Good Gracious! Events?

Not at all. Yet, it is the origin story of who I am today. This was a time when I was learning about the restaurant world, food, wine, running a small business, learning how to manage being a single parent with two children, finding the stamina to handle all the tasks at hand and find the personality to give the guests who came to the restaurant a memorable experience.

I never gave a thought of having my own business, but I knew I always wanted to be the best in the job I was doing.  As my father would say, if you are going to sweep the streets then make sure you are the best street sweeper out there. Taking on this job became more than a job as I realized that I loved it and made an impact on others with what I was doing.

Fast forward — it was not until we were in America, I thought I might go and work in a restaurant, country club or a hotel.  But it was the American entrepreneurial spirit of the people I met here who suggested and encouraged me to start my own catering company.  They thought I was quite fabulous at cooking! Not sure about that but I suppose a seed was planted in my head and I thought “why not?”

The next thing I knew I got myself a business card and called myself a caterer. Another story, uh?!  

JP: Can you set the time for us? Was the late ‘70s? What was England like culturally for women? Were you caught up in the woman’s movement of the day or were you something of an iconoclast?

Yes, it was the late ‘70s. It was a time when women were beginning to find their own independence and didn’t necessarily want to only be housewives.  The birth control pill came in the ‘60s giving women control over their bodies. Germaine Greer became the voice of the feminist movement which made us all stop and listen.  I wasn’t personally involved in the woman’s movement but quietly I thought I would like to do something with my life and not depend on a partner for all things financial. I wanted to be a person in my own right. Was I ambitious?  I didn’t think so but reflecting on the past I think it was lurking there. I always had the desire to never want to fail but of course, in life sometimes you need to fail to succeed, right? There were many failures!

JP: What was your family’s relationship to food and hospitality? Did you ever imagine yourself working in that world?

Never!  I was brought up with the mentality that all one needed were the qualifications to be a great secretary. I got all my typing and shorthand skills as well as bookkeeping and business qualifications and left school at 16 staying on an extra year and never going to university.

My parents come from working class backgrounds.  My mother was one of 16 children who lived on the poorest street in Bristol at that time. My father came to England after the war and met my mother and they got married when she was 18 and my dad was 27. He was a bricklayer and a fine one at that and proved to be a great provider for us all. My father had an outgoing personality and was the life of the party. Our house was always open for friends and family to come by and we had many parties even though at the beginning they had little money.  It might only be primula cheese and crackers, beer and sherry and music and dancing always but it was a party.  Meals were always a family affair when we would all sit around the table to eat and talk about our days. I was brought up in a hospitality environment. And as children we never went out to eat, we could never afford that. But dad was a very hard worker, mum was a great housewife who did go out working part time as a cashier then on to being a nurse’s aid. As a family we became more financially affluent as time when by.

JP: Had you ever had an interest in food and hospitality when you were dating your first husband or did you have other dreams?

Like I said, I loved to cook and set the table, but a career in food and hospitality never entered my head. I do believe I was a late bloomer always content “with my lot.”  I suppose I never had the confidence or the know-how of doing something different.  I was going to be a secretary! I think back in that time a career in hospitality was not necessarily a choice of career.

When I went to Blostin’s that evening and they offered me a job, my first question was “What would I do?”  I truly had no inkling what went on in a restaurant!

JP: Was working at Blostin’s simply a job or was it more?

Blostin’s was not a pub it was a restaurant. This was the time when gastro pub food started and chefs started to spread their wings to give us local comfort foods in small restaurants and the pubs started to serve food with drinks. 

Blostin’s served local foods with a French flair.  When I joined Blostin’s I really had no idea what I was doing or going to be doing.   But it sounded exciting, I was moving away from a suburban environment to a flat above a restaurant.  No wonder my ex-husband was mad at the thoughts of me leaving a safe place for his children to above a noisy restaurant exposed to drink and frivolity. 

Did I do it to spite him?  I don’t think so.  I was stirred by doing something different — I loved people, I food and I the whole sense of hospitality that I could be part of, and I could do it with the children living above the restaurant I worked.  In answer to your question, it was so much more that I could ever dreamed of. 

JP: Did you ever think about being something other than being a hostess? 

An interesting question. I proved to be the hostess with the mostest as the saying goes. But my role was more than being the hostess. I managed all aspects of the restaurant as well as banking and bookkeeping. It was an amazing opportunity that fell in my lap as did working in the castle which took me to another level of food and hospitality.  It probably was not until I went to the castle, I knew this world of food, wine and hospitality I wanted to make a career of it.  I think I was good at it and although I never trained as a chef, I was a very good cook and would assist if chefs were sick on holiday etc.   But I knew I had some talent of some sort to make a go of it.

Even today, I think it’s remarkable when a single mother can have a full-time job, raise the kids AND date. It had to have been a remarkable time in your life because not a lot of women were doing what you were doing.

Sometimes I look back and wonder how on earth did I do it?  I suppose when you are in the thick of it you just get on with it. There was a lot of joy, that is for sure.  I was independent, I was supported by my family the direction I was going, I had two beautiful children that seemed to understand our lifestyle and who took care of each other when I was not around.

For the first time in my life I was in charge and had no one to answer to but myself.  I loved the attention I was getting from men. I was in full bloom as a young lady and I liked the way I looked and dressed and I think I was attractive not beautiful but attractive. Was it remarkable?  I never gave that a thought as I was drenched in “all things” life, but yes on reflection I knew I was turning my life into a direction that was different to most of the people I knew.

Was it easy?  No. There was a lot of emotion arguing with David about it, selling the family home and relocating to Shepton Mallet. Joanne and Ross were excited about having bunk bed and living upstairs. I had a lot of fear moving in, with butterflies in my stomach all the time it felt like and doubt I could sustain this job.  The fear disappeared on that first night and I never looked back.

To this day I am not sure what they saw in me. If I had to guess I think they saw a bubbly personality, someone who could take care of herself, smartly dressed that was engaging with people.  They knew I had been a secretary before having children so probably thought I could manage “stuff” and was probably organized and someone who had a great interest in food and wine.  Anything I didn’t know they would teach me.  After all it is not rocket science!

Thornbury Castle | Watercolor by Janette Carpenter

JP: he castle seems to be turning point for you. What did the owner see in you that would make him put you in charge of turning it into a hotel? What did you see in yourself?

Moving to Thornbury Castle was a great move and opportunity that once again came as a huge surprise to be able to work there and came out of left field as I was not particularly looking for a job.  Kenneth Bell would bring in staff from Spain and from all over the country from other Chateau Relais’ restaurants who were well educated in fine dining. 

At the castle, I had so much more to learn about fine dining, wine and the expectations from customers was so much greater. Just like at Blostin’s I could live on premises like other employees. The move was horrendous, and my fear was out the roof, but Dennis gave me confidence to keep going. Kenneth Bell did not suffer fools lightly and I knew it was not going to be easy even though I had gained some experience working and going out and about so much more in restaurants that I started to see food, dining, service all in a different light.

I was frowned upon when I first got there as the new girl who only had bistro level hospitality skills. I had to work hard to prove myself.  And yet I still wasn’t meeting Kenneth’s expectations.  I came to learn that he expected so much more from me as a leader. He wanted me to take charge and be stronger with regards to opening the hotel. It was harsh and I found myself really being overwhelmed as to what was expected of me. I thought I was doing alright but maybe that was it. I got control of the job and maybe “just did the job” no more no less. 

It took a conversation with him to ask about my failings and how could I elevate my position to make an impact on opening the hotel as well as running the restaurant.  I asked for a second chance. I think it’s important for anyone starting out to not dig in and be stubborn, but to address what it is that you could be doing better. I took the bull by the horns and came to terms with what needed to be done. I reported my progress regularly to him. We talked a lot about the challenges and the solutions until he could see that I had it under control. This was a job and a half, and every ounce of my body I had to work so hard doing this not knowing what I was doing at times as it was all new to me and the castle, plus taking care of the children as well.

I worked 24/7, if not physically, mentally. The only light relief was writing letters to Dennis who obviously got the brunt of all the good, bad, and ugly! It all worked out and I was better for it in the end.

The move to Malibu is beyond momentous! Do you think you were acting on the same instincts as you were when you moved to Blostin’s?

I have asked myself this too as it looks as though opportunities just came my way, and they did. My personality is such that I just trust my instincts. There are times I might question my judgement but overall I have always had a drive for adventure and urge for something better in Life. I have always believed I can do whatever I desire with the strength to work through the challenges that come with that.

I don’t really regard myself a dreamer but once I am in a situation, I always can find that special thing about it that makes me excited and successful.  One of my philosophies of life is that it always better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. The experiences almost always make wiser, stronger and better.  What is life without risk?!

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