Three women walk into a pub and say: `hooray, we've colonised a male-dominated joke format'. Credit for that one goes to comedian Bill Bailey. Incidentally, three women have just walked into a packed pub-styled restaurant within Westminster hotel Conrad London St. James, Blue Boar Pub, having successfully colonised another male-dominated space.
Sally Abé, Emma Underwood and Laetizia Keating are among three of the most talented young people working in UK hospitality. Their appointment to run the bulk of the F&B at the hotel – Blue Boar Pub, fine dining restaurant The Pem, a cocktail bar and an afternoon tea parlour – is a good thing.
But it also highlights the lack of female representation in leadership roles in hospitality. Three women heading up a high-profile opening should not be a rarity, yet it is.
The trio are painfully aware of all this and are conflicted. The hotel’s flagship restaurant may be named after Emily ‘Pem’ Davidson, the suffragette who fatefully ran in front of King George V’s horse in 1913, but they would rather not have the entire project be defined by their gender.
"Working in restaurants should
be as enjoyable as eating in them"
“We're running the F&B at this hotel because we're good enough to be here and we're going to make it successful on our own merit,” says Abé, who cut her teeth cooking at top London restaurants – most notably The Ledbury – before dazzling at Fulham’s The Harwood Arms (it retained its Michelin star and was named as the best gastropub in the country at the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs awards under her four-year tenure). Abé is leading the project as a consultant, with the rest of the team employed directly by the Hilton-owned hotel.
“It's not about saying ‘look, I'm a woman in a man's world’. Fuck that, it should not be a man's world. It should be an equal world and the only way we're going to get that is through proper representation,” she continues. “I want to show other women that this is viable and that they can do it.”
"Being role models is something that we’ve been speaking about a lot,” interjects Underwood, one of the UK’s foremost front of house professionals with a CV that includes key roles at Where The Light Gets In, Sticky Walnut and – most recently – Darby’s.
“Are we simply people, or are we women working in a male dominated industry? I’d rather be a person working in an industry that has an equal gender balance, but that’s not where hospitality is right now. If we can encourage more women into the industry, I’m okay with the project being talked about in those terms.”
Doing things differently
Is it missing the point to ask whether the four spaces will be run differently because three women are at the helm? Yes and no. “It depends what’s meant by differently,” says Underwood. “The three of us have a very similar communication style. We're open, efficient, direct and emotionally intelligent. That's going to contribute to the way the place is run. I could not say for sure whether that's a gender thing, but I think it probably is."
Keating is clearer that the kitchen at The Pem – which she will oversee for Abé as head chef – will function differently because it is run by two women. Having largely worked in male-dominated environments, she is familiar with the male approach to kitchen management and plans to pick and choose what works best.
“Men and women are not better than one or other, but I believe they are different. Anything we don’t like we won’t bring along. For example, we won't be breaking people down to ‘build them back up again’. I did not have to be broken and I don't want to have to break anyone,” she says.
Keating is the least well-known of the trio but has a premier league cooking CV that includes time at Californian three-star Benu and France’s Mirazur, which is currently ranked number one on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “I’m also not a fan of the casual, overly confident ‘I’m winging it approach’, which is more of a male thing than a female thing,” she adds. “I'm very organised. Instead of dealing with a problem as it arises, why not just avoid it by being prepared for every eventually? That comes from Benu, where we always knew exactly what we were coming into. There were never any surprises.”
The trio are in the process of assembling one of London’s most diverse kitchen teams. "The majority of people in management positions are either women or people of colour,” says Abé. “But it's not a box ticking exercise. It's just employing people properly. Give everyone an equal opportunity and - low and behold - you end up with a diverse team.”
Abé has little time for the many hospitality employers that claim creating a balanced kitchen brigade is an impossible feat. “They need to go out and find them. It's just laziness. I get so frustrated when people call me up and say, 'I need a woman for this thing'. Just do your fucking research.”
She also thinks that those in charge of kitchens often don’t do enough to appeal to women and those from minority groups. “If you've got a kitchen full of white men that shout and scream and tap each other on the bum every time they walk past each other that's all you're going to get. It's self-perpetuating.”
“We won't be breaking people down to
‘build them back up again’. I did not have to be
broken and I don't want to have to break anyone”
Jobs with benefits
While getting the right people into senior roles has been relatively straightforward, the scale of the project – all four of the spaces are on the large side – has made the wider recruitment drive fraught. That said, the unusually generous benefits package offered by Hilton – which is regularly named as one of the globe’s best employers – gives the trio confidence they will secure the 60-odd people they need.
Benefits include discounted hotel rooms at Hilton properties across the world, an employee assistance programme, an extra day of holiday for every year worked, all meals provided in a separately run canteen and uniforms both provided and washed.
"On a personal level, the benefits offered were a really big attraction to me,” says Underwood, who is the last person one would expect to entertain working for a big corporate entity given her spirited indie-heavy CV. “After the year we've had, expecting teams to come back to work like dogs while not getting paid what they’re worth just isn’t on. A big group like Hilton has a completely different business model and is therefore able to offer things that independents never could.”
Both kitchen and front of house teams are contracted to work 39 hours a week, with anything above that paid as overtime. Abé predicts that most full-time front and back of house staff will end up working around 48 hours a week.
“We owe it to our staff to pay them properly. Besides, it’s illegal not too. When I was starting out in kitchens as a commis chef, I worked 70 hours a week and used to joke that my hourly wage was about £4. Looking back, it wasn’t that hilarious. In fact, I feel stupid for accepting it. But back then I just wanted to be the best, so I just did it,” continues Abé, who has form for running kitchens in a more ethical and progressive manner.
“When I first became head chef at The Harwood Arms, I made a promise to myself to lead with empathy and compassion, rather than perpetuate the more stereotypical behaviour of other chefs. I strove to build a community of respect where staff felt safe and empowered to do their jobs. I believe that working in restaurants should be as enjoyable as eating in them.” Abé recently became an ambassador for #fairkitchens, a global movement which aims to improve the lives of foodservice employees by starting a conversation about fairer working conditions.
“It’s so hard managing teams that are tired, stretched and unhealthy. Knowing that we’re going to be working with a team that’s getting enough sleep and being properly fed and watered is great,” adds Underwood, who is not convinced that the pandemic and the resulting recruitment crisis will trigger the industry-wide rethink on employment practices some are suggesting it will.
"People who need to be enticed are being enticed. But I have also heard horror stories about loyal teams getting worked to the absolute bone.”
A big, multifaceted opening
Blue Boar is already up and running with The Pem slated for 20 July. Formerly Blue Boar Smokehouse, the first concept Abé has delivered for Hilton is billed as a modern take on a classic British pub, serving a menu that includes fish & chips with curry sauce; venison burger; a coronation chicken Scotch egg; and devilled whitebait.
“It’s got some of The Harwood’s DNA in it, I suppose,” says Abé. “But it’s more of a pub pub. The split between drinks and food is about 50:50, whereas at my last place it was 70:30 in favour of food. We want to attract the Westminster afterwork crowd, so we’ve been careful with the pricing.”
The Pem is described as an elevation of what Abé was doing at The Harwood Arms. While the Fulham pub restaurant in which Abé made her name was famed for its Scotch egg and Sunday roast, this was not reflective of the wider a la carte menu, which was more top-end restaurant than backstreet boozer.
“We're open, efficient, direct and emotionally intelligent.
That's going to contribute to the way the place is run.
I could not say for sure whether that's a gender thing,
but I think it probably is."
“The food at The Harwood was quite refined and elegant. My plan is to build on those foundations and to continue to work with great British products. I simply want to take that produce and cook it to the best of my ability.”
The Pem’s launch menu is distinctive and clearly penned by a chef that came up in kitchens that prioritised proper cooking over fiddling around with plastic pots, as Abé most certainly did (her cooking CV also includes time at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s and with Phil Howard at Elystan Street). There’s a fair bit of classicism on display too. John Dory is served with sauce divine - hollandaise loosened with sherry-spiked whipped cream - rabbit is fashioned into a ballotine, and wild mushrooms are served with herb mousseline.
Dishes include charred day boat mackerel with raw and pickled summer vegetables, salad cream and citrus; poached native lobster with shellfish cream, heritage tomato and sweet olive; Sutton Hoo guinea fowl with charred sweetcorn, spring onion and trompette; and sirloin and rib of Dexter beef with oyster, turnip and horseradish.
Desserts are decidedly retro in feel, with the selection including black forest gateau with chocolate curls and ripple ice cream; and peach melba pavlova with lemon verbena and peach ice cream.
The Pem will launch with a la carte only - six starters, six mains and five desserts – but a tasting menu has not been ruled out. Prices are fair given Abé and Keating’s considerable pedigree with starters around £16 and mains priced at between £26 and £45. Bells and whistles will be kept to a minimum, but a single canapé, bread and petit fours will be included at no cost.
No shrinking violet
With its red and pink colour palette the Art Deco-inspired The Pem will be no shrinking violet. Indeed, it looks set to be the very antithesis of the bland, undistinctive restaurant spaces so often found in chain hotels.
“The Pem is going to be super glam. For me, going out for dinner is about having fun,” says Abé. “I want to start with a lovely bottle of Champagne, eat three banging courses, end with an espresso martini and then go for a cocktail afterwards. The Pem will be a place to go with a date or with your girlfriends and have a really good time.”
Underwood – who is technically only working at The Pem but looks likely to end up having some input into other aspects of the project – will seek to encourage a degree of fun and frivolity by blending the tactile, neighbourhood-style service she perfected at Darby’s with the more theatrical, special-occasions orientated service she oversaw at Where The Light Gets In.
Far from wine novices themselves, Abé and Underwood have enlisted the help of high-profile wine buyer and sommelier Emily Harman. “The list is focused on small producers, people that have a proper connection with their wine,” says Abé. “It will be low-intervention but always wines that are clean in style. I’m not a fan of funky - I like finesse. All the familiar appellations will be there, but they will be the underdog producers rather than the big, obvious names.”
The Hedgerow cocktail bar and The Orchard afternoon tea are set to open in September and will work closely with one and another. Abé is responsible for room service – which is an adapted version of The Blue Boar’s menu – but has sidestepped the less glamorous aspects of hotel catering, namely banqueting and breakfast.
Escaping the Westminster bubble
Reinvigorating the hotel’s F&B has required a £1.75m investment from Hilton – all four spaces are being completely overhauled. Pre-pandemic the hotel ran at 90% occupancy and was a popular choice for Chinese and US tourists. For obvious reasons occupancy is currently nowhere near that, so Abé and co are going to have their work cut out pulling in Westminster residents and workers as well as Londoners from further afield.
There’s no doubt the Conrad London St. James is an unusual move for the trio, but, then again, these are unusual times. A blue-chip company like Hilton offers stability and – in the case of Abé, Underwood and Keating, it seems – a surprising amount of latitude, with both the kitchen and dining room given free rein to procure food and wine from small producers.
The offering is distinctive too, with The Blue Boar likely to be popular with tourists seeking to have a trad British pub experience within the comfortable and unchallenging surrounds of an upscale hotel. But The Pem will be what the team are ultimately judged on.
It’s undoubtedly a tough brief, but the trio appear set on making it work.
"It may be a consultancy but I'm putting my name to it,” says Abé. “It's not the sort of project where I write the menu and say ‘see you later’. It's my sole project. I'm treating it as if it's my own place."