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It’s a living?

January 4, 2018

I read an article recently about the mental state of chefs in restaurant kitchens.  It highlighted some really important issues and problems with the way restaurants are run in this country, particularly the high end, Michelin star chasing variety.

The writer of this article is Jay Rayner, he of the large opinions and and enormous appetite, and it is quite good, sympathetic and no doubt has been fact checked etc.  However, it struck me forcibly that this article would not pass the Bechdel test, if that test was tweaked and applied to this kind of writing.  Jeremy King is “softening up the atmosphere by introducing older cooks and by employing more women”, as though old people and women are new types of aromatherapy oils.  I wasn’t aware until now that this was apparently the point of women in the catering industry.

So I began to think about all the women I had worked with and for over the years, and how many of them are still running successful kitchens and catering businesses without recourse to employing men to beef up the soft atmosphere, but perhaps employing them along side women as equals – now there’s a thought.

When I first started in the catering industry in 1980 I was a whipper snapper waitressing for vodka and lime money while at college, working for a woman called Tessa.  On leaving college, having ‘studied’ photography, I realised that since I was no Ansel Adams photography wasn’t for me and so I wandered into full time catering, as so many do.  Smiths Restaurant in Covent Garden was one of my first London jobs, as a cashier then waitress, alongside another job at the Covent Garden General Store, basket department (did you note that I had two jobs? good.).

Smith’s was owned by the redoubtable Christina Smith who owned half of Covent Garden at that time, with the Flower Smith, Smith’s Gallery, The Tea House & Neal Street East as her commercial outlets.  Ok, she wasn’t a chef, but she saved Covent Garden from demolition, had an incredible eye for art and beauty, great taste in food and awoke a love in me for seriously stylish restaurants, so a worthy female role model.

My last shift at Smith’s restaurant – hence irreverent pose on the piano and glass of bubbly (behind me are some of the art works that are being sold for charity by Christina).

Some of my colleagues at lunch, post shift at Smith’s – we were a serious and thoughtful lot.

Smith’s Restaurant was in the basement of the gallery, painted white throughout with large booths in between the enormous pillars and stunning art on the walls (it is now a Belgos, dark and dungeon like and smelling of stale mussels).  I didn’t have much to do with the kitchen in those days, apart from flirting occasionally over the pass in order to get an order out quicker, discovering the joys of celeriac match sticks in salads and learning how to fillet a dover sole.  While there I worked with David Eyre and Mike Belben who went on to start the Eagle, the world’s first* gastro pub, and also worked and lived with Graham Walker (now Norton) who was just as funny then as he is now, just with much cheaper clothes.  Anyway, I digress as usual.


Moving on – I worked at the Groucho Club where the full force of macho kitchen bollocks was on display quite a lot of the time, and it wasn’t just staff hoovering up the cocaine.  Despite the male dominated line up in the kitchen, my manager was Mary-Lou Sturridge, a force to be reckoned with and good laugh to boot.  Next was 192, a sister restaurant to the Groucho, mostly managed by women and where the head chef was Maddalena Bonino, who seems to have fallen of the face of google – a brilliant cook, sharp, with flaming red hair and scarlet lipstick.

Then on to the place where I really learned about food; presentation, aesthetics and ethics, the feel of working in good a team – the glamour of the clientele aside it was a very down to earth place.  It was, of course, run by women.  It still is.  Rose sadly died in 2010, and while she is clearly missed Ruth keeps the stoves lit and the line up of staff a good mix of the sexes.  Rose & Ruth were an education in themselves.  Rose tall, very English, slightly sardonic and pithy (and occasionally pissy) with a love of art and Patsy Kline that allowed me to finally admit my own secret love of country music.  Ruth was breathy, generous and flamboyant.  When you worked for her you were hers, lock stock.

Rose & Ruth

Most people who know about the River Cafe always comment on the staggeringly expensive menu.  And it is, and was, no question.  But I would like to suggest that perhaps this is what it is actually worth.  I don’t know what staff there are paid these days but I know that I was paid well and fairly back in 1991, more indeed, literally, than I earn now.  We were also fed extremely well, after service, all together.

The catering business is totally unbalanced.  As we all eat out more, as  matter of course now, and choose our eateries based on price, quality of the food, atmosphere and ethics (in that order – I did a survey) we push more and more places to compromise their standards or close.   We are not willing to pay what the food actually costs if you take into account decent wages, overheads, tax (don’t even get me started on the deep unfairness of the vat system in the industry), rising ingredient costs etc.  If we did, we probably wouldn’t be able to eat out so often.

It is telling that the most successful restaurants are those that are either chains or small, owner operated.  Anything in between is up against enormous odds, especially somewhere like Bristol where saturation point for coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and bars was hit a long time ago, and yet still they come (and go).

It is exciting to go and find the newest place, cast your vote and then move on to the next.  But sometimes I wish that the little neighbourhood bistro could exist in peace and just carry on doing what it does well, without having to instagram every meal or watch their neighbourhood get all up and coming, get eclipsed by the hipster cereal cafe next door and whither away, only for that to be eclipsed by a coffee emporium where you can make your own coffee at your table (I can do that in my kitchen surely?) or yet another incarnation of the burger joint selling, ooh let me think, burgers.

What to do about it all?  I have ideas.  I do feel that the world has reached a tipping point regarding it’s attitude to women, and the power that we hold but don’t exercise, yet – our time approaches I am sure of it.  It’s how we handle it that will count.  And the catering industry?  Perhaps as more women feel able to step up and take control we won’t be used simply as fragrant soft furnishings by men.  I think it may have started…   What do you think?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2018 4:30 pm

    You’re absolutely right about it all…and Britain doesn’t even have the punitive wage and tip structure that the US has. And you might not have been an Ansel Adams, but you might have been an Annie Leibovitz–Bechdel indeed.

    • January 4, 2018 4:41 pm

      good point – many female photographers of note and I picked a man! I do however think he is completely brilliant.

  2. January 4, 2018 4:43 pm

    Brilliantly written. The bakery business was much the same. One hundred years ago (after deciding that I had had enough of photo journalism) I too considered working my way up to becoming a chef. On a flight back from the States I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and by the time I got off the plane, I had decided on publishing (which was, in those days, as it turned out, just as macho knuckle-draggingly vile). It’s about time that the shift which,admittedly, is already underway became more visible so as to inspire and challenge rather than intimidate and disgust!

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