Sexism floats about the restaurant industry like icing sugar. The casual ‘banter’ that buzzes around kitchens. The side-eye in candlelit corners of wine bars as an expert sommelier gives her suggestions. The business expertise of a young owner being dismissed as little more than a bossy attitude. These are just some of the experiences we heard about from the women leading the charge in London’s hospitality industry. Yes, we’ve come a long way, but the last national survey on hospitality showed that less than a quarter of professional chefs in the UK are women.
In honour of this year’s International Women’s Day, we decided to talk to some of the most influential women in the London hospitality industry about the biggest challenges they’ve faced and - spoiler alert - how they’ve learned to overcome them. From one of London’s most beloved landladies to a breakthrough sweet treat star of lockdown, these women spoke to us about money, casual sexism, race, motherhood, and the advice they’d give to future generations of gloriously ‘bossy’ women who want to make it in the industry.
Elizabeth Haigh has been working in hospitality since finishing her degree in 2009, going on to gain industry acclaim during her time at Hackney fine dining spot, Pidgin. At the tail end of 2019 she opened the 14-seat Singaporean Kopi Tiam-inspired, Mei Mei, in Borough Market. Her debut cookbook Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore is being released May 13th this year.
“The biggest challenge has been trying to break the stereotype of what a ‘chef looks like’. But the hardest personally has been juggling my personal life and work-life being a mother. It’s near impossible to work and have a newborn but with an amazing support network and being able to be self-employed, I was able to work the hours I could. I’ve purposely set out to start a company that doesn’t discriminate nor holds their team back from wanting to spend more time with family.
“I’ve found it useful just communicating with like-minded women and chefs in the industry and been given honest and raw advice. The best thing about hospitality is we are one big (dysfunctional) family, but we look out for each other.”
Pauline Forster is the landlady of an iconic east London venue and is, frankly, a certified legend. A successful artist and mother to five adult sons, she moved to London in 2003 and at the age of 54 purchased historial public house The George Tavern at auction. Since 2008 she has been tirelessly fighting to save The George Tavern from developers with the backing of countless celebrities and loyal customers. Prior to purchasing The George Tavern she had never worked in hospitality, or even poured a single pint in her life.
“When I first started I was in the bar, dealing with difficult people, dealing with people that were pissed. A lot of the time being an older woman was quite an advantage because you were kind of a mother figure. Not that I used it. But sometimes when I’d have to put some great big bloke in his place and tell them to get out and stop behaving badly, it was almost like they took it as being told off by their mum or their grandmother.
“So on many levels it was okay but on other levels, like dealing with my battles with Swan, I just always feel like they look down on me because I’m not the type of woman that they respect. I’m not a power dresser, I don’t fit into any of those things. My life hasn’t been a luxury, easy life. You know, having five kids and I’ve always been self-employed from the age of 16, looking after myself. I’m quite a strong person and I don’t let much stop me doing what I want to and that’s how I’ve survived I think.
“We need more women running these independent small businesses. I’m very proud and happy that I saved The George Tavern. I’ve saved a bit of London, a bit of heritage.”
The biggest challenge has been trying to break the stereotype of what a chef looks like.
Cooking had always been a hobby for Adejoké Bakare, but over the past decade she built up her name in the industry with a weekend food van in Deptford and with supper clubs. In the midst of the pandemic, she opened Chishuru in Brixton Village. It has gone on to receive critical acclaim and thanks to Bakare’s ‘exceptional groundnut soup’ and ‘the glorious spice factor of the goat shoulder smeared in green sauce’, we named it one of The Best New Restaurants of 2020.
“My entry was not your usual entry into the hospitality industry. Me coming in and being self-taught, so to speak, I wanted to show that West African food was much more than fufu and banku. Apart from wanting to try and educate people about the food, there was that old boys brigade kind of thing. Coming into it at a certain age with a certain look and being female - that was the challenge. You can see that some of them are trying and you have to give points for trying, but it will be a long challenging process for all of that to be dismantled and for new things to be put back in place.
“Chishuru was an opportunity and I thought go for it, give it everything you’ve got. Be open to learn. It’s going to be long, it’s going to be hard work, and yes, there might be some not very nice people that you meet. But there are a lot more good people than horrible people. Stick to it, work hard, and prove yourself.”
Erchen Chang has been working in the industry for almost a decade and is the creative director of London’s favourite Taiwanese restaurant, BAO. Yes, we do hold her personally responsible for our addiction to confit pork belly and peanut powder. She’s one of three co-founders of the BAO empire, which now extends to four restaurants, BAO bar at Netil Market, and an exquisitely branded delivery service.
“Personally, as a woman working in the industry, I think I have been fortunate in that I am one of three founders of a business and two of which are female. The power is a majority women. I believe this fosters a caring and nurturing environment and allows women joining BAO to thrive. We believe in equality and diversity: the people who stay at BAO are nice people regardless of their gender. I recognise it’s not like this everywhere.
“The one piece of advice I’d give to women who want to work in this industry is charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. Express all you want and don’t hide your vulnerability.”
Originally from Paris, Carole Bryon left a role as a senior art director in 2015 to work as a sommelier. In 2017 she opened her seriously charming wine bar Lady of the Grapes. Aptly on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, it serves a truly majestic selection of cheeses and champions female winemakers.
“As a restaurant owner I have more than one job: on the same day I can be successively a waiter, a sommelier, a chef, a manager, an accountant, or an online retailer. I suffer a bit to not be taken seriously as I am a young foreigner. Some customers or other professionals try to sometimes patronise me as they don’t expect a woman to have the knowledge and education in wine. They don’t expect that I may know more than them!
“The place of women in this industry is not always easy (like in many other industries) but if [women] want to work in hospitality I advise them not to give up, to build up their experience, to be sure of their capability, of the value of their competencies and skills, and to not be discouraged by people who may think this job is not for them.”
Owner, founder, and head chef of The Treats Club, Lungi Mhlanga has been working in the hospitality industry since 2019 when her baking turned from hobby to business. Home to some of the best desserts in London, The Treats Club is ‘female owned, female led, and run on Black girl magic’, not to mention a whole lot of gourmet marshmallow fluff and molten cookie dough. Despite the ongoing pandemic, she opened her first permanent dessert bar in July 2020.
“Being taken seriously as a food business owner has been the biggest challenge. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at a table with men talking serious business talk and not one person asks for my opinion on the matter as if somehow I shouldn’t be there. Being overlooked and undervalued as a woman in food is nothing new. I don’t let it phase me though, it simply pushes me to get to a level that’s impossible to ignore, even if they wanted to.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up, your voice matters just as much as theirs. Ask for more money, always. Don’t worry about being called ‘bossy’, it’s simply their way of acknowledging you know what the hell you’re doing and you won’t take their shit. Embrace it and wear it like a badge of honour, I do.”
Don’t worry about being called ‘bossy’, it’s simply their way of acknowledging you know what the hell you’re doing and you won’t take their shit. Embrace it and wear it like a badge of honour, I do.
Sara Corsaro is one-half of an Italian mother daughter duo that are responsible for the best cacio e pepe and cannoli in town. Both Sara and her mother, Anna Maria Fama work as ‘mammas’ at La Mia Mamma, a Chelsea restaurant with a collective of female chefs from different Italian regions. In 2020 they opened the La Mia Mamma Deli in Notting Hill.
“I’ve always worked in hospitality, but I moved from front-of-house to the kitchen to be a chef. My mamma is the one who taught me everything. I’m a mum as well, I have a five year-old daughter so that is the biggest challenge. Being in hospitality means being in the restaurant until late at night. I have time off to see her but I miss a part of her life. She’s always around the restaurant and I’m not sure I want her to have this kind of life, but I hope she will love hospitality too.
“Women can do everything we want. You don’t need to sacrifice your life even if sometimes you think ‘well, if I do that, I can’t have a family’. No, don’t be scared. There is always a solution. Even in our deli, we have a woman behind the counter even though traditionally it’s a man doing that job, but we can do everything. I tried to change but it belonged to me, this life as a chef. Well, not a chef. We’re not chefs, we’re mammas.”
Mursal Saiq is the director of Cue Point, a British-Afghan BBQ catering company serving halal smoked meats and a glorious creation for carnivores everywhere, the part-naan part-taco ‘naco’. Over a decade ago, Saiq gave up a career in advertising to commit her time fully to hospitality, gaining experience on the street food circuit and as a general manager in a fine dining sushi restaurant.
“I am quite an assertive person by nature, and I have found that it is so often misplaced as aggressive or ‘bossy’. As a first generation Afghan woman, I must point out that the very language we speak, Dari, is assertive in its very grammar. We do not say ‘please close the door’, we say ‘door, close it’. Year after year I’ve been asked to ‘tone down my personality’ for the sake of the ‘male ego’. For a while, I did just that. The danger that this had on my personal growth and confidence was detrimental.
“By adjusting one’s self to fit in a box that they can never squeeze into, forces oneself to repress their very selves. So I decided to create my own, a space for people just like me that felt othered due to their personal, cultural, and religious beliefs. As much as my company is an inclusive BBQ-focused catering company, we are so much more. We are here for people that don’t feel they belong, that don’t tick a manmade box but label themselves on their own terms. As the business has grown my ego has grown, this has made me far less apologetic for my existence and has allowed me to trust and go with my gut.”
Year after year I’ve been asked to ‘tone down my personality’ for the sake of the ‘male ego’. For a while, I did just that. The danger that this had on my personal growth and confidence was detrimental.
Laura Christie & Selin Kiazim
In 2008, Selin Kiazim completed her professional chef’s diploma and Laura Christie got her law degree before moving to London to pursue a full-time career in hospitality. The two met in 2014 and the rest is delicious hellim history. Together they own and run modern-Turkish restaurant Oklava in Shoreditch, with Kiazim leading up the kitchen and Christie working front-of-house and sourcing excellent regional wines.
Laura: The industry has changed a lot in 15 years and also I have learnt a lot about who I choose to work with. At the start of my career casual sexism was very common and often not recognised as anything but banter by senior management.
Selin: Casual sexism is 100% a thing, and it doesn’t seem to want to go away. I would say I was quite oblivious to it all for a long time but owning and running my own restaurant has really opened my eyes to it. At one point it was no longer surprising to me when customers looked over my head at the male chef standing behind me to thank him for the food.
Laura: We do still experience casual sexism as owners from third parties which can be very grating - demeaning comments from bank managers on a choice of pen, having contractors speak to literally any man in the vicinity before you, customers asking to speak to “the man in charge” spring to mind.
An issue I think has more recently affected me is being a mother in the hospitality industry. Obviously the hours are not particularly compatible with a small child. It’s a physically demanding job which can be hard in pregnancy and, in parts of the sector, not hugely well paid which makes taking maternity leave beyond six weeks difficult. Changes need to be made to avoid leaking talent needlessly.
Selin: There is a long way to go still but there are plenty of operators who are trying and successfully running a different, more inclusive kind of restaurant. Hospitality has many sides to it, and I believe if you look for it you can find the right type of job that fits you and your lifestyle.
Laura: Think carefully about who you will work with, how they align with your values and how they value you as an employee. Be vocal if you feel something is not right and always ask yourself in a situation “would this happen to a man?”. If the answer is no, you are not working for the right people.