Patricia Michelson

Posted on 17 October 2020

Patricia Michelson is the Founder and Director of La Fromagerie – the award-winning cheese shops and wholesale business.

Elliot Moss

Good morning and welcome to Jazz Shapers.  It is me, Elliot Moss.  It’s the place where we bring you the entrepreneurs shaping the world of business together with the musicians shaping the worlds of Jazz, Soul and Blues, and what lovely worlds they are too. My guest today, I am very pleased to say is Patricia Michelson, Founder and Director of La Fromagerie - I love the name - the award-winning cheese shops and wholesale business.  Brought up on the Essex coast with a childhood she describes as ‘classic Enid Blyton’.  Patricia’s love for food and cooking were self-taught, “That’s the best way to do it” she said, “your passion leads you.”  After a stint as a secretary for our partners, Mishcon de Reya no less, Patricia and her two brothers ran Mr Love restaurant in Mayfair with a certain Jimmy Hendrix living above them.  Her love of cheese was born by accident on a skiing holiday in Meribel in 1990 when after a tumble on the slopes she got lost, eventually finding herself at a local cheese shop trying the Beaufort Chalet D’Alpage – I hope I said that correctly.  So delicious was it she ordered a little more directly from the cheesemaker but blames her bad French for the fact she was soon cramming a 38 kilogram wheel of into her car.  Together with husband Danny, Patricia started selling the cheese to local restaurants from their garden shed before graduating to a Camden Market stall.  Now, La Fromagerie comprises three London shops, each with signature walk-in cheese rooms housing over two hundred cheeses.  So, Patricia Michelson, my Business Shaper today, Co-Founder of La Fromagerie, it’s really nice to have you here.

Patricia Michelson

Thank you.

Elliot Moss

I’ve been thinking about you for a while because we’ve almost asked you before and we never quite got round to it and then we asked you and luckily you were available, as they say and here you are.  Did you always love cheese before you fell over in… on the slopes or was this a…?

Patricia Michelson

Oh I like cheese, I like Dairylea, you know, triangles. 

Elliot Moss

That’s not cheese. 

Patricia Michelson

It is, it is when you are five years old, it’s fantastic.  I liked it, you know, in a sandwich or, you know, things like that, I never got passionate about it until I got married and Danny and I went on an odyssey around France for three weeks, driving around and we stopped off in all these wonderful places, little villages and towns, staying in fantastic chateau hotels and inns, it was the most beautiful three weeks and it was 1978, there you go, and we had the most marvellous dinners every night and every night you would see in these incredible restaurants a cheeseboard and that’s how I started to think ‘Wow, there’s more to cheese than cheddar’, you know, and is started to feel that passion coming in and then I was cooking and doing loads of dinner parties, you do them when you first get married, you, you know, have loads of people round and I always did a cheese course and I lived in Belsize Park and there was a little deli in Belsize Village run by a Frenchman and every week, for the weekend, he would bring in these French cheeses from a very famous cheesemonger in Boulogne called Philippe Olivier and they would be sitting on top of the counter, not refrigerated, bries and all sort of things and I’d go in on a Friday and buy then say £20 worth of cheese, which would be like £80, £90 now, for the weekend and slowly I became this sort of nutcase about cheese. 

Elliot Moss

As you are talking, Patricia has the most amazingly big eyes, right, and your eyes are full of stories and passion and I asked you one question, it’s extraordinary.  It feels like, and it sounds strange, but the… you have a love affair, obviously for cheese and what’s wonderful to me is that you were able to take that passion and create a business out of it.  The business-minded Patricia, was there always a latent thing that you were going to do something yourself or is this… where you a late developer?

Patricia Michelson

A bit of both.  I remember as a child I loved playing shop but I would do it really seriously, I would get all my mother’s beautiful, you know, little bits and pieces, beautiful gloves and scarves and bits of jewellery and I’d lay them out and then invite the family in to come shopping and I didn’t realise until actually somebody said something to me a few years ago, that was it, it was always there, I’m a consummate shopkeeper.  So, when I had that, you know, epiphany in Meribel and ate that bit of cheese after a horrible day’s skiing, I thought ‘I’ve got to do something’.  I had the feeling as I was coming down the mountain on my own, not knowing where I was going because it was a whiteout and I was just almost, you know, I was going off piste and all sorts, I said to myself ‘if I get down this, I want to do something else with my life, I don’t want to be working for somebody else, I want to try and do something for myself’ and it was when I had that little bit of cheese, it thought this is fantastic, why can’t I get this at home?  Why don’t I bring back some cheese and that’s how it started. 

Elliot Moss

Literally a message from above.  So, first shop opens around 1990, is that right?  ’91?

Patricia Michelson

Well no, 1991 I was working from the garden shed, ’92 we were moving house so I was losing my garden shed and I had to find a little shop so I went to the local newspaper and there was a short let in Highbury for £80 a week. 

Elliot Moss

The home of football, Patricia, the home of football. 

Patricia Michelson

Yes, yes my husband was delighted, he’s a Gooner, he was a Gooner, absolutely. 

Elliot Moss

I’m a Gooner too.  But tell me, what was it like when you first opened those doors and you and Danny are there?

Patricia Michelson

Well, it was extraordinary because, you know I started on a shoestring and the bank wouldn’t hear about loaning me money and stuff like that, I had a bit of an overdraft so we had very little and Danny said “I’m not going to start shoving money into this because it might not last, you know, “more than a month.”  So we did it out ourselves, it was very funny because we’d never been do-it-yourselfers but somehow or other we did it and I took loads of stuff from home to make it look like a little French shop and I thought I’ll open three days a week and I’ll still do the market stall and I opened the doors and there was like this rush of people saying, “Wow, a cheese shop”, you know, because they’d walk in and all the cheese was surrounding them, it was like a little cooled room. 

Elliot Moss

The rumour has it that Nigel Slater may have been one of the first…

Patricia Michelson

Yes, he was one of the first customers and he walked in like, “Who are you?” and I said…

Elliot Moss

I’m Patricia. 

Patricia Michelson

“Yes, I’m me and, you know, here’s my cheese” and he said, “Fantastic” and he was just starting to do his columns for The Observer so he was, he still is, he comes in nearly every day to the Highbury shop.

Elliot Moss

Obviously, people that know about wine, know that there’s a serious process that goes behind it, it’s the same for cheese.  Tell me a little bit about what excites you about the way that cheese is made and the artistry and the craftsmanship and I, there’s the name of a very famous cheesemaker you mentioned to me just before who is called?

Patricia Michelson

Philippe Olivier. 

Elliot Moss

Yes.  So, just give me an… explain why you appreciate the craft of cheese making so much?

Patricia Michelson

Well, it takes reference from the land, you know, terroir is one of my favourite words, a lot of people use it and throw it around but terroir for me is where everything happens, it starts, the land gives you everything.  If you don’t have the land, you don’t have the pasture, if you don’t have the pasture, you know, the animals can’t feed from the pasture so how you look after your land and how we look after the world, you know we can get very philosophical about this but something like cheese gives you a very clear reference to how to be a good person, how to respect the place that you live and looking after your animals is just as important as looking after the land, if you don’t look after your animals and give them the right pasture and look after them in lots of other ways, they won’t produce the milk.  So, a farmer and a dairy and farms are so important to the way we live and taking that milk and transforming the milk into curds and then into cheese is a magical process because it’s these steps that you take to curdle the milk; first of all you put in a starter, it’s like a little yoghurty mix which is acidic and it will start the process of separating the curds from the whey which is what you want to do so, it’s step-by-step approach and with certain cheeses it takes longer than others and nowadays a lot of the artisan handmade cheeses, they do a much slower process, they don’t throw a manufactured starter in there to make it quicker to process, they let it happen very much more naturally and then once you do that you know that you are keeping all the enzymes and the proteins and everything into that cheese and it’s going to slowly form into these curds and into the little crumbs that then get pressed together into the moulds and you then put the on the shelves and let nature take its course to grow little fluffy moulds and things. 

Elliot Moss

I’ve entered into this world, I’m free, I’m just listening to you and going “Yesss, tell me more”, I’m transfixed, I’ve lost myself in this little…

Patricia Michelson

No but this is a magical world because a lot of you think of cheese as coming out of a packet, you know, you go into a shop or a supermarket and you see it all pre-cut and in plastic and that’s, that takes away this romance of what the actual cheese really looks like and that’s why I wanted to have a shop to show how beautiful these different cheeses are, these forms and as you cut into each one, it’s not pre-wrapped, it’s cut for you. 

Elliot Moss

I want to move from romance to, not the reality sounds like romance isn’t real, but romance to business in a moment but that’s going to be coming up in a bit when I come back to talking to my Business Shaper today, Patricia Michelson, a little bit more and that’s in a few minutes.  Right now though, we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms and hopefully the one that you use.  Mishcon de Reya’s Victoria Pigott and Dr Rebecca Newton, Organisational Psychologist and CEO of Coach Advisor, discuss the impact of women in positions of leadership and on boards. 

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or you can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and many of our recent programmes await you there.  But back to today’s guest, it’s Patricia Michelson, Founder and Director of La Fromagerie, the award-winning cheese shops, cafes and wholesale business.  I’ve come back from the little world you created for me, I was slightly lost for a moment there, as I am sure people listening were too.  The romance of, and it sounded so organic, and I mean organic in the broader sense of growth and like a culture that grows.  The business itself has also grown over the years…

Patricia Michelson

Very much so. 

Elliot Moss

…and how have you… Have you?  I mean, I love the phrase you talk about, the terroir, the land and looking after the land.  How have you ensured that the foundations of the business when it was one shop and then it was two and then it was three, were both solid and were nurturing?  How have you made sure that that has grown in accordance with those values you just talked about?

Patricia Michelson

Well, because we’ve always had this one way of working and it has to be like that going forward.  We’re thirty years old next year. 

Elliot Moss

Congratulations. 

Patricia Michelson

Thank you very much.  But that thirty years has been a long, a long journey whereas, say thirty years?  Three shops?  Is that all you’ve got?  Why don’t you have three hundred?  Why aren’t you like, you know, others?  And that’s not the way we are, we opened the next shop after ten years and the third shop after eighteen so there you go but it was time, it was ready, ready to do it and I think that the ethos is there, all the way through and everyone who comes to work with us has to have that way of working. 

Elliot Moss

Which is what?  If you had to describe the way of working, if I was going for a job interview?  I’d be very scared Patricia but what would you say to me?  What do I need to know?

Patricia Michelson

Right, so we can all do every job, there’s not a hierarchy.  Yes, okay, there’s me there but I will sweep the floor and wash up the same as anybody else when I need to do it, if I can see something that needs to be done, I’m on the shopfloor every day doing bits and pieces and going into the cheese room, talking to them, making sure that the shop is run in a way that is very attainable, we don’t have any serve over counters so all the staff are out, I don’t like saying staff, colleagues are out on the shopfloor.  They have to know about the products, they can’t hide.  They are there, I said “you are our best advert, you are the most important part, apart from all our beautiful products, you are the one that is going to sell it to the customer and you are not going to sell something you don’t know” so they have to learn about everything that we sell, they have to be able to do everything that everybody else does and that we are like a little community really and truly.  It’s a very different way of working, it’s not, I hate the idea of going down corridors and just, you know, buying off shelves, everything is placed in the shop for a reason, you go in and get your juices flowing because colour hits you from fruit and vegetables and then goes into bread and wine into the cheese room and everything that we sell there has a meaning to everything else, it’s not just put there for the sake of it or because it’s trendy, we are not trendy. 

Elliot Moss

And so this little world that you create of stimulating the senses and of real pride in artisanship and knowledge and so on and so forth.  At the end of the day though, in every business there’s a numbers game, you know, she’s smiling at me, she knows where this is going.  There’s a numbers game.  You go, I’ve got to make money here and how do you ensure that you can both create that beautiful world and the romance and also translate that into a nice healthy business or does one actually deliver the other quite nicely?

Patricia Michelson

Of course.  It’s a thing called trust and your customer trusts you.  And when they come in and they have that experience that it’s not just buying something, they’re becoming part of the whole idea of what La Fromagerie is and what they are buying, that piece of cheese that they’ve bought has gone through a huge journey to get to where it is here from, you know, the alpine pastures all the way through and it’s taken two years for it to mature and then get onto our shelves and we have taken that trouble to do that and not bypassed it in any way or tried a shortcut so people that come to us come because they know they are getting something that is not just special but is really honest, it’s really honest as well so, yeah of course I want to be able to make money because I want to keep going but I’m not going to ever do it to sacrifice it, you know, I don’t have fancy cars and three homes and stuff, I don’t need that, my business is the thing that gives me joy in a way, I love my kids, I love my grandchildren and they’re all part of it as well because they come in and enjoy the experience as well but for me, having the business has been so much more than making the money. 

Elliot Moss

Patricia, this business that’s grown organically, slowly, thoughtfully and the team that you’ve created, this ethos as you said that you want people to be part of it and to realise that they’ve got to really know and embrace it and as you said, I love what you said before about you’ll do anything, you’re on the shop floor.  The last six months or seven months or so has been pretty shocking for everybody in all sorts of ways both personally and professionally.  How has your business pivoted because the central London high streets are dead but the local high streets are not, but not in the conventional way.  Just tell me a little bit about how you move from one iteration of your business to another. 

Patricia Michelson

Well, it was very sudden but we’ve always been very good at thinking on our feet.  I’ve got a Director, Sarah Bilney, who has been with me for nineteen years I think now, and together we are a bit of a force to be reckoned with.  Some people don’t like working for women and I often ask, especially male employees, are they okay having a women?

Elliot Moss

How could they not though?  I mean, I’ve got to say, I think because my mum who is such a strong, you know, influence in my life.  I’ve always found, on the whole, present boss excluded of course, I have to say that, that women make much better bosses than men.  There, I’ve said it. 

Patricia Michelson

Yes, we…

Elliot Moss

But it’s true.  On the whole, not always true but why would a man not want to work for a woman, in your experience?

Patricia Michelson

Because they… it depends on the position that they have but I have found sometimes men that are working in the business find it difficult to take instruction or criticism, you know, even it it’s constructive criticism, they find it quite difficult coming from a woman. 

Elliot Moss

I don’t like it from anybody. 

Patricia Michelson

Well you might not but from a woman…

Elliot Moss

No, people get… there’s a difference isn’t there. 

Patricia Michelson

They do, they do.  So, there’s Dan, obviously, Danny but Sarah and I work very closely together and when it was the lockdown I was sent into isolation because of my age and so I was just working from home and it was very frustrating but Sarah was at the coalface and we decided to turn the whole thing round from being front facing as a shop to being a food hub that we would do deliveries, we would do supper packs, we do all sorts of things to make life easier because, you know, you try to get a slot with a supermarket and you couldn’t get it, we were doing it six days a week, seven days a week we would be doing this and we would be delivering and we decided for our customers and because we’re quite local, Highbury is a local place, suddenly became this place that, you know, people could get everything they needed and we didn’t compromise again, if we are doing milk we are doing our lovely Ivy House Farmhouse milk, we are doing everything that you need, if you want the flour, the flour that we use, the Italian flours, whatever we were using in the kitchen, we were now selling in the shop and I think that by doing that we could keep going and we could see how we could manage the business, we are also wholesale, you know, to restaurants.  That stopped as well. 

Elliot Moss

May I ask a question and it may be a difficult question to ask but you lost your husband at the beginning which is obviously tragic.  How have you, and you talk so eloquently and so calmly about how you pivoted the business and carried on but in the face of where you were on a personal level, how did you manage it?  How did you manage to keep going and how do manage sitting here now to seem still so clear about where this needed to go?

Patricia Michelson

Well, you know, Danny and I were married for 48 years, thirty of them working together in the business so we saw each other all day, every day, you know, there was no getting away from it, if we weren’t emailing each other, we were speaking on the phone or I was… he stayed in Highbury and I was in the West End part, but it was, it was very hard and I try to remember what was I doing that I think I went onto autopilot.  Danny would have said “Get on with it”, you know, you’ve got to keep that business going.  I’ve got, you know, eighty people, you know, in the business.  I’ve got… I can’t just wallow and sit back in this, the most important thing apart from, you know, my health, is to keep that business going and in fact having it there helped me get through what was a tragic situation that I was living with because it was tragic, I could not, I still haven’t come to terms with it, it happened so fast so, you know, the important thing for me was yes, you know, I know what I’m going through but also I want to keep this business going as well and there are ways to do it and we found those ways of doing it. 

Elliot Moss

We’ll have our final chat with my guest there, it’s Patricia Michelson.  Plus playing a track from Abdullah Ibrahim, another one of your favourites I believe.  What a treat, I hope.  That’s all coming up in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

So, here we are in this business, thirty years next year so, 2021, thirty years.  What’s on the agenda?  What’s going to happen in the next ten years?  I feel like if there’s fast fashion and slow fashion, there’s fast food and then there’s slow food and you are definitely the slow food variety. 

Patricia Michelson

Absolutely.

Elliot Moss

In a beautiful way, in a hold on a minute, food to be enjoyed, food is about the land, food is about culture, community.  So what does that mean in terms of where this thing goes?  Is it just more of the same?  And not in a negative way, I mean in a…

Patricia Michelson

Well, I think that life has changed so dramatically that we will have to see.  I am hoping that we will get through this year and keep going next year hopefully that things will open up a bit more and people will come out but a lot of people are scared to go out and don’t go out as they used to but we’ve seen, especially in our Bloomsbury branch which is on Lamb’s Conduit Street, it’s a little street and we’ve got loads of tables and chairs outside.

Elliot Moss

I love that street because it’s also got lots of men’s clothes shops which is very rare. 

Patricia Michelson

Yes and they are superb.

Elliot Moss

It’s not far from Head Office of Mishcon de Reya, not far from where we are sitting right now. 

Patricia Michelson

Yeah.  We get a lot of Solicitors and QCs coming in, even in their outfits after being in Court, you know, with a bottle of champagne or a glass of whisky to commiserate, it depends.  But people do want to, at certain times, want to go out in a way maybe not, you know, in a pub environment where it’s all close together but in a more relaxed environment and have a glass of wine and a plate of cheese and I think that, you know, get me back next time this time next year and let’s see what’s going on.  I think that things will settle down and we will resume but perhaps not quite as frantic as before, I have always been very suspicious of businesses wanting to push too fast.  I think life is different now, you need to stand back and look and be a little bit more reflective and a little bit more caring and I think that maybe we will see that.  I am hoping, I am hoping for that. 

Elliot Moss

Do you think in a way that stuff has caught up with us in a way that your business ethos has always been your business ethos and actually other people are going to have to come your way?

Patricia Michelson

I’d like to think so.  A lot of… it’s funny you say that because I’ve always thought to myself that I think I do it the right way and others do it the fast way that they miss a lot of things, I haven’t missed a moment of my business.  All the hurdles and all the wonders of that business, how we started, I have those memories very clear and all the stages that it went through and the way it is now, if you go into the Highbury shop it’s like stepping back those thirty years, very little has changed, we’ve had to put in a fridge, an upright fridge, because the HO said that we couldn’t have things on a table and we’ve had to make certain concessions but basically it looks the same and I love that, that things do stay the same.  You know, it’s nice to look forward and be really sort of pushing ahead but it’s… I love to be reflective as well and feel safe in a place and I think that our shops, you feel safe in the knowledge that you are getting something lovely. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been an absolute pleasure to have met you and to talk to you.  Thank you for your time and it feels like we’ve had more than an hour because it’s been calm and slow and reflective and actually, I’ve really enjoyed it, really enjoyed it.

Patricia Michelson

Oh, it’s been an absolute pleasure of mine.  A joy.  It’s off my bucket list, I’ve always wanted to be on this show.  Thank you very much. 

Elliot Moss

That’s an absolute pleasure and just before I say cheerio for now, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Patricia Michelson

Ah.  Miles Davis, Milestones.  I play it a lot and it’s funny, my husband whenever it came on the radio, he would say, the first few cords, he’d say, “That just reminds me of you” and I think that’s great, yes, that’s my song. 

Elliot Moss

The song choice of my special Business Shaper today, Patricia Michelson.  Evident from the first word that came out of her mouth was the passion she has for the world of making cheese.  As she said, “The land gives everything, we need to look after the land.”  She talked about her own ethos as a leader and as someone in business, “I will sweep the floor” she said because that’s just as much her job as anybody else’s.  And finally that whole notion and really the underpin of the ethos of the growth of her business, a slow, organic approach rather than a fast and false one.  Brilliant reflective stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

La Fromagerie was founded by Patricia in 1991, whose love of cheese began whilst she was skiing in the alpine resort of Meribel, had a tumble, lost her bearings and ended up buying a small piece of cheese from the local cheesemonger on her way back to her chalet. Patricia returned to London with a 38kg wheel of Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage which she sold from her garden shed, then graduated to a weekend stall in Camden Market a few months later, and before long, opened a tiny shop before moving to her current premises in Highbury nine months later. 

La Fromagerie now comprises three shops, featuring the temperature and humidity controlled signature walk-in cheese rooms housing over 200 cheeses. There is also a successful wholesale business, supplying some of the most reputable chefs and restaurants in the UK.

Patricia also has an award-winning book: 'The Cheese Room' which was published in 2001, and her second book: 'CHEESE' was published in 2010.

Highlights

I like cheese.

You would see in these incredible restaurants a cheeseboard and that’s how I started to think ‘Wow, there’s more to cheese than cheddar’.

Slowly I became this sort of nutcase about cheese.

I said to myself ‘if I get down this (slope), I want to do something else with my life, I don’t want to be working for somebody else, I want to try and do something for myself.'

I started on a shoestring.

Something like cheese gives you a very clear reference to how to be a good person, how to respect the place that you live, and looking after your animals is just as important as looking after the land.

A farmer, a dairy and farms are so important to the way we live.

Taking milk and transforming it into curds and then into cheese is a magical process.

This is a magical world because a lot of you think of cheese as coming out of a packet… taking away the romance of what actual cheese really looks like.

I hate the idea of going down corridors and just buying off of shelves. Everything is placed in the shop for a reason.

I don’t have fancy cars and three homes and stuff, I don’t need that. My business is the thing that gives me joy in a way, I love my kids, I love my grandchildren and they’re all part of it.

I think life is different now, you need to stand back and look and be a little bit more reflective and a little bit more caring.

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