Sally Abé: “I want to show more women that hospitality is a viable career path”

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Sally Abé on how her new book shows women that hospitality is a viable career path

Related tags Sally Abe Fine dining The Pem Chef equality Female chefs Michelin

With her new memoir, The Pem’s Sally Abé speaks of the reality of working in a restaurant kitchen and explores what needs to be done to make them more inclusive.

There’s a chapter halfway through Sally Abé’s new book, titled A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen​, where she writes about the ‘worst four fucking months’ of her career as a chef. The restaurant in question is referred to by Abé under the pseudonym Jeff’s, but beyond that it is never identified aside from it being noted as holding a Michelin star. The kitchen culture, however, will be recognisable to anyone who has ever witnessed or heard stories of the relentless and often intimidating working conditions that have long been synonymous with certain corners of the industry. Chefs forced to work shifts – sometimes last up to 20 hours – without a break, and verbally scolded whenever they made the tiniest mistake.

Abé’s book, released this week, is part memoir and part manifesto, which lifts the lid on what it’s really like to be a female chef working in a restaurant kitchen – documenting her career from her first job at the Sheffield Macdonald Hotel, to her current role leading the kitchen at The Pem in London’s Westminster. It’s a tough read at times, but fundamentally it’s a positive story, one that’s infused with Abé’s ambition to succeed in a professional world often dominated by male ego, and her hopes for a brighter and more inclusive future.

How did the opportunity to write the book come about?
I was approached to write it after the publishers saw a gap in the market. There’s obviously a great deal of food writing done by women, but there’s still not much in the fine dining chef space, certainly not in the UK. When I got offered the opportunity, I jumped at it.

Tell us about the writing process
It was very cathartic to write about those experiences and tell them in my own way, but it was also very hard. The book is around 85,000 words and I had to be very disciplined in finding the time to do it. It was a real step change from my day-to-day life. I always had a purpose in mind while I was writing, though, and that spurred me on.

Did you enjoy it?
There have obviously been negative experiences in my career, but on the whole I look back on it with fondness. Especially my time at Claridge’s, which was my entry into working in a professional kitchen. It was fucking tough, but I also loved it and thrived under that pressure. There was a real sense of team camaraderie there, which was nice to reminisce about. The same goes for The Harwood Arms. I was there for such a long time, and I feel like I introduced new working systems and initiated a really good culture there, and I’m really proud of that.

Where there any parts of your career that were hard to relive?
The Jeff’s chapter was the hardest to write as I’ve spent so long trying to block that experience out of my mind. It was a particularly dark period in my career and not one I wanted to relive, but it’s important that it was in the book so you can say these kitchens do exist and use it as a comparison to the kitchen I run now and how different it is. That experience is what spurred me on to make sure no one in my kitchen ever went through the same thing.

While it’s all written from your own perspective, it feels like a very universal story of what it’s like to work in the restaurant industry
There aren’t many female chefs that have written anything like this, but I think this book will strike a chord with anyone in the industry. I’ve had messages from young female chefs excited to read it and it’s given people who I hadn’t known before the chance to reach out and ask for advice, which I’m always happy to do. A lot of the work I do around empowering women isn’t necessarily done in the public eye. I spend a lot of time trying to nurture and mentor women in the industry, and not just those in my own kitchen. Last year I set up a What’sApp group for female chefs that now has more than 50 members from across the UK, and just having that network is so important. Having this book out there will hopefully spark a bigger conversation about what we’re going to do to make hospitality a better place. It’s changed a lot in the last 20 years, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and think everything is perfect now because it’s not. There’s still only 17% of chefs that are women and until it’s 50/50 there’s still work to be done.

What do you hope to achieve with the book?
I want to show more woman that they can come into hospitality and that it can be a viable career. When I was writing it, I knew I didn’t want it to be a witch hunt. It’s not about calling out particular people and a lot of it is anonymised for that reason. I wanted to show the good and the bad. The last thing I want is to paint hospitality in this horrendous light as I want more women to come into the industry. The book is a journey of my experiences and highlights both the ups and the downs.

You hold an annual International Women’s Day event at your restaurant The Pem. Are there plans to grow this following the book’s publication?
I’d love for it to become something even bigger and evolve into a larger conference or symposium. For me it’s about bringing women together and networking, and they’ve been very well received. I will do anything I can to continue to promote and empower women in our industry.

‘A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen: dispatches from behind the pass’ is out now, published by Fleet. RRP: £22


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