Meet the restaurant owner rejoining the industry on his terms despite the pandemic

  • Written by ITV Wales Journalist Zaynub Akbar

Despite many hospitality businesses struggling to keep their heads above water throughout the pandemic, one chef has recently opened his first restaurant.

Lee Skeet from Cardiff had previously worked as a head chef in some of the UK’s most prestigious restaurants, but spent the last four years working in a different industry.

However when Covid hit, work dried up. With his passion for fine dining still bubbling away, he decided to venture back into the hospitality sector. But this time, on his own terms.

"I don’t want to be like a normal restaurant, or hospitality business. I don’t want to give up the life that I've got with my kids, because I love my kids and my partner a lot more than I love cooking. Although I do love cooking.

"So we’re actually open only Monday to Thursday dinner services and Tuesday to Friday lunchtime, so we’ll have every weekend off. Against good business sense", Lee joked.

Based in Pontcanna, the intimate restaurant seats up to 12 people. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Lee has also taken the initiative to take payment for meals upfront, something he thinks should be considered across the industry.

"Certainly what I’ve done is try to minimise any risk to me and I’ve done things like all diners prepay for their meal before they come so that’s to cover myself.

"I think there should be a lot more of that in the industry, of restaurants acting to protect themselves, because no one else is going to protect us obviously."

Lee’s first restaurant, called Cora after his daughter, is based in Pontcanna and seats just 12 people.

Taking a minimalist approach, the restaurant is run by Lee and colleague Lilly. With no financial backing, it was set up on a budget with much of the decorating done by Lee himself.

Cora will only be open during the week to allow the dad-of-two to spend quality time with his family. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

The idea started during lockdown when Lee was able to bring his skills to his very own living room.

Cooking for six people at a time, it didn't take long for the muscle memory to kick in.

"It was called the Bones Supper Club and I was doing that at my house for about six months. I hadn’t cooked for money for a few years and I definitely hadn’t ever served guests, which I did when I was cooking at mine.

"The first night, I went to open the first bottle of wine and I hadn’t got a cork screw. So there’s been a few little challenges which I ironed out after a while but after that, I loved it really.

"It’s a scary time to open a restaurant, but I’m confident as well that I can do it."

Head of the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales, Ben Cottam, acknowledged the importance of the industry to the economy and the need for self starters.

He explained: "Entrepreneurs by their nature are resilient, but that can only go so far and we have to be honest about these impacts.

"And I think as long as we recognise the value of the industry to the welsh economy, I think there’ll be any number of entrepreneurs who are willing to provide that service and be innovative."

Elsewhere, students from the University of South Wales have refused to let the pressures facing the hospitality sector over the last two years deter them from pursuing a career in the industry.

As part of their Hotel and Hospitality Management degree, the students gain invaluable work experience at the Celtic Manor in Newport.

One student, Asher Berman-Thomas, explained how he believes it opens up a world of opportunities.

"It’s an industry where it’s like no other. We are directly dealing with people and it’s all about service and hospitality. Wherever you go in the world there’s hospitality.

"I think in a way it's like getting a Drs degree in that there’s always going to be hotel managers and there’s always going to be Drs. Especially now there’s such a shortage with Covid-19 with all of that, I think it’s now pivotal and it’s a great step to be getting into the industry."

A criticism that has been raised by other hospitality businesses, Sam Shandall thinks the industry needs to be seen as more of a profession.

"I think when you go to Europe, people see it very differently. People see it as a career, not a stop gap before university or a weekend job.

"It’s a profession and there’s a pride to it in offering great service and hopefully with Covid, I think it’s been a real wake up call for industry leaders to go 'we have to start reframing what we offer and offering people futures'."

University student, Karolina, is "very positive" about the future of the hospitality industry. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Another USW student on the course, Karolina Katkovskyte, explained how the last two years have proven how crucial the hospitality industry is to people's daily lives.

Karolina said: "I believe that this pandemic has really provided a sort of meditative state for the industry to just relax, take a breather and look at how we do things.

"Yeah it will take time to bounce back, but I believe that people are eager to experience hospitality and to interact with people even with masks, or without masks. People have been fed up with staying at home, so I'm very positive about the future of the industry, very positive."

To catch up on the full programme, which explores the future of the hospitality industry, visit the Wales This Week homepage.