The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.
Ann Lee is the founder and CEO of The Core restaurant group, which operates four eateries in Oslo. Her most recent venture is La Mayor — an upscale Mexican restaurant she launched in autumn 2021 together with former Quintonil sous-chef Montserrat Garza.
I got into the restaurant business via music. When I was 20, 21, I moved to London and got invited to join an all-girl Japanese punk band called Mikabomb. I thought, why not? We were signed to the Beastie Boys’ record label and it was a chance to see the world. I lived in Europe for the next 10, 15 years. In 2007, I joined a Norwegian band called Serena Maneesh. One of my bandmates was a chef and whenever we were not on tour, I needed work, so I started as an apprentice in the kitchen with him and just fell in love with it.
Working in kitchens wasn’t too dissimilar to the rock n’ roll lifestyle. I was working very long hours — I had my own catering company and was working in a restaurant at the same time, so had this typical, insane chef’s lifestyle where it was easy to get burnt out. I also wanted to use my brain somehow, so I studied for about a year to get into a decent business school and went back to the United States to get an MBA.
I was most attracted to startups and the tech world. I tried my luck in San Francisco and lived just outside Outer Mission, so I was on Mission Street all the time and loved the food culture. But I had been long-distance dating my now Norwegian husband for about a year and since I didn't have any luck getting a dream tech job in Silicon Valley, I moved to Oslo to be with him and see if I could get a job in tech there.
My first venture was a hole-in-the-wall taqueria. The language barrier had made finding a job in Oslo hard. A friend of mine had a bar and said, “Hey, we have a kitchen. Do you want to do something?” That's how Mission Taco started. I’d sworn I wouldn't go back to the chef world. Six years later, we have four restaurants and have gone into about 14 food ventures since then.
I'm selfish and I want to make food I want to eat — like Mexican, ramen, barbecue. Maybe it’s because I live in a country that’s far from some of my favourite cities and hasn't really had a big food culture like the ones I'm used to. As an expat, I want to create something that makes me feel at home.
We learn from every venture we launch. Each time, we like to think we’ve acquired a certain amount of knowledge about how to do it better and that there's one more thing we can try to prevent from happening. But what’s so interesting about this industry is there’s always a world of things that can make or break your restaurant and I've experienced them all. Whether it's a bad location, bad leadership, bad management, or COVID-19.
You’ll always see me in the kitchen at the start of every venture. If you want to translate that into business terms, heh, that’s “product development”. I have to have my hands in at the start, always in the kitchen. As long as I'm running restaurants, you’ll see me working service or in the kitchen in some capacity.
There’s often a disconnect within restaurants. One of the problems with a lot of restaurant groups is that there’s a divide between the people in the office who are looking down and those who are working on the floor, who knows what’s really happening in the restaurant. That will happen regardless of what you do. No amount of money or staff parties can prevent this.
I rarely do job interviews. I tried to apply the business school process to interviews, where we had all these stages, tests and questions. I don't do that now. Of course, we do a phone screener to ask essential questions and make sure a candidate has the basic qualifications, but basically, we say, "Show up for a trial and if we think you're good in the trial, we’ll give you a shot.”
I’ve learned that personality is critical. Some of the best chefs I’ve hired came through someone having worked with them before. In the hospitality industry, you’re working with these tight-knit teams and one individual might excel in one team but not another. Skills you can easily evaluate — “How well do you hold a tray?” — but it’s not necessarily as important as personality, the human component. You don't know that until you work with someone. It takes time and requires the quick judgment of managers to know whether someone fits in or not — and also to call it quickly if they don't and to have a process for moving them to another team or saying, "Hey, this isn’t working out.”
I run restaurants because it’s what I love — maybe because it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever known. Running a restaurant can seem so impossible at times, and that in itself, if you're a bit crazy, motivates and incentivises you to try. To attempt to do something that no one else has done and create something really beautiful.
I have an old school view that we'll always want to go to restaurants. I can imagine a future in which everything is replaced by AI and robots do all these different restaurant jobs, but I think we'll still want to see the face of a waiter who knows our name and what our favourite foods are. I don't think that's ever going to go away. I hope it doesn’t.
As told to Superb. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.