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Women of substance

Categories: News and previews, Reflections and opinions

Alex Hely-Hutchinson, Henrietta Inman and Francesca Diliberto on their experiences of being a woman in hospitality and what to expect from the upcoming International Women’s Day lunch at Stoney Street by 26 Grains

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Stoney Street by 26 Grains will be hosting a one-off lunch this Sunday 8th March, prepared by a stellar lineup of female chefs from restaurants across the capital. Each chef will be cooking a dish inspired by the women who’ve shaped their lives—alongside a wine list curated by sommelier Francesca Diliberto of fellow Borough restaurant Flor—to raise money for Women for Women, a charity that helps women who’ve been displaced by conflict rebuild their lives. Stoney Street founder Alex Hely-Hutchinson, head chef Henrietta Inman and Francesca Diliberto tell us what we can expect, and describe the experience of being a woman in hospitality

Alex Hely-Hutchinson, founder-owner of Stoney Street by 26 Grains
My family has always been into food—in that they’re very greedy. We’re a big family—I’m one of five—and we love getting together and having big, long meals. But I really fell in love with food working in hospitality, which I did alongside studying. I think it was the familial nature of it: once you start working as a team, you really feel taken in. You bond with people and make amazing friendships. It’s hard work, but addictive: it’s so fun and rewarding, you get so much back from it.

My experience of being a woman in hospitality has been refreshing. The only difficulty I’ve had is overcoming the stereotypes that are sometimes associated with young women in food—that was more of a problem than any issues around the opportunities that were available to me. There is also a natural bias. I would get really frustrated while I was training to be a chef because sometimes you just can’t carry as much dough as you need and you have to ask a guy to help you out.

Something I work on a lot with my team is overcoming the natural tendency to doubt oneself. I don’t want to generalise, but I find this to be especially the case with women. Here, we try to build people’s creative confidence. Everyone can cope if they’re taught how to and they’ve got the right attitude. I’ve always been made to feel like I can do anything. My first boss was a lady who ran a food company—she had really strong values and would never compromise on the way she treated people and the food that she made. I’ve also felt really empowered by the women who have worked for me and believed in my concept. They’ve propelled me to do more. I feel secure in this industry, but that hasn’t always been the case—in the beginning there was so much self-doubt. As an employer, I have a responsibility to help others lose their doubts.

Being in a more senior position can sometimes be quite isolating, so running this International Women’s Day event at the restaurant is a great opportunity to meet other women and work together. Doing it to raise money for Women for Women was a no-brainer for me. They’re an awesome charity: they support women who’ve been displaced by conflict. It’s an incredible opportunity to do something worthwhile. We’ve got an amazing list of women involved: Shuko Oda of Koya, food writer Anna Jones, Freddie Janssen of Snackbar, and Sarit Packer, who co-founded Honey and Co. It’s a list of really great people in food, who are at the top of their game.

Francesca Diliberto

Francesca Diliberto, sommelier at Flor
My grandpa used to be a winemaker. Back in Italy, I grew up helping him out with the family business and when I came here to study, I started working in the industry. I was lucky enough to work in places with a very positive culture. Working in hospitality is more than a job; it’s a lifestyle. Once I started, I got more into wine and began working in places that followed a certain philosophy, mainly with low intervention wines.

There are way more female sommeliers nowadays, but in the beginning when I was going to tastings it was really male-focused, especially when it came to classic wines—in natural wine there was a little more space for newcomers. Now when I go and visit wine producers, there are couples doing the job together and many more women setting up their own businesses, which is great.

Hopefully it will encourage more women to become interested in wine and make them think, you know what, I can do this.

One of the reasons I wanted to work at Lyle’s was because of the sommelier there, Nominoe Guillebot. Nominoe is really lovely and it was a pleasure to work with her. She is French and very knowledgeable about French wines and now English wines, having been in London for a few years. She is always striving for the best—with the wine and with the service, which is also very important. It was a great point of learning for me, having gone from working in a wine bar to a Michelin-starred restaurant. There is a different approach, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

The culture we have at Lyle’s and now at Flor is very supportive. When Freddie—one of the women taking part in the International Women’s Day event, who previously worked with me at Lyle’s—opened Snackbar, they were very encouraging. She created it herself, from scratch, without much backup, which is amazing. It is very much Flor’s philosophy to be generous; when that generosity is between women, it’s great, but if we can have that between London restaurants, even better.

I am curating the wine list for the International Women’s Day event. The idea is to represent female wine producers where possible, but the main thing is to have something good to drink with good food, for a good cause.

Henrietta Inman, head chef at Stoney Street by 26 Grains 
I grew up in Suffolk, in the countryside. My mother has a vegetable garden, so I grew up picking produce and then having it for lunch and dinner. She would cook very simple stuff—seasonal meat and two veg, really—but really delicious. My dad loves food as well. He’d cook more experimental stuff, which would sometimes go wrong, but most of the time went well. He’s a publisher, so our house was just full of cookbooks. Both of them really influenced me.

I was very academic at school: I did French and Italian at university, in the knowledge that France and Italy are very gastronomic countries. I always thought I’d go into food journalism or do something to do with food history. I wasn’t sure I was confident enough to go and work in what I saw as shouty, frightening kitchens. While I was at university, I had a year abroad in France and Italy and that’s when I thought, actually, I do want to be a chef.

I got a place on the professional patisserie scholarship at Westminster and Kingsway College, which was one week a month. They said, “Here are three or four kitchens that are looking for apprentices.” I went to one—I won’t name names—and they looked at me and said, “You’re a posh young girl from the countryside, how’re you going to survive here?” Otherwise, I don’t feel I’ve ever been treated differently as a woman in hospitality. I got an apprenticeship at The Lanesborough Hotel and my boss there was a woman. She was tough but very fair and kind. She taught me so much. There are many women within the industry who I admire: Alice Waters—I think what she is doing at Chez Panisse and with the whole Edible Schoolyard Project, basically trying to get schools to grow and cook their own vegetables and teach children to grow and cook, is so important—as well as all the great women who are doing International Women’s Day with us.

Each chef at the dinner is making a dish inspired by the women who’ve shaped their lives. I’m doing a galette, so a free-form tart, which is inspired by my mother and my granny, who both taught me to bake, as well as my mother’s vegetable garden. I’m also doing a soda bread which is a way of talking about the farmers we use at the restaurant. One of them is Abi Aspen, who grows einkorn at Duchess Farms in Hertfordshire. We’re also using wheat from Gilchesters, which is run by a couple, Andrew and Sybille Wilkinson, as well as YQ wheat from two farms in Suffolk, both of which are run by women. The bread is a symbol of all the farmers and businesses that we work with, as well as a vehicle for talking about all the amazing female bakers at the moment.

I think it’s great that women in food are increasingly being given as much limelight and being talked about as much as the men. It seems like it’s really a moment to notice women, which is inspiring. Everybody is so kind and supportive, collaborating and working together. When it’s all feeling a bit stressful and too much, it’s nice to know you’ve got all these amazing people around you.

Join Alex, Francesca and Henrietta Sunday 8th March at Stoney Street by 26 Grains, 1-4pm. Visit designmynight.com for more information and to book.