The female-led dinner series shining a spotlight on women in hospitality

Hannah Twiggs chats to chef Selin Kiazim and sommelier Laura Christie of Shoreditch’s Oklava about their exclusive one-night-only dinner celebrating women at all levels of the industry

Monday 27 June 2022 22:38 BST
Christie and Kiazim have nurtured a ‘respectful, calm and kind’ culture at Oklava
Christie and Kiazim have nurtured a ‘respectful, calm and kind’ culture at Oklava (Supplied)

When it comes to women in the hospitality industry, the most recent count shows that just 17 per cent of professional chefs in the UK are female, and of the 57 per cent of women in the industry, one in four are in the most junior roles, and 57 per cent in part-time ones.

As part of their Women in Food series, restaurant reservation service Resy will be putting on a special dinner series at female-owned spots across the US and UK in tribute to the women who make restaurants special in London and beyond.

Here in London, chef Selin Kiazim and sommelier Laura Christie of Oklava in Shoreditch will serve a special, one-night-only menu on 28 June that spotlights all the women who make it happen – from front of house to back of house.

We sat down with Kiazim and Christie for a quick chat before the main event.

You’ve created a bespoke, one-night-only menu with wine pairings to celebrate London’s trailblazing women-owned restaurants. What can we expect and who or what inspired you?

Kiazim: We’re super excited to be working with Resy to host the Women of Food series in London – a tribute to all the women who make the hospitality industry special. Those joining us at the dinner can expect a multi-course menu, with wine pairings and specialty cocktails – all taking inspiration from women we hold dearly, from mentors and colleagues to farmers and artisans.

My grandmother was the inspiration for the first course, a halloumi cheese pastry, known as pilavuna. Every time my grandmother lit her clay oven outside, she would make me this dish for us – as a snack, for breakfast, or just with a cup of tea. It’s something no one would ever think of turning into a fancy starter, but we’re making it with a whey broth and a piece of fried halloumi to really pay homage to Cyprus’s national cheese… the main and dessert dishes we’ve created for the event also take inspiration from a number of our amazing female suppliers, who own and run some fantastic businesses across the globe.

Christie: We’ve got wines to go with each of the courses; a white, a skin contact, a red and a dessert wine. The first three are from female winemakers; the last one is from a female importer, who imports a lot of wine from Armenia. We’re using the Women of Food dinner by Resy as a way to shine a bit of light not just on female chefs, but all the other people who are involved in the background – people like me who do the behind-the-scenes stuff, winemakers, food producers, all those cogs of the industry.

Who are some of your favourite female-led producers?

Kiazim: Some of our favourite female producers will be spotlighted in the menu we’ve curated for the Women of Food dinner.

Firstly, Belinda Nash, who has been the owner of Sutton Hoo Chicken for over 20 years. Long before free-range farming or slow-grown chickens became a hype, Belinda was paving the way for sustainable farming practices and raising the bar when it comes to taste.

It’s up to all of us as chefs, restaurant owners and industry professionals to paint an authentic picture of the work we do and make it a career path that young women want to get into

Secondly, Calixta Killander, who founded Flourish Produce (along with her two Comtois horses, Bill and Ben) in 2017, when they ploughed the first furrow in south Cambridgeshire. A respected vegetable grower, Calixta’s growing farm champions good soil practice, biodiversity, and some of the very best produce the UK has to offer.

Thirdly, lley Özerlat, who is the Director of Ozerlat Real Turkish Coffee. Iley comes from a long line of coffee roasters and grinders, dating all the way back to her great-grandfather who started the journey back in 1917. Iley introduced the London restaurant scene to the art of Turkish coffee and over 100 years of the Özerlat family tradition.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges, stereotypes or barriers facing women in hospitality today?

Kiazim: I’d like to see the industry taken more seriously as a profession for women. It’s up to all of us as chefs, restaurant owners and industry professionals to paint an authentic picture of the work we do and make it a career path that young women want to get into.

Christie: Hospitality is still in parts male dominated which can feel intimidating – the kitchen, of course, but also a lot of senior management structures. You have to see people like you in roles to aspire to them and that is very much a work in progress for hospitality as a whole. As well as barriers to get into hospitality there’s also barriers to remain, such as childcare or other caring responsibilities and how compatible they are with hospitality – a burden we know falls heavier on women. There has been huge change already there can be no doubt and a modern well-run kitchen today looks very different than 15 years ago but there is more to achieve and we require everyone to push for that not just female figures in the industry.

Can you share any horror stories?

Christie: Many but I’m not sure it’s very productive or reflective of the current industry as a whole to do so. What I would say is that horror stories do not just come from the caricature of the scary head chef – it’s the guest who persistently bothers the waitress for her number, it’s the contractor who speaks to every junior male member of staff before conceding you are actually the one who booked the work, it’s the bank manager who consistently refers to you as girls in your mid-30s. In short, yes, hospitality has its issues but I feel passionately we shouldn’t be pegged as a problem industry over and above all others and that doing so in fact just builds the barrier higher for young women considering it as a career.

Resy’s Women of Food series is just one of the ways we can help shine a light on the amazing women working in our industry and we hope it helps to inspire new generations to come

Kiazim: I would very much echo what Laura has said here. I believe that what the industry needs is to keep making people aware and for employers to lead by example of all the great things, people and knowledge the industry has to offer. The problems women face in a male dominated society are not exclusive to hospitality.

Was women’s experience in the industry something you were always aware of and wanted to tackle, or did it grow out of your own experiences?

Kiazim: Throughout my career I’ve faced challenges as a female chef in what is an overwhelmingly male dominated industry. It’s incredibly tricky to deal with, and generally most females within the industry want to avoid complaining and feel like they should be grateful for what they have, but there is still work to do when it comes to appraising and rewarding men and women’s work equally.

Christie: Being a female-led workplace, we don’t often experience issues, but we do experience it externally. It was something we experienced keenly in setting up our own business from banks and landlords, often being dismissed off hand. It’s frustrating, but we have chosen to focus on what we are doing at Oklava and contribute to the positive side of hospitality.

At Oklava you’ve created a template for how a restaurant should be run – can you tell me some of the key changes you made and why?

Kiazim: The main change that we have tried to incorporate at Oklava is in management style. Our golden rule is respect – we want people to be themselves and to make sure that everyone is treated in a calm and kind manner. We want everyone to believe in the project at Oklava, and both myself and Laura as owners. It is also important for us to stay grounded; we have surrounded ourselves with a team of incredibly talented people. I have a huge amount of admiration for the sheer amount of hard work they put in, even in the toughest of times.

Christie: A lot of our employees are often new to the industry and new to London, so we like them to know that we are not just colleagues, we make sure that we are there for people outside of work if they need us to. We like to be friendly and approachable; we wouldn’t ever want our colleagues to think twice about asking for advice or asking us a question. We also extend our standards to our suppliers and guests, if they are not going to meet those standards, we will have awkward conversations with you. It’s important to ensure that anyone we encounter at Oklava is treated the same.

In an ideal world, what does an inclusive, welcoming space look like to you?

Christie: Less lip service and more actual accountability and action. The number of industry figures you see involved in a mental health campaign or talk about working conditions who you personally have watched destroy someone’s entire self-esteem is just ridiculous. There need to be some changes to make it a more long-term and viable career for women, a key example being the need to address working hours for new mums and parents more broadly. I’d also like to see more representation in the media of female industry workers. Chefs are the big media attraction, but I would really like to see more of the other side of the business represented as it’s such a collaborative process behind the scenes.

The pandemic changed a lot of things for this industry, some for the better and others... not. How did it affect you and do you think it was a welcome opportunity for a reset?

Christie: The last two years saw huge changes across our industry and restrictions on trading during lockdown disproportionately impacted hospitality businesses across the board. It’s clear that the pandemic not only spotlighted some of the restaurant industry’s issues, but it also gave operators the space to rethink and reassess — with practices put in place to improve the health of restaurants and the security of their employees.

Kiazim: Following lockdown, we (and many other hospitality businesses) announced that we would be removing the longstanding, widely applied 12.5 per cent service charge from our menus when we reopened. Instead, incorporating it into our menu prices. This service charge, while optional for our guests, has never been optional for us. Without it, we would not be able to pay our skilled staff the wage they deserve and would simply not have survived as a restaurant. So, we made the necessary changes that enabled us to continue looking after our staff as best as we can and sustain the restaurant we love.

What’s your advice for young female chefs and sommeliers just getting started?

Kiazim: If there was one tip I could pass on, it would be to take the time to learn your craft, learn it somewhere exciting and with people who are kind and understand that you should never experience unacceptable behaviour – that way, you are giving yourself the chance to grow.

Christie: We have faced our challenges and it really motivates me to be able to try to create an environment where females have the same standing in the industry as male counterparts. Being particular with who you work for is so important. Make sure you look beyond the salary to the ethos and atmosphere of the restaurant and the people that work there already. Make sure you know your worth and make sure that you are your biggest advocate. Resy’s Women of Food series is just one of the ways we can help shine a light on the amazing women working in our industry and we hope it helps to inspire new generations to come.

Selin Kiazim and Laura Christie of Oklava, Shoreditch, were invited to create a one-off menu on 28 June, to celebrate The Women of Food, Resy’s dinner series and tribute to the women who power the hospitality industry. For more details about the initiative, visit here.

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