You’ve both succeeded in a male dominated industry. What would you say to a woman looking to follow in your footsteps?
Sally Abé: As soon as you have done one or two days in a kitchen you can get a pretty good idea of what the environment is going to be like. Don’t settle for a crappy environment. Hold out for somewhere in which you feel safe and secure.
What are the key barriers for women working in hospitality?
Asma Khan: The traditional pattern of rotas in restaurants is designed to exclude women, and indeed normal men. This is why half the men working in kitchens are psychopaths. They leave for work at dawn and come back late at night. They work long hours in airless environments. A lot of them can’t handle it. The whole system is set up in a crazy way that has fed into this horrible toxic bullying culture.
SA: Women don’t want to work in traditional, old school kitchen environments - why would they? But it can be different and it should be different.
What’s the solution?
AK: Don’t make people work extreme hours. It is possible to rearrange rotas so people don’t have to be in the kitchen the whole time. Service is crazy and busy, there’s no getting away from that, but you can be clever about prep.
SA: Working until 1pm in the morning and being back in at 7am is not sustainable.
AK: If you find the kitchen very stressful and it is too hard for you and the only way you can deal with it is by being violent to someone else, you should get out of the kitchen. It’s not the place for you.
What are the barriers to women running and owning restaurants?
SA: It’s about opportunity and representation. If you can’t see someone in that position, you might not be able to picture yourself in that position. Hilton (the operator of the Conrad London St. James, where Abé has four sites) have got a big push to get women into senior roles. All the senior people at The Pem (Abé’s flagship) are female.
Do you feel like the industry has the right role models?
SA: I think it is changing but we still have a long way to go. To break down a system that’s been in place for hundreds of years is not an easy thing to do. That said, I have been in this industry for nearly 20 years now and it’s changed a lot. And a lot of that progression is being driven by the younger people coming through who don’t want to work excessively long hours in bad conditions.
AK: There’s another layer of challenge if you are a woman of colour. This industry is very conservative. Women are rarely seen in the kitchens of traditional Indian restaurants, for example. You may see women in fine dining restaurants but they tend to be pastry chefs. They don’t tend to be where the action is happening. That’s why what Sally is doing at the Conrad London St. James is so wonderful.
Is the skills shortage changing things?
SA: Employers at good place used to have the upper hand because people were desperate to work in their kitchens. I was willing to work very long hours in poor conditions because I wanted to be the best. Now the power is in the hands of staff. After lockdown I made a promise to myself that I would not work 16 hour days because
AK: We would not be in this situation if we had looked after our people better. It serves everyone right. But to talk about the Indian restaurant industry specifically again, the doors are still closed to women.
SA: Staffing at the Conrad London St. James has been tough. We had to push the opening back by a month and we’re currently only doing five services per week instead of the planned 10 as we can’t get the staff. We’re lucky we can take that approach, an independent operator would not be able to do that.
AK: We’re lucky because my entire kitchen is made up of house wives and home cooks. The average age of a cook in my kitchen is 50, we have many grandmothers. We manage. But we’re struggling with front of house.
SA: The big problem with the staffing crisis is that it’s a short-term problem that requires a long term solution. We need to get into schools and encourage kids to consider a career in hospitality, by the time they are in college it’s too late.
Do men and women have different management styles?
AK: Yes of course. We are team players, we try and reach a settlement. And we typically aren't abusive, although sadly some very senior women in this industry emulate bad male behavior and run diabolical kitchens. They are not empathetic. Success is seen in male terms, and that is deeply damaging.
SA: You learn what you see. Historically the management style in kitchens has been that if you do something wrong you get screamed at. Why do we treat people like this? Why not assess what went wrong, take the heat out of the situation and respond rather than react. A lot of the time it's management's fault things have gone wrong. At the end of the day you're there to ensure everything goes right.
Does it feel exhausting to be representatives of women in the industry?
SA: No. I want to promote a respectful, empowering way of working. I’m always happy to talk to the media. If people like me and Asma are not here banging the drum, then who is? The more noise we can make about it the more people might wake up and smell the coffee and realise there are better ways of working.
Sally Abé and Asma Khan spoke at The Restaurant Show, which will return next September as The BigHospitality Expo. BigHospitality, The Morning Advertiser, MCA Insight, Lumina Intelligence, World’s 50 Best, The Restaurant Show and the William Reed's suite of event brands and platforms will together launch the show targeting specifically the hospitality industry of today – and the future.
The BigHospitality Expo will be the ultimate event for restaurateurs and chefs, casual dining operators as well as pubs and bars. The Restaurant Show, an exhibition also run by William Reed, that for over 30 years has attracted the UK’s best chefs, operators and exhibitors, will continue as part of the new BigHospitality Expo and will deliver even more for the restaurant sector. As well as The Restaurant Show, the new exhibition will feature Catering Equipment Expo. William Reed is also bringing Hostech, its hospitality technology content and event platform, to the show to deliver the vital tech and marketing innovations to help operators drive efficiencies, increase profits, and enhance the customer experience.
The BigHospitality Expo will showcase the best products, services, and innovations in the market, and will feature a packed agenda of industry insight, keynote sessions and panel discussions with industry leading speakers from across the industry. There will also be food, drink and business focused workshops, masterclasses, and networking events, of which more information will be announced in the coming months.
“Over the past few years, and even more so over the past 18 months, we have seen an evolution of the hospitality sector with operators showing their resilience and innovative spirit by diversifying into retail. The lines between types of operators are blurring as never before and there are many emerging brands that are driving change” says publisher of BigHospitality and director of the new exhibition Jo Wattar.