Out of the Frying Pan

Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare: ‘I think women should be a lot more vocal than we are’

Going from a biology degree to a job as a pastry chef doesn’t seem like the most linear progression but it makes complete sense for Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare. She talks to Molly Codyre about finding her voice in male-dominated kitchens and building a safe space for the women following in her footsteps

Thursday 13 January 2022 14:37
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Taylor Sessegnon-Shakespeare was doing a biology degree when she picked up a love for baking. There was just one problem – she wasn’t very good at it. “I was in my last year of uni and I realised – I hate this. I got really into baking but I was really sick of f****** up people’s desserts,” she tells me. “I like to think I’m a smart person, like I have a whole biology degree but I can’t make a pavlova. What is this?” Frustrated, Sessegnon-Shakespeare decided to do something about it. “I was like, I think I have to go in a kitchen because I’m over this. I want to know whether it’s me, or whether these cookbooks are whack.”

What followed was an incredible career that proved it wasn’t her skills holding her back at all. She talked her way into the kitchen at Pied à Terre, and has notched up a storied collection of restaurants since, including Bancone and Luca.

When we speak, Sessegnon-Shakespeare is on a temporary suspension. She tells me that after she was assaulted by a colleague and harassed by another, her employer put her on leave. While an independent investigation upheld Sessegnon-Shakespear’s claims, the company terminated her contract a few days later. In another situation, she says she told a male colleague to stop bullying a female team member, and then shoulder-barged her in response. When she raised it with HR, she says they put it down to his young age. “It’s funny how I’m an adult, and I have to act like an adult when I’m upset about something. But when these guys are being sexist or racist it’s like, ‘oh, they’re just young’.”

Despite her negative experiences, Sessegnon-Shakespeare is endlessly positive about the realities of kitchen life. “I wouldn’t survive in an office,” Sessegnon-Shakespeare says. “I’d be fired. If someone said ‘go fetch my coffee’ I’d be like, ‘who are you speaking to honey? No!’” Like many of the creative industries, working in a kitchen is a deeply personal job. However, the unconventional hours and fast-paced lifestyle inevitably attract a particular type of person. “It is kind of like a room for the degenerates,” Sessegnon-Shakespeare says. “You’re allowed to have a personality, and that is something that I really love. You’re allowed to be you. You’re allowed to be quirky and outrageous and annoying and you are allowed to reflect these things in your work.”

Personality is something Sessegnon-Shakespeare has in abundance, and working toe to toe with men in some of the busiest kitchens in London has taught her to harness this trait and use it to stand up for herself when necessary. In an early role, she witnessed racism in the industry when there was conflict over the importance of ensuring food is compliant with religious requirements. It’s an experience that has framed who she is as a person. “I’m actually really proud of myself. It’s good to get fired for standing up for people.”

She described this experience as a pivotal moment in her career. “From then on I was like, oh no one can mess with me, I will not allow you to mess with me. I’m going to be vocal all the time, and if it annoys you, that’s your business. I think women should be a lot more vocal than we are.” This early lesson helped her to understand the importance of standing up for both yourself and others, rather than quietly letting bad behaviour slide. “I think it came from being like, ‘no! You’re going to hear me on this. You’re going to hear me. I’m sick of being ignored.’”

Sessegnon-Shakespeare is actively working to better the kitchens she works in and make them a more positive place for those that come after her. “I had three young women in my team at Tavolino – my commis chefs – and they were amazing. I think the most important part of my job is teaching pastry to the other girls, like that’s the highlight of my day.” She tells me: “I try to get them as involved as I can, and to get them thinking that ‘you might be at this stage of your career now but eventually it will be your responsibility to run the kitchen and it will be your responsibility to figure out what’s going to be on the menu’. What makes sense on the menu? What doesn’t make sense when the seasons are changing? And all that stuff.” It’s not just about helping these individuals grow, it also centres around tackling gender inequality in kitchens in general. “I think as a woman, the industry can be quite hard to get your foot in the door,” she says. “Because immediately you’re treated like s***. So it can be nice having other people to be like, ‘I know it sucks, we all know it sucks, I’ve been there, but I’ll try to make it as good for you as possible’.”

As a black woman, Sessegnon-Shakespeare has had to face the double whammy of sexism and racism in professional spaces that are known for heavily discriminating against both. And yet, she has managed to move through these situations with strength – holding her own and standing up for what she believes in, even in the face of overt gender and racial stereotypes. “I’ve been the only woman in the kitchen many, many times, and it’s very easy for men to gang up on the only woman,” she says. “I haven’t really been bullied, which is good. It’s more that people can start doing callous things towards you and not caring when there’s too many men.” Through hard work and perseverance, however, Sessegnon-Shakespeare has carved out a space for herself that speaks loudly of her work ethic and success in the kitchen. “I am a strong woman,” she says. “I don’t let people walk all over me.”

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