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‘LA is changeable and that’s a beautiful thing.’

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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN

Shelley Kleyn Armistead knows how to create an exceptional place to spend your time. A native of Cape Town, South Africa, she was part of London's original Soho House team, later moving to LA to launch Soho House in West Hollywood — now an LA icon.

Today, Shelley is chief operating officer and partner of Gjelina Group, a much-loved LA institution. She oversees a team of more than 400 people at Gjelina, GTA (Gjelina Take Away), Gjusta, Gjusta Goods and the Gjelina Foundation, serving local public schools. We spoke to Shelley about the early days of Soho House and Gjelina, how LA inspires her, and a few of her favorite places.


On moving to LA

On the 1st December it will be 10 years ago. I can’t believe it, it’s gone so quickly.

On how you landed in LA

I moved from Cape Town to London in ’95. I took myself off on the road to travel and see the world, through Europe and North Africa, sort of waitressing my way around. I ended up deciding to do a second degree when I was living in London. I needed to pay for it and had already done three years of working in places that close at 3am, which isn’t particularly conducive to getting up and going to college. So I went to work at the River Café, which closed at 11 at night, had a far more familial feel about it, and was very food focused.

On how your time at Soho House began

I was promoted while I was at River Café, and every Sunday lunchtime I looked after the gentleman who owned Soho House — Nick Jones — and his wife and babies. When he was getting ready to open his second club, he approached me about coming aboard. I had twelve years at Soho House, and during that time I moved to LA to open Soho House in West Hollywood. Five years after opening Soho House West Hollywood, I met with Fran Camaj, founder of the Gjelina Group, and Executive Chef Travis Lett about coming on board as COO and partner. Six months later, I joined Gjelina as a Partner and Director of Operations.

On the early days of building Soho House

I think what was fun about Soho House in its early days was that it was very naughty. There were only two houses and it was very familial and membership driven; your personal relationships were really with your members and fellow staff. And then we tried to get pro, which was a funny development curve but sweet. Then we got a round of investment and expanded, got a second round of investment and really, really expanded, and went from being one club to... literally, I’d have to research how many Soho Houses there are now. And the same team members stayed in place throughout as a real family. I think the similarity with coming on board with Gjelina Group at the time — when it was just Gjelina and Gjelina Take Away — was very similar, and in a large part still similar actually, being kind of inward focused, community focused, product focused. It reminds me a lot of the early days of Soho House for sure.

On how LA inspires you

There is so much confidence here. One day somebody is working selling sandwiches and the next day they’ve got a clothing line, and they just fucking figured it out. I think that is what LA has. There just doesn’t seem to be a ‘no’ in LA. I don’t know what the success rate or the happiness rate is, but I think there is a great feel for exploration here, when I think about all the different things that I’ve taken up here because it’s okay — it’s okay outside of your industry. There’s a huge amount of acceptance that you’re just going to go and do it. Here, I paint, I photograph, I film — those are all things that I can build into my day as any human being should, and diversify their day and their work week. I do think that it’s LA that allows you to do that. For somebody like me, I think that’s really healthy, because I’ve always identified myself through my work, my career. It was who I saw myself as. And then I thought, ‘Well what if that all falls away? What do you really love?’ And nobody blinks here if, you know, suddenly you decide tomorrow to become a poet. Why not try? Nobody really gives a shit. People are just getting on and doing their own shit anyway. Nobody really cares if you’re a poet tomorrow.

Gjusta bakery, deli and cafe space on Sunset Ave in Venice. Images above and bottom right courtesy Gjelia Group. Image bottom left by@ashleyrandallphoto

On your relationship with LA

For me, I never came to LA to network, if that makes sense. I came to LA to fulfil a job, and so I already had a community of people built in by the very nature of opening up Soho House in LA. So other than to be of pure service, which gives me my highest joy, I wasn’t out to gain anything from anybody. 

I think the ease with which that allowed me to develop relationships with people naturally was very fortunate. So I have incredible relationships within multiple cross-sections of the LA community — it’s the result of being of service, for sure, but I didn’t need to meet somebody to get my next gig. I guess my vantage point was that I was purely focusing on the people I was looking after in front of me; I had a really lucky ‘in’. So my relationship with LA is, I came here for work and I identify with it as such, but it has proved a great jumping-off point for me to go and visit and see other areas and keep it as a basis for travel.

‘There is so much confidence here. One day somebody is working selling sandwiches and the next day they’ve got a clothing line, and they just fucking figured it out… there just doesn’t seem to be a ‘no’ in LA.’

On LA’s creative culture

In the last four or five years, the art and music movement has really taken off in LA, or it’s definitely become more accessible. The museums are doing a really fantastic job in getting more people active; there are also a lot of artists who have moved from Europe and New York to live in LA. The same goes with music. So I think we have had an influx of that, which is incredibly inspirational.

On where you spend time with friends

I work six days a week, so mostly for me it’s at home. I love cooking, and I live on the sand in Malibu, so we like to make a fire on the sand and just sit and talk. I’m incredibly lucky that I love the restaurants that I work in, so I tend to hang out there after a long day, and the food is exceptional. Otherwise on 4th and Sunset there is a fantastic ceviche and taco truck, and I’ll take my truck around there and we’ll all pile into mine, which is kind of fun.

On something ‘only in LA’

There is definitely an ‘only in LA’. For me, it comes down to taking the mick out of myself when I’m relaying a conversation I’ve had recently, where I’m like, ‘My astrologist said that next week, X, Y and Z,’ and then I have to follow it up with, ‘Only in LA.’ My boys and I love travel, and I just had an astrocartogrophy session. Only in LA, but I did it. I would have never been able to get away with that in England — I would have been ridiculed out of the local pub — but here I got to indulge that conversation for two-and-a-half hours. But I do think it keeps coming back to this sense of freedom, and whether it’s no boundaries or a sense of confidence; kind of, anything and everything goes.

Above: Shelly outside MTN restaurant on Abbot Kinney Blvd. Below: Inside the Gjelina kitchen and dining space. Image above by @ashleyrandallphoto. Images below courtesy Gjelina Group.

On something special in LA food culture

I think what makes it pretty special is the huge variance in ethnic food, whether it's Ethiopian or Korean, Turkish, Persian, Iranian food — there are so many little cities within the city. I think that some of the best food I have had has been ethnically driven, and some of the best pantry items that I own in my cupboard are from ethnic supermarkets. The cultural diversity makes LA a very interesting food landscape, outside of the whole farm-to-table California cuisine movement that we’re having.

On the community around Gjelina

I think what’s really beautiful about the community is that creativity within one human seems to move across multiple boundaries. Where both Soho House and Gjelina are similar is that they both look inwards to their community, and Venice just naturally has a very strong walk-in community as a result of its location. So the familiarity of seeing the same people every day is very much alike — having the same people come in every day and getting to know them very well. I get to see the same person three times a day at three different establishments, and it’s purely because of the geography.

‘There is definitely an ‘only in LA’. For me, it comes down to taking the mick out of myself when I’m relaying a conversation I’ve had recently, where I’m like, ‘my astrologist said that next week, x, y and z,’ and then I have to follow it up with, ‘only in LA’.’

On getting to know Los Angeles

I think the best way to get to know the city is to go up as high as you can. For anybody who has come from a city with a central point, you can orient yourself when you see landmarks like bridges in New York, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In LA, there is no landmark, and I found it very unsettling — I couldn’t see where the centre was. It was when I went up high and got a perspective of the entire city that I thought, ‘Oh that’s how it works. That’s how each community butts up next to each other.’ I went to the top of a very tall building, which is where I actually made my decision about where I wanted to live. I decided that I would be close to the ocean and I stayed there. So definitely go up high to be able to orient yourself because otherwise it just never makes sense. There are very straight east, west or south lines — once you get to know those roads, it’s easy. But go up high first.

On good spots to get up high

I think any one of the hikes up the canyons gives you perspective. If you’re short on time, the Hollywood Sign hike will give you some. Otherwise any of the hotels like the Sunset Tower Hotel or Soho House West Hollywood, where you can get to the top and look over.

Gjusta Goods is the lifestyle extension of the Gjelina Group, developed for daily use in their restaurants, and has expanded organically to full lines for the home. Images courtesy Gjelia Group.

On the LA landscape

I live on the ocean and having the mountains right behind me is very similar to Cape Town. And we just make the most of it, my boys and I. Absolutely make the most of it and really enjoy it.

On something you need a fix of from South Africa or England

I have yet to find anybody in the States that makes a good breakfast tea that isn’t PG Tips. I also love shortbread and can’t find a good shortbread that isn’t British. I’m very lucky that we have a South African butcher on Olympic that makes great South African sausage, so I go there to buy it and come back to do a barbecue on the beach. He’s called European Deluxe Sausage Kitchen and he sells British, South African and Norwegian food; great dry and wet beef sausages.

On window seat or aisle

Aisle, always. I’ll fight you for an aisle (laughs). Actually it does depend if it’s super long distance. If it’s eleven or more hours and an overnight flight, I’ll go for window, but at any other time I’ll go for aisle. 

On LA in one word

LA is changeable, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. The changeability of the landscape, the changeability with art and music, the changeability of people to just be what they want to be.


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