The issue of race has sky-rocketed to the top of everyone’s minds over the past few months, reminding us that racism remains a big issue in society which we need to deal with. During this time I have not only been reflecting on my personal experiences but also race in the culinary world, a world that we love so much. However, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the other issues that I believe are big drivers of representation in our field – issues such as class and cultural outlooks.
Consider second-generation ethnic minority groups and the well-known narrative of parents pushing their kids into becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists. Largely, they do so because there’s an underlying need for financial security. It’s something I’ve experienced first-hand. My parents moved to London in the late 1960s with no money and no careers. My dad graduated with a degree in accounting when he was 40. He wanted me to have all the good things he had growing up, excluding his career path. So when I told him I wanted to become a chef, he wasn’t exactly encouraging: ‘No, no, no! Where’s the financial security in that?’
Off I went to complete a psychology degree (tick), to be followed up with a PhD straight afterwards (cross). I ditched the PhD after my rebellious nature kicked in and deep-dived into professional kitchens instead. Starting salary: £17,000 per annum. My mum often told her friends, ‘She has a psychology degree and everything – and she also makes cakes,’ as though my chosen career was just a hobby on the side. At home, I often masked the strain this placed on me to try and prove a point. Really, though, all I could think about was how far behind I was compared to friends in ‘professional’ fields with starting salaries of £35,000.
Working my way up in the kitchen, I met lots of high-brow Leith graduates who would dip into the kitchen for the odd day of work experience. They told me they were soon moving into private cheffing or about to start running their own pop-ups or food styling studios. Of course, it’s hard to ignore the fact that in order to run a restaurant in a decent location you need one of two things: financial backing from an external investor, or your own funds/family money. Which are both things people from diverse, often less privileged backgrounds don’t have access to.
‘Before the restaurant industry opens up to people from more diverse backgrounds, it needs shaking up on every level.’
Although the elite food world was one that I didn’t understand, when I heard about the pay, it was a world I wanted in on. So I started working full-time as a chef for anything between 50 to 72 hours a week – meanwhile, taking on every single private job that came my way on the side. I may not have had all of the pre-existing contacts but I climbed and climbed. Today, I’ve published a cookbook and I also run popular online pastry courses. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far.
Still, I wish we could remove some of the barriers to the hospitality industry that people from diverse backgrounds are confronted with. We all know that restaurants run on small profit margins, the wages are low, the work is physical and the environments can be toxic. Before the restaurant industry opens up to people from more diverse backgrounds, it needs shaking up on every level.
Yet restaurants and bars are also places where you can work with very few qualifications. It’s kind of a utopia in that way, where people come together to talk about global issues at a small scale. Of course class and race play a huge role, but ultimately the food world is a meritocracy and it’s quite unique in the sense that hard work pays off. Connections help, they really do. But what I’ve learnt as someone coming from a diverse background, is that even without them you can still get places. You just have to wait a bit longer. A wait I hope gets shorter for the next generation.