Interview: Amanda Afiya (August 2019)

Posted on: August 6th, 2019 by Simon Carter

[Above: Amanda with chef John Campbell at the Foodservice Cateys]

Amanda grew up in Surrey, attending the prestigious City of London Freemen’s School in Ashtead.  Having achieved seven O’Level (GCE) passes, Amanda was encouraged by her parents to enrol at Pitman’s Secretarial College in Wimbledon.  While it was an intensive course, with up to three hours shorthand every day, plus two hours at night, Amanda enjoyed the process and passed with flying colours.  Ironically, parallel to the secretarial course was one in journalism, which Amanda possibly would not have met the qualification bar for entry.  In March 1986, when close to graduation, Amanda applied for a secretarial role to the front of house manager (advertised in the Evening Standard) at the THF Heritage Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge (now the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park).  The upside of the job was that it felt like being behind the scenes of a stage production, a role that certainly whetted the appetite for the industry. 

After a year, Amanda moved to make her first appearance at The Caterer, which was in a secretarial capacity on the advertising side, then after another year and followed by a stint of traveling, she returned to Reed Business Information (RBI) publications with ‘Restaurateur’ and ‘Pub Caterer’ again as a PA to the Advertising Director. In 1990, Amanda started at The Caterer as secretary to the first female editor in their then 112 year history (founded 1878), years later Amanda was to become only the second female editor of the magazine. With her high standard of shorthand, Amanda was able to support certain members of the 25-strong editorial team by calling people on their behalf, asking agreed questions and making notes.  Amanda would write these up verbatim from which the journalist could more simply write copy and hit a deadline.  This proved a skill that would stand her in good stead later as a researcher. 

The recession at the turn of the ‘90s meant RBI put the brakes on graduate recruitment but they still had a first-class graduate training programme.  As a result, they decided to open up this training to those in-house and over the next few years Amanda found herself effectively PTC trained having attended courses in news reporting, sub-editing, feature writing, as well as legal courses.  In June 1993, a sub-editing role on the production desk became available and through a tough learning curve she became very quick at passing through corrections to proofs from the section heads.  There were four sub editors and two designers, however through a variety of circumstances (such as maternity or sickness), the business was unable to provide cover, and, as a result, Amanda and the production editor found themselves working 7.30am to 9.30pm every working day. 

Having slowly earned her stripes on the production desk, Amanda was able to take her first proper writing and reporting role on the chef desk and remembers a calming drink prior to interviewing Gary Rhodes as she thought every chef would reduce a journalist to tears, but gratefully learned that there was a more gentle variety.  Over the following years, Amanda covered virtually every editorial team role. 

[Amanda with Mark Sargeant, the year he cooked for the Cateys, 2015]

In 2002, Amanda’s work came to national attention when Simon Wright, then editor of the AA Restaurant Guide, confided in her regarding what was to become “The Petrus Scandal”. Marcus Wareing’s Petrus, co-owned with Gordon Ramsay, was in St James’ Street at the time that the AA Restaurant Guide were promoting the restaurant to five rosettes.  Prior to the official announcement, Roger Wood, MD of The AA, had booked a table for six at short notice, but when personally checking the arrangements immediately prior to the visit, was dis-satisfied. Mr Wood subsequently went back to The AA and personally intervened in the awarding of the promotion.  Simon Wright stood by the ethical decisions made by his professional inspectors and resigned.  After significant media pressure, The AA reversed their decision and awarded the five rosettes.  The Caterer broke the story, backed by a significant paper trail of memos and emails that had been provided by the resigning editor to Amanda, in what was to be the hospitality trade story of the decade.

During her early days, some time in 1994, Amanda had interviewed Gordon Ramsay and being of similar age they got on well, regularly speaking, with Gordon offering occasional tip offs of stories. She developed a similar relationship with Jason Atherton when he had worked for Stephen Terry in Frith Street.  It was like they all grew up together during those early times.  So when later working on The Petrus story (for three months) she had agreed with Simon Wright that as soon as he told Gordon Ramsay about the situation, he would effectively lose control of the story, meaning that it would break via The Evening Standard and then onto the nationals.  So with mutual trust, Caterer only went to press with Simon Wright’s blessing, which was on a Tuesday, appearing on newsstands on the Thursday and was the only publication to be able to source verbatim internal discussions that backed the story.

Previously, in 1994, Amanda had met chief inspector David Young of The AA at an inspectors’ conference and subsequently went on an inspection visit with him to the River Café.  David had been at the AA for 18 years when he left in 2002 and so having known both him and Simon Wright, Amanda was naturally a little wary of where she stood with the guide after their departure.  The emerging triumvirate of Gordon Cartwright, Simon Numphud and Giovanna Grossi, who were taking the AA forward, may have offered a different relationship.

[Above: Amanda with the late, great Andrew Fairlie, who she knew and relied upon for advice for much of her career – pictured with former Caterer colleagues Kerstin Kuhn (left) and Katherine Alano (right) and chef Matt Gillan (far left), who is currently opening his solo venture Heritage in Slaugham, West Sussex]

By 2003, Amanda had already been with the Caterer for thirteen years when the position of managing editor became available.  She and Mark Lewis both went for the role and Mark was to take the position for the next 11 years.  Amanda’s feeling was to be indispensible to Mark.  She and Mark had complementary skills – she had come through the magazine and had a detailed hands-on view of editing, whereas, in his new role, Mark could afford to be more strategic.  Amanda became editor in 2014 when Mark became publisher.  At this time, she was also looking after the Cateys, the Hotel Cateys and Foodservice Cateys, Hotelier of the Year, the Acorn Awards, various forums and conferences so it was a big responsibility – Writing speeches and making public addresses became, to begin with, a forced fit but necessarily on-going part of the role.

[Above: Amanda, third left, on a trip to Noma (February 2017, just before it closed to relocate) with several members of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts including Phil Howard, Brian Turner, Martyn Nail from Claridge’s and John Williams of the Ritz]

When Amanda left Caterer in October 2017, the first person to offer her work was Michelin two-starred chef Sat Bains, who suggested that she could do his restaurant PR.  While she had known Sat since 1999 and it was true she had a number of media contacts, those contacts were in a completely different context to moving forward a client’s PR strategy.  Having always lacked a degree of self-confidence with a healthy in-built fear of failure, Amanda felt it made more sense for an established PR to be behind Sat Bains.  She had known that Jo Barnes and Nicky Hancock of Sauce Communications were long-time admirers of Sat and would be both delighted and capable of managing his account.  So, with Amanda fronting a pitch, the relationship with Sat was established. 

At the same time, Amanda had taken a non-exec directorship on the board of hospitality recruitment specialists Cartwheel, as well as a six month contract in an ambassadorial and writing role at The Caterer. She continues to write for The Caterer today. Testament to the high regard Amanda is held within the hospitality industry, she continued to represent bodies which she is proud to give back her time to support.  These included chairing the fundraising and marketing committee for Hospitality Action, sitting on the fundraising committee for Adopt a School (for which she is also a trustee), a judge for the Cateys and The Acorns (previous chef winners of the 30 under 30 Acorn Award have included Marco Pierre White, John Burton Race, Jason Atherton and Gary Rhodes).  So despite having moved with her family to Tavistock, she would continue to be doing an amount of travelling up to London as well as throughout the UK.  As Jo and Nicky were delighted to have Sat Bains as a client, they suggested that Amanda might write inspection reports on their clients’ properties, which could coincide with her visits to London. A win-win and so began the arrangement that brought in the co-founding expertise of Giovanna Grossi, from which Sauce Intelligence was born.

Fast forward to the present and Sauce Intelligence has a full-function, custom-built, state-of-the-art technology platform to facilitate client engagements, the development of which was funded by Sauce Communications.  A client project is a four-step process, first the consultation to fully understand the client, their goals, brand standards and objectives.  Second is an audit to assess all areas of the guest experience.  Third is comprehensive reporting from multiple and on going mystery guests visits, against a bespoke reporting structure with tailored performance analytics to understand how the business is meeting its own objectives.  A significant part of that is gathering emotional intelligence ‘how did particular elements of the stay at the property make you feel’ and this can be a key differentiator for operators.  Finally, solutions that may range from a raft of training options to refocus the staff on meeting brand objectives and cultural values through to recruitment, media and PR – a one-stop-shop solution offering to the hotel and restaurant industry.

This is something that is very exciting to Amanda and she is thrilled to be a key part of it going forward.  Amanda has clearly broken boundaries in her career and set and passed standards that are to be admired.  No doubt the current venture will be approached with the same vigour, passion and enthusiasm that has characterised Amanda throughout her career.  Best of luck and wishing her well into the future…