Out of the Frying Pan, a new series from IndyEats, aims to navigate what it means to be a woman in the hospitality industry today. Thanks to decades of harmful stereotypes and the rise of macho kitchen culture in the late ’90s and early ’00s, for many women building a career and fighting for change in this space can feel like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. After a difficult couple of years, statistics show that there is still a long way to go until we see true equality.
With that in mind, in this series we will speak to the chefs, restauranteurs, brewers, sommeliers, writers and hospitaliarians about life in the industry, what it took to get there and what the future could hold.
Jessica Wragg had been working in butchery for 13 years when her body finally told her she needed to take a break. She had developed a repetitive strain injury from holding a knife for long periods of time, which then spread into the rest of her joints, exhibiting as early onset arthritis. “I had days where I couldn’t get out of bed because I was so sore,” she tells me. Thirteen years in an industry as deeply physical and male-dominated as butchery is no small feat. But for Wragg, butchery is all she has known for most of her adult life.
“Butchery has been a long term love affair for me,” Wragg tells me. The youngest of her friendship group and therefore the only one without a driving licence, she needed a local part-time job, and it just so happened that “local” meant one of the UK’s best farm shops: Chatsworth. “I basically asked for a Saturday job there and they asked what department I wanted to be put in,” she says. “I said I didn’t care so they put me in butchery.” She was 16 at the time. “I loved it so much and I couldn’t understand why I loved it because it was filthy, it was dirty, it was physical, the men were not always kind, but I just loved it so much.”
It was this stroke of fate that sparked what many may see as an unconventional passion. “From the first day, I was so in awe of how I felt,” says Wragg. “It strips you of everything that is womanly and everything that’s feminine and everything that made you who you were. At the time I was suffering from really severe body dysmorphia and I hated the way I looked and I tried so hard to be feminine. Butchery took that all away from me and it just made me this worker bee, and it was so weird because I realised I didn’t need all of those bells and whistles, I could just be me.”
There are only a handful of women working in butchery in the UK. Even fewer work on the meat-cutting side of things. When I ask Wragg about these other women, her eyes light up: “I wish we had a club, but we don’t.” Citing people like Charlotte Harbottle, Sophie Cumber, and Erika Kaulokaite, she says they have been enormous influences on her and her career. For female butchers, gender is about as integral to their career path as it gets. “Butchery for people is a whole experience,” says Wragg. “They have their thing where they get up on a Saturday morning and they go to the market and they go to the butcher’s and they get served by the same person who is always a man and they get the same cut of meat and they’re used to it. So when there’s suddenly a young woman serving them, they don’t trust her.” I ask if she’s ever experienced this herself. “I used to get asked all the time if someone else – a man – could cut their meat for them instead,” she says. “When I was ordering meat for the Ginger Pig I would go to these slaughterhouses and these processing plants and one time this guy didn’t want to talk to me, he wanted to talk to the wholesale manager who I had nothing to do with. There’s just that thing where you’re always the first person to be shut out of a conversation, always the first person to be talked over – but I think it’s the same in every male-dominated industry.”
Women in all industries have dealt with the daily microaggressions and misogynistic comments that are pervasive in every area of life. However as #MeToo and subsequent movements have proven, the reality is often a lot more serious, and everyday sexism can hide a culture of threatening experiences and assault. Wragg touches on this, telling me about how she experienced it for the first time at just 16, when a much older colleague became increasingly inappropriate. “This guy I worked with at the farm shop, who was 42, asked me to come on holiday with him and his son in a caravan on half-term. I thought he was joking and he goes, ‘No, I’ll ask your parents,’” she tells me. “That same guy also felt my ass when I was 16 and a half.” The fury she feels over that experience now, 10 years later, is almost palpable. “I wish I could go back to my 16-year-old self and say, ‘No, that’s not OK, say something, push it further.’ The worst part is, he still works there.”
It is clear this heavily shaped all of her future employment decisions. “I always get really nervous if I’m going to be the only woman,” she tells me. “You’re not just adding another person, you’re adding another dynamic – a feminine dynamic – and it can be a real struggle to find that balance.” Wragg goes into detail about how being the first female to join a business is a huge red flag for her. “I would never work somewhere where I knew a woman had had a bad experience. If a place has never hired a woman? Forget it. There’s no way. I don’t want to be the person who dips their toe in and figures out if it’s a good place to work or not.”
The matter-of-fact way in which we discuss these topics proves to me how ingrained this is in her being – as it is for most women. Taking precautions is an innate element of most aspects of daily life – from rerouting when walking home, to avoiding potentially uncomfortable or unsupportive workplaces. It’s when we touch on sustainability in the meat industry, however, that I see Wragg get truly animated. “I think the meat industry is at such a turning point – malpractice is such a hot topic, and there is a solution, but people don’t want to listen,” she says, “Nobody is talking about the fact that the meat industry needs to change, or in 10 years we won’t have a planet to live on.” Meat, and the impact it has on the environment, has been debated for many years now. Hearing it put into such detail from someone so deeply ingrained in the industry adds a whole new level of weight to the impact it’s having. “Meat is not a necessity, it’s a luxury,” explains Wragg, “but people treat it as a necessity, which is so dangerous.”
Thirteen years after joining the industry, Wragg has come a long way from the Chatsworth farm shop. Carving out her own (sometimes unconventional) path, she has worked in almost every element of butchery, from carving the meat to building websites, alongside penning a book about her experiences. Her path forward is taking her in an even more exciting direction. While she steps back from meat cutting due to her current health issues, she’s turning her focus to PR. Block is the meat-focused PR company she started last year. “I would describe myself as a pro-meat industry explorer,” says Wragg. “For 13 years I’ve been exclusively cutting meat, and I’m tired. There’s so much more the meat industry has to offer and I’m trying to see what else there is, especially for women.”
This instalment of Out of the Frying Pan is dedicated to Jess’s mum Jill, who passed away in September
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies