I ENTERED my career quite by chance. Aged 17, I was waiting for a friend to finish work in a local wine shop and one of the owners asked if I could drop him at the station. I happened to mention that I wanted a summer job and he employed me. We were taken to grand wine tastings in London by another of the shop owners, who insisted that we wear jeans and T-shirts. Just because others in the wine trade were pompous, he said, it didn't mean we had to be. That kind of attitude can boost one's confidence. It's all about not being intimidated.
I returned to school for my final year but I couldn't wait to get back to the shop where I took my wine exams and became assistant manager.
Two and a half years later, I split up from a long-term relationship and decided to travel. I got my first taste of the restaurant business by getting work with a friend in a French restaurant in Florida.
When I came home, I got a job in the London restaurant, l'Escargot. But because I was more interested in wine, I decided to give it up. My boss couldn't believe it. The restaurant business, he said, was a more reliable trade and involved wine anyway. I stayed and became assistant manager.
I then began the crucial process of making contacts and gaining mentors. One woman who was running a nearby restaurant, for instance, taught me everything I know about dealing with difficult people - a vital skill in this job, especially when you're dealing with famous, demanding people.
In 1986, I went to the Hilaire restaurant in South Kensington, where I got my first role as sole manager. I loved the independence and the responsibility and learned a lot about how to get the best out of staff - that is, treating them with respect and being prepared to do whatever they do when necessary.
My move to the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong two and a half years later was dramatic. I was responsible for the operational and financial control of 14 food and beverage outlets employing over 500 staff. I adored the job, not least because of the Chinese people, who demonstrated a huge drive to learn.
One evening, when I'd been there a couple of years, Dickson Poon came on one of his many visits to the restaurant and said he'd just bought Harvey Nichols. Two days later, he phoned and asked me to work for him. I wasn't sure I was ready for another move - although I soon changed my mind when we realised the concept of the Fifth Floor Restaurant, Bar, Cafe and Foodmarket.
It was, of course, stressful. I'd lost touch with London and I wasn't even familiar with Harvey Nichols. But the risk element made it exciting. That, and the fact that I was given free reign over the project. If you are part of a unique concept from the beginning and really believe in it, there's nothing greater and it's amazing how many obstacles you can overcome.
Interview by Kate HilpernReuse content