As part of The Women of Food dining series in London, Resy hosted a panel discussion at the newly opened women’s members club The Wing in Fitzrovia. Introduced by Resy’s Victoria Vaynberg, the panel looked to celebrate women in the restaurant industry but also to discuss the role women play in the industry, and what changes have happened — and still need to happen — for true equality and equity.
Compèred by Natalia Ribbe of Ladies of Restaurants, the evening featured a lineup of Lucy Carr-Ellison, co-founder of the newly-opened Wild by Tart, Melanie Arnold and Margot Henderson, founders of Rochelle Canteen, and Asma Khan, owner of Darjeeling Express and star of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
The first question focused on imposter syndrome. In an industry that is still dominated by men, and with some kitchens still harbouring toxic macho environments, this feeling can be pervasive as women are made to feel like they don’t belong.
Carr-Ellison explained that she had googled the word before coming — “God, it really is us,” she explained her feelings reading the definition through. “We don’t call ourselves chefs, we haven’t worked in restaurants before our own [they ran catering company Tart previously], we always question ‘should we really be doing this?’”, but continued that these conversations always come back that, yes, because they really want to be there.
Khan took a different approach to the question — for her, not succeeding was just not an option. “It is never about that I should be here, it was just ‘how am I going to win?’”, she said. She further explained that it was vital, as a woman of colour, that what she was doing was not simply about herself. “Every time I hit a hurdle, I was clearing the way for others. It is always about the collective, it’s taking people with me, it is about a team. And, when you understand that, it doesn’t feel as overwhelming.”
Henderson acknowledged it was an issue but said, “we were ambitious, and we wanted to make money.” Echoing Asma, she asserted that “we employ a lot of people, so we had to make it work.” Arnold explained that they were able to lean on each other, which was helpful.
Around the topic of creating a work-life balance, all of the women were firm in their expression that it was a tough industry that requires hard work, and that creating a team was essential as well as understanding what needed to be done, and when. For Khan, she had known some of the women in her (all-female) restaurant for twenty years and had worked with them since 2012; in her kitchen, she is able to let the team set their own hours and work a rota sympathetic to staff members’ travel time to and from the restaurant, as well as public transport.
Henderson explained that “it is about letting go. [The business] isn’t a reflection constantly on you. Sometimes the faults can be as interesting as the perfections”. But, Arnold followed up and said “sometimes though, you just have to get your head down and into the work.”
“I am not a chef, I am a cook — but first honour me, as a woman, then call me whatever you want. I am entitled to be respected.” – Asma Khan
Carr-Ellison acknowledged that her business partner (Jemima Jones, Wild by Tart’s co-founder) had different commitments due to family, and that it was about juggling individual needs. Henderson explained that catering was a good career to have, with small children — notably, both her and Arnold would pile the children into the black cab they owned and run business errands with the kids in tow.
For each panellist, it was less about work-life balance that they were concerned about, but rather the idea of knowing boundaries and trusting one’s team, while also being realistic about the industry and what you are able to offer in your circumstances — each space is different. “It’s hospo — shoulders back, it is hard. But, drinking, dancing, eating and a little bit of yoga — have fun!” Margot laughed, to loud cheers from the gathered audience.
Communication was a theme that each panellist returned to, relating to the concept of teamwork to achieve success. “I couldn’t have done this on my own,” said Henderson, “and you have to have real friendships to do this, and clarity on what you want to do”.
A question that comes up often in the media is the label of ‘female chef’, as opposed to just ‘chef’. This was interestingly brushed aside by the panellists, with the idea that there are other things to tackle and talk about, and that they simply did not buying into a media game that placates egos. Henderson said “for me, being surrounded by all these female chefs, it is an honour. I wouldn’t want to be part of those ‘gods’ on the front cover of those magazines”.
Khan explained that it was first and foremost about respect, and clarified, “I am not a chef, I am a cook — but first honour me, as a woman, then call me whatever you want. I am entitled to be respected. I think this is a luxury to even be talking about these issues [of terminology]”, and pointed out there are still problems with bullying — both racist and sexist.
When addressing the topic of bullying and harassment, all were clear that they had no tolerance for the behaviour, and discussed ways of disciplining without anger. “You can raise your voices without being abusive”, Arnold explained, and Henderson added, “it’s about finding ways to get people to do what you say, to teach our young chefs to get things done.”
“For me, being surrounded by all these female chefs, it is an honour. I wouldn’t want to be part of those ‘gods’ on the front cover of those magazines”. — Margot Henderson
Arnold explained the difference between a fun work place and harmful ‘banter’. “Jokiness is fun,” she said, “but it cannot tip over into being exclusive. It has to be inclusive and respectful”. She explained that, at Rochelle Canteen and Rochelle Canteen at the ICA, the gender mix in their kitchens has been helpful, and, later on in addressing an audience question, explained that “diversity in general is a bigger issue. It’s not just about women”. Margot questioned “maybe we need to think further about [how we are] finding people, such as connecting with our local job centres? We have Instagram followings, but they might not be very diverse.”
Re-thinking what the job and industry is, can shift culture. “It’s like war”, Ribbe suggested, which Margot refuted: “No, it’s not!”. Therefore, ensuring that spaces move away from a ‘do or die’ attitude is crucial in changing the industry. “We are doing these panels, that wouldn’t happen five years before — it wasn’t seen as an issue,” Asma explained. It is a shifting question: as women are being showcased more, questions around harassment and problematic work places are being addressed.