Manager profile: we catch up with Lee Potter Cavanagh in London

Lee Potter Cavanagh

He left our shores to test his skills in the wide world and has landed firmly on his feet in London with a rold of Group Bars Manager at Hix Restaurants. Bartender Magazine had a bit of a chat with Lee to see what he’s been up to…

What’s the attraction of the bar business for you?

Without doubt the people and the lifestyle. It can be incredibly stressful and demanding of you and your time but at the end of the day we work in the business of enjoyment and celebration. Not bad really.

Tell us a bit about Hix Restaurants.

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We’re a group of six restaurants and bars, all with very distinct identities and differing service styles. The basic philosophy is seasonal, regional food and drinks with a focus on quality and provenance. We change our products every month and every week we get in new seasonal fruit and veg. We even have a forager that works full time just for our company!

What does being Group Bars Manager entail?

A lot! As we’re in the middle of growing from a small company to a large one so it’s a very demanding role. Basically, I’m in the middle of coming up with new operational procedures to make it possible for the company to grow larger more quickly. Currently I’m responsible for all of the purchasing and menu development for everything liquid, except milk. It’s very challenging. I then also mentor all the bar teams, focusing on the bar manager/head bartender of each site. Finally, I’ve developed a monthly training program involving comprehensive tests with the reward for the best marks a trip to a local distillery, brewery, coffee roaster, winery, market, etc.

How do you continually develop your creative ideas?

This is one of the hardest aspects of my job, finding time to be creative. I’ve learnt to jot down an idea as soon as I get it and keep it in my phone. Mostly I get inspiration from dining out at good restaurants and then sometimes while throwing shapes at a Dalston dive bar at 4am. We have a weekly meeting of all the bar managers/head bartenders at which we have a “mix-off” with all the newest ingredients. You don’t always get the best drinks coming out of it but it’s great to seed ideas to develop later.

What was behind the move from Sydney to London?

Like a lot of Aussies I grew up with massive stars in my eyes for London and New York. I have had itchy feet for a while and had been looking forward to a period of time on walkabout. I was originally intending on heading to NY first but I already had way more contacts in London and the visa is just too easy to obtain. I’ve loved every minute.

How is the London bar scene different to Sydney?

Extremely. There is nothing like the London bar scene in the world. The opulence and extravagance of some of the venues here is mind boggling. The access to ingredients and products will blow your mind. I would say the quality is higher here in general, the venue, glassware, ice, ingredients are all of such a high standard. Saying that though, because London is such a financial behemoth, bars often forget what makes bars truly great – service. I’ve had some of the worst service in London bars and I know that the service culture of Australia or the USA far surpasses that of London. I’d much prefer a schooner of Coopers in an average pub full of happy people to an extravagant cocktail from Jerry Thomas’ neighbor’s dad’s pharmacist, served in a crystal chalice with an ice ball holding prisoner flowers in a bar that was retrieved from the Titanic, staffed by a bunch of Europeans who won’t let you sit at the bar because you might distract the bartenders.

What does it need more of? Less of?

More Aussies! Better coffee!

Really the focus on service needs to improve here. It’s getting there and I can feel there is a bit of a thawing of all the different bars and everyone is generally trying to pull together as a community but it is such a big scene here. There are so many bars. Less celebrity bartenders encouraging young bartenders to focus on their long pours and fifteen point hard shake when they should be working on their jokes, bad chat and service skills.

What are some of the highlights of your time in the UK so far?

Without doubt being part of a new scene was very exciting. Meeting a whole new crew of people who love this industry has been very inspiring and has really taught me a lot. I’ve also loved the travel. I’ve been fortunate enough to average a trip a month since I’ve been here, everything is just so close. I’m off to Jamaica at the end of June. It’ll be my first time in the Caribbean and I’ll be fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I worked at The Rum Diaries, Bondi in 2008.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Anything exciting on the cards?

Five year plan is to start my own hospitality business in Sydney.

My visa here is up in November. My current employer has talked about sponsorship but I think it is time for the next step so I have started testing the water. I can feel the call of New York or Chicago but there might be a job back home that could tempt me back. Watch this space!

What mistakes have taught you the most important lessons?

Mostly for me it’s to do with people. We’re an industry filled with all sorts of characters and it can be hard to keep everyone happy, I’ve definitely made some mistakes with how I’ve dealt with some staff. The operational stuff generally works itself out if you put your mind to it and you work in a clever, successful company.

Who are the bar operators that you admire? Why?

In Australia there are quite a few. The Shady crew, Merivale, Keystone, the Almennings, Golden Monkey and the boys from Grandma’s/Wild Rover. Oh, and Tash and The Pearl Team. Gangsters.

In the UK, Hawksmoor, Jason Atherton et al, Stu from Bon Vivant, Trailer Happiness, Happiness Forgets, Portobello Star, oh and us of course.

What are you drinking right now?

I’m actually sitting in the office at the end of service drinking a ’98 Chateau Montrose! It’s not always this gangster though, I’m normally sucking down an ale brewed in one of London’s newest micro-breweries, which has really kicked off recently. I have been making the most of my access to European wine while over here though, I’ve learnt boatloads.

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