People 3 minutes 08 March 2024

Celebrating Women's History Month with Sally Abé

The Chef-Director of The Pem in London explains the significance of the restaurant's name and how she succeeded in a male-dominated environment

As a woman, every day should be a day to celebrate yourself and your achievements, but International Women's Day and Women's History Month provide the perfect time for a wider audience to celebrate all that is good about being a female. We caught up with Sally Abé to discover what it was like forging a career in a male-dominated industry and to see what advice she has for aspiring female chefs hoping to enter the culinary world.

Sally FullRes-9 (5389) 1.jpg

Growing Up

My earliest memories of cooking are making croissants with my mum when I was about eight or nine. My mum didn’t cook that much at home as she was so busy, but when she did, it was always good, wholesome cooking – mainly on Sundays, when she’d make a roast chicken and a lemon meringue pie.

I didn’t always know I wanted to work in the industry; I kind of fell into it after working in an office job at a hospital. I applied to do a hospitality and business management degree at Sheffield Hallam University and, as part of it, I came to London to do a year’s placement at The Savoy. It was there that I completely fell in love with professional kitchens, and I’ve never looked back!

Getting Started

At the Savoy I fell in love with the kitchen and realised my true passion was cooking. I stayed working in London and then joined Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s later that year. After a couple of years I joined The Ledbury in Notting Hill, which was where I truly felt like I learnt the art of cooking. It was tough working in the kitchens as a woman. Although I was given the same opportunities as my male counterparts, I definitely had to work a whole lot harder for them!

Establishing Her Name

I was lucky enough to have some real supporters on my cheffing journey. Brett Graham from The Ledbury has always been a mentor for me, and taught me a real understanding of what it is to be a chef. Clare Smyth has also always been a cheerleader for me which I’m so grateful for. And, of course, my mum! Making a name for myself was definitely a lot harder as a woman, and I had to fight harder to earn respect in the industry than my male counterparts, so it was great to have that support behind me.

The Pem (Credit Tim Green)
The Pem (Credit Tim Green)

The Here and Now

The Pem is my fine-dining restaurant at Conrad London St James in Westminster. I’ve focused on nostalgic, British dishes, all with a modern twist. As I always say, I’d rather have three incredible ingredients on a plate than 10 superfluous things! The restaurant name is inspired by suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, whose family used the pet name ‘Pem’ for her, and celebrates generations of pioneering women leading from the front.

I don’t mind who works for me – it’s about their attitude. I find that women tend to want to work for me, because they know they’re entering a respectful environment. Women in general tend to be more organised and solve problems in a different way, regardless of ego or status, which is a vital skill in a high-pressure kitchen environment.

I’ve organised my four-hands dinner series for International Women’s Day to showcase the incredible range of female talent in the industry. I chose these four amazing women [Romy Gill MBE, Candice Brown, Poppy O’Toole and Chantelle Nicholson] as they have a range of cooking styles, including a mix of restaurant and non-restaurant chefs. It’s an opportunity for guests to try dishes they may have never had before.

My mentoring programme with Westminster Kingsway College is still in its infancy, but I’m working on something bigger, hopefully in the next year! We started the outreach by inviting eight of the students over the four weeks of March to come and cook with us in the kitchen for our International Women’s Day four-hands dinners, offering them a unique opportunity to work in a full restaurant kitchen under the guidance of two female chefs.

The Pem Team (Credit Conrad London St. James)
The Pem Team (Credit Conrad London St. James)

Looking to The Future

Supporting female chefs is vital in developing their careers and mentorship schemes are a great way to do that. In an ideal world, there needs to be a governing body to vet workplaces and ensure that women are being treated fairly and equally to their male counterparts. I always say "you can’t be what you can’t see", so it’s important for people who have a strong platform to use that platform to encourage and promote other women. It’s all about leading from the front and creating an approachable environment that women feel comfortable to work, socialise and succeed in.

My advice for young female chefs entering the industry would be: don’t settle for working in a restaurant where you’re not made to feel safe and respected, keep looking for one that has the right environment and it’ll allow you to thrive both personally and professionally.

Sally FullRes-2 (5058) 1.jpg

International Women’s Day – 8th March
This year’s theme is ‘Inspire Inclusion’. What does this mean to you both professionally and personally?

‘Inspiring Inclusion’ is about inspiring everyone, both in your personal and work life. To me, it means including women, ensuring that they’re valued and celebrated. It shouldn’t just be women supporting women, we need to be educating and promoting the support of men as allies too.

Mother's Day - 10th March
How do you think we can encourage more mothers to get involved in the restaurant industry?

I don’t have children myself, but I believe it’s made difficult for women in this industry and in the UK as a whole to maintain a healthy balance between motherhood and a career. I think in the right, supportive environment it can be doable, but it’s tough to comment as a woman without kids.

To encourage more mothers to join the restaurant industry, it needs to be made more accessible. Offering childcare facilities, flexible working programmes etc. anything to make that transition from home to work as seamless as possible.

Images of Sally credit 7Fifty


Keep Exploring - Stories we think you will enjoy reading