Ambassador of GOESTING

Joke Michiel - portret
Joke Michiel
Restaurant Souvenir

Joke Michiel

In total shock, is how Joke Michiel describes her reaction to receiving the Parabere Care Award in 2022. Each year, this international award is used to recognise someone who has put great effort into improving work-life balance in the hospitality industry. “I thought what we were doing at Souvenir was nothing out of the ordinary. This recognition has led me realise we are actually leading the way with regard to sustainable HRM. The best thing about this award? It has given me the chance to share my vision more widely and help encourage a desperately needed mindset shift in our industry.”

Sustainable fine dining and HR

Souvenir is a small, gourmet restaurant in Ghent. Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson is the chef. The food is determined by nature’s rhythm. Seasonal produce is transformed into avant-garde creations, netting them their first Michelin star in 2019. The year after that, they also received a green star for their sustainable practices. “Simply cooking with organically grown produce doesn’t make a restaurant sustainable in and of itself, though,” says Michiel, who is responsible for the staffing.

“A restaurant that cares more about its carrots than its staff is setting the wrong priorities in my eyes. I want to make a case for us to start treating staff better. Hospitality shouldn’t be an industry where people work themselves to the brink of exhaustion for a few years before looking for a ‘real’ job or leaving because they want kids.”

Joke Michiel

A focus on individuality and appreciation

"We put a lot of ourselves into our work. That deserves more appreciation.”

Souvenir’s staff know exactly when their workday ends, as they keep fixed hours. “We do not allow guests to linger endlessly after a meal. If they wish to keep drinking after we have closed, we are happy to recommend various nearby bars. Sometimes people are surprised, but when we explain we don’t feel such long shifts are fair to our staff, they become more understanding. I see it as raising awareness.’ In this way, customers begin changing their mindset as well. “People desperately need to learn more respect for restaurant staff. Too often, they think you are doing this work because ‘you aren’t capable of anything else’. These are jobs that require specialist knowledge. A sommelier isn’t just an expert on flavour, they also need to have a working knowledge of geography and chemistry. We put a lot of ourselves into our work. That deserves more appreciation.” If a customer treats her staff poorly, Joke Michiel is implacable. “If anyone makes sexual advances or a racist remark, I intervene immediately. I want my staff to feel safe in my restaurant. Yes, I have had occasion to ask a table to leave in the middle of a meal. If they go too far, I’d rather lose the income than risk my team.”

Working together without power plays

At Souvenir, interns are also treated as members of the team. “People who are still in training don’t get stuck peeling vegetables for days on end. They’ve come here to learn and we make sure to introduce them to all the different aspects of restaurant work. There are no differences in authority in our team. I don’t want anyone having power over others. We are working together to provide our customers with an optimal experience, and power plays only get in the way.”

Labour shortages are a huge problem in hospitality. Michiel thinks it is time for some self-reflection. “We need to ask ourselves, am I part of the problem or do I want to be part of the solution? It’s still a bit of a taboo. We prefer to keep that kind of thing private. I see that as a great challenge. I’d love to be able to share the knowledge I’ve built up with a new generation of restaurant owners. If you apply the right rules, you can build a profitable business with a satisfied team who are proud of their work.”

Award-winning business and work-life balance

To guard their own work-life balance, the restaurant closes at weekends. “We have three children. If we worked weekends, we’d have no time together as a family. By strictly limiting our hours, we can still pick up the kids from school after serving lunch. That way we can continue to combine work and family life.”

Gender equality is another sore point in hospitality. “If you receive a star, it’s automatically assigned to the name of your chef, while there’s a whole team working to provide that unique dining experience. Too often, I am seen as the ‘wife of’, even though I play an essential role in making Souvenir what it is. We have a long road ahead of us, but I’m up for it. We will only come out stronger as an industry.”

"We have a long road ahead of us, but I’m up for it. We will only come out stronger as an industry."

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