Apiece Apart Woman: Shelley Armistead
Words: Leigh Patterson
Photos: Gemma Ingalls
Styling: Melanie Beckett
If you’ve ever spent time in Venice, CA, odds are you’ve ended up at one of the Gjelina Group’s ever-packed restaurants — Gjelina, GTA, Gjusta, or MTN, all beloved spots that feel at once progressive and timeless, delicious nods to sustainably-sourced California ingredients in nonchalant yet elegant spaces.
Shelley Kleyn Armistead is partner and chief operating officer of the Gjelina Group, with a role of overseeing the details that largely contribute to how special each environment is. From directing the actual design of a space to commissioning the hand-thrown mugs your coffee is served in, Shelley is the orchestrator of way the Gjelina’s restaurants look and feel.
Over the last three decades, she has worked in nearly every imaginable aspect of the hospitality industry, from bartending in South Africa (where she grew up) to managing the esteemed River Cafe in London, to traveling the world for Soho House for over 10 years. Using her evolving experience and a do-anything work ethic she allowed her skills in the industry to take her all around the world while she simultaneously earned degrees in nutrition and homeopathic medicine. In the end, the hospitality industry won out…eventually leading to her current position with the Gjelina group, which she joined as COO five years ago.
Obvious career goals aside, what we admire most about Shelley is the utter humility, warmth, and care that underwrites everything she does — from the thoughtfulness that is a the core of her work and for her employees to the boundaries she draws for her time at home and with her family. (Following our correspondence with her leading up to this story, everyone’s unanimous response was an all-caps, unabashedly earnest gushing: “Shelley is WONDERFUL.”) She’s not precious or dogmatic about words like “balance” or “routine,” and yet it’s clear that she approaches her full life with deep empathy and utter intentionality. Our conversation with her is a reminder: to lead with boldness, to get our hands dirty, to be kind. To remember we hold the ability to steer the direction of our lives. As she says: “You can only control your own thoughts and actions: a situation is as hard or easy as your perspective on it.” Below, more wisdom from our day with Shelley at home on the beach.
“I grew up in South Africa during Apartheid with two very hard working parents and my brother Russell, two dogs, two cats, mice and pet snakes.
Having grown up around a devastating amount of injustice; social justice is a particular passion point for me. In 1990, at 18, I was lucky enough to attend a particularly liberal University in SA straight out of school; the same year Nelson Mandela was released, and I was at the bridge of the first protest march – the bridge that separated people of color from white people. I sobbed. To this day I still sob at any protest march – the sense that someone can speak up for what they believe in and be heard is a special space for me.”
A brief list of some of the jobs Shelley has held...
in South Africa: I went to boarding school in Cape Town, and worked in my dad’s pharmacy from age 14 every weekend and school holiday. I could navigate a homeopathic remedy, put in a valium prescription, advise on the latest style of Ray Bans, tell the difference between 4711 and Chanel 5 blindfolded, and develop a roll of film.
in London: At 23 I moved to London and within 48 hours of arriving I had been to Ministry of Sound and got a job as a cocktail bartender (vintage term for mixologist) at Down Mexico Way – the gateway bar for everyone in the service industry and late night bars to hang out after work. It was ridiculously naughty.
After two years of traveling through Europe, I did round two of study at the University of Westminster, and did a Bachelor of Science in Homeopathic Medicine, which I absolutely loved. I worked at night and on weekends at The River Café, on the Thames for the incredible Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. They were a very special four years of my life. I met the father of my children Matt; it was pretty much utopia.
in Somerset, England: After my son Joseph was born in 2004 we moved to Somerset and lived on a farm, where I ran Babington House. That was the most wonderful time. My love of hotels became cemented through my experience running that 20 acre property. Isaac was born there and we lived a very beautiful country life.
What beliefs are of timeless value to you? Do you fiercely abide by any principles or personal traditions?
1. Intention first; in all decision making
2. I don’t spend any time engaging unkindness, unhealthy behavior as a result of insecurity, gossip or insincerity. I have an overdeveloped radar for it; and can smell it from several feet away. Call it boarding school with 60 girls.
Do you have any daily rituals you like to hold?
Aside from my morning ritual that I go into detail about during my first 20 minutes of my day I am a firm believer in making your bed as soon as you get up; clean your kitchen before you go to sleep. I take a salt bath and read in the bath every night before I go to sleep. I keep a running to-do list on my phone and each night I reorganize it so that I have a game plan for the next day.
...and I laugh every single day.
Tell us about a moment, a piece of guidance, a reckoning of personal wisdom, that you carry with you.
If it is not going to matter in 24 hours, let it go now. If it is, face it head on. You can only control your own thoughts and actions: a situation is as hard or easy as your perspective on it.
What has the past year offered you the space, clarity or fortitude to explore more completely?
I have had to spend the best of the past year exploring collectively an autoimmune diagnosis, and its connection to my response to a traumatic relationship. I went through my own deep Dark Night of the Soul. I consciously explored staying in what I knew verses really moving through it; to see if I could continue to live there with just more awareness. Ultimately finding my voice to speak up, the connection to something higher (and a bunch of plant medicine) has pulled me through; and now I get to move my way through my next 50 years of life in a different way.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)
I cook – it’s the most centering thing I can do for myself. I take Saturdays off work; and I usually start my Saturday cooking for the day as soon as I have dropped my eldest at his job. I tend to have a steady stream of visitors on a Saturday so I try and get ahead of myself. I also batch cook for the week.
Swim or hike.
Time with friends.
The question I always ask myself is: When have I felt this before? If I am feeling angry or defense; it’s usually because I have behaved in a way that is lesser than I would hope for myself.
A few last things:
My last Google search...travel tips. I am obsessed with getting better at it. It’s important to me the way I travel doesn’t compromise my morning or evening rituals; and has as little impact on the body as possible. My new find is bathing in baking soda with Epson salts when I get to my destination, to counteract the air travel impact on the body. Not sure I can get my head around the charcoal nasal filters for the plane just yet.
A “guilty pleasure” that I have no guilt about… Vintage dresses and collecting ceramics from around the world. I have had to put some in storage.
The best purchase I’ve made under $50 is ... My vintage lioness barrette for my hair $35. A lion is my spirit animal.
Something that’s underrated...Sliced white bread, butter, tomato ketchup and frozen fish sticks (cooked obviously). I am a ridiculously healthy eater; always have been. This is my best midnight drunk snack. Also: board games.
Something that’s overrated...TV. And kale. I have moved on.