March for women

Categories: Reflections and opinions

To celebrate International Women’s Day, which this year falls on 8th March, three inspirational women with connections to Borough Market talk about their hard-earned success

Romy Gill, Romy’s Kitchen
We didn’t have television, or gadgets or anything like that where I grew up, on a steel plant in West Bengal in India. At the weekend, it was all about the women cooking together and serving the food on a big table where we could share it. The people working there were from all over the country, so I grew up eating and learning about food from every state. I carry that picture with me: of my mum and grandma laughing with their neighbours as they dried the pomegranates or chillies or made the pickles.

I was reminded of it last year, when I curated a fundraising meal for Action Against Hunger in Bristol called the Severn Sisters. It was the first time a bunch of female chefs had come together for an event like that, and I don’t know how to describe it. There were so many amazing moments, and so much laughter. At one point I was sitting on the floor kneading dough and Olia Hercules, one of the chefs, said her grandmother did exactly the same thing with her dough, in the Ukraine—so she sat down and joined me.

The laughter we had that evening as women cooking was the laughter of my grandmother and mother back in India. There was no ego, no competitiveness, and we all helped each other raising money for charity. It was an exceptional day.

Being a woman in a small town in Bristol was a struggle when it came to opening a restaurant at first. Three banks rejected my loan application. I had never had a restaurant before, the town was small and, no matter how much you say it’s not an issue, I am from a diverse culture. Then the BBC did a feature on me, and I got a loan the next day, from Natwest. They’ve been amazing since, but then I still had to struggle to get food journalists to write about me because I wasn’t in London. In the end I thought, sod it. If they won’t come to me, I’ll take my food to people myself. Now I do demos and pop-ups all over the country—sometimes even in other parts of the world.

It is not easy to be a chef, a mum and a wife. I don’t go home and have a sit down, I go home and think, what are my daughters eating tomorrow? Where’s their PE kit? My husband is a wonderful, respectful, helpful man, but I think a woman’s instinct is different. One of my daughters is a teenager now, and it is an emotional rollercoaster for both of us, me being away so much. It is hard knowing my husband has so much time with them when I don’t, but then the flipside is them seeing me in the paper, on television, which they love. I just cannot give up. Looks will go—though I do always like to look good when I’m cooking—but I want people to remember my food.

I do encourage women. I say to them, this is not easy; there are hurdles, but if you love what you do and you want to pursue it, I will help you. I like having my restaurant as a platform to do that. One thing that came out of the Severn Sisters event was that we are all surviving in this difficult industry, and can all help each other. I hope that fundraising feast was just the beginning.

Abi Ramanan

Abi Ramanan, Papi’s Pickles
It was while working for the Fairtrade Foundation that I became interested in food, not just as a universal pleasure but as something very political, too. It’s one of the biggest systems that exists in the world, combining many elements I care about: trade, employment, equality and human rights, particularly the rights of women.

I was working on a social enterprise competition in Europe when I came across an enterprise that worked with unemployed Italian women and unemployed immigrant women to foster social cohesion and create employment in a divided part of the country. I loved that model—that idea of creating a business for a social purpose; of fostering social cohesion through food.

I am Tamil, so I grew up watching the terrible conflict in Sri Lanka. It was horrific, being over here watching families being shelled for days on end. We felt so helpless. Then, while I was campaigning for more exposure for the conflict, I discovered London was one of the main areas to which Tamil refugees had fled, and that unemployment rates for women in these communities are among the highest in Britain.

I am a feminist, and have always wanted to create opportunities for women who are far from the workforce. Employment is a driving force of integration: it’s not just economically valuable, it’s about all the other immeasurable benefits that come from meaningful employment, like social networks, language skills and confidence. A lot of the work women do within the home goes unnoticed—but it has such value. I’d like to see people experience that more in a public setting. The restaurant industry is still a very male-dominated world.

Our food is labour-intensive: grinding lentils and rice and fermenting overnight for the dosas, making the pickles from scratch. In Sri Lanka, the food is prepared by the women in the community together, outside, using fresh produce from the local market. We’re recreating that at Papi’s Pickles, from preparing everything ourselves, right down to sourcing from local, sustainable suppliers like Borough Market. By doing so, we can create employment for these women and promote Tamil food in a city that is largely dominated by North Indian cuisine.

For the women, it has been transformative for so many treasons. There’s the salary, of course—a lot of these woman have been living in poverty with their families—but also the ability to feel part of something. That sense of belonging, of identity, are all things that are taken from you when you have to flee your country.

What I would really love is for this organisation to go on to inspire other similar enterprises. With new and escalating crises taking place across the world, it is so important to reflect what can be achieved if support and opportunities are given to these women.

Seeing one of our chefs running all over London for events, having previously not wanted to take the tube; or another, Ruby, in charge of preparing brunch for dozens of people at an event last year, and profiled in the Evening Standard—those are special moments, when you step back and appreciate the difference it makes.

Melissa Cole

Melissa Cole, beer writer, sommALEier and certified cicerone
The beer industry is a very different place to when I started out. It’s a much more enlightened business to be in but, like the rest of the world, there’s a way to go. When I first started, there were three camps: the largest one, that saved my sanity and kept me in the industry, always welcomed someone who was inquisitive, quick to learn and didn’t try and front knowledge but stood up for what they believed to be correct.

The second, about 15 per cent, were patronising in what I’m sure they thought was an avuncular way. The smallest but most extremely unpleasant sector thought it was okay to make god-awful sexist comments or even grope you after a beer or two. They are the ones that I still can’t forgive, and I know of around 20 women who left the beer/pub industry because they just couldn’t stand their behaviour.

Fortunately, they are mostly retired now and the beer industry is full of creative, funny and intelligent people with a lust for life. In fact, the most fundamental difference today is that I’m nowhere near a ‘novelty’ any more; there are tonnes of women writing, educating and celebrating their brewer/brewster status publicly. The brewing industry is not wholly the issue any more—although there are still a lot of unthinkingly sexist actions, like asking women if they would like a fruit beer—it’s the public reaction to women and beer that is still quite weird.

The most common question I get asked when I say I write about beer for a living is “do you actually like/drink beer, then?” To which my response is first, joking, “well yes or I’d have the crappest job in the world” and then my follow up is “out of interest, would you ask a man that question?” I don’t get cross about it any more. I tend to leave it there because you can see people suddenly thinking about the instinctively sexist comment they’ve just made.

There are so many resources today for women: training programmes like Cicerone or the Beer Academy, you can do online brewing courses, you can work for companies that instigate great training programmes or you can start a blog and read and go to tastings and home brew and learn and... if you’re still not sure, then you can always contact me over social media, I’m always happy to help point people in the right direction. Although, seriously, no one ask me about how I got to where I am—it’s not been a career path, it’s been a career meander!