At The Top Table

At The Top Table
Emily Scott, Kate Attlee, Elly Owen, Rachael Henley and Michelle Brown

The hospitality industry in the UK is undergoing major changes, one of which is a much-needed increase in the number and visibility of women in senior roles. We meet a cross-section of female leaders who are helping to redress the balance in Cornwall, as they join forces to inspire the next generation…

This is a man’s world, right? Ten years ago, walking into many a restaurant or hotel as a new employee, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Wide-eyed young teens pushing open the swinging doors for the first time often found themselves plunged into a world where female role models were a rarity. Kitchens in particular had a bad rep, thanks to the cult of the shouty (male) celebrity chef, and stories of harsh working conditions; there were good Head Chefs and conscientious employers bucking the trend, but these positive examples were drowned out by the negative noise. All-male line-ups on television, at food festivals and award ceremonies did little to dispel the impression that the top echelons of hospitality were masculine preserves.

Add to this the impact of seasonality, unsociable hours and the perception of a ‘low skill’ career, and it was unsurprising that few young people – and even fewer young women – were spotting the opportunities and choosing apprenticeships and college courses to take them into the sector.

A recruitment crisis ensued leaving this industry – so important to the South West – struggling to meet its staffing needs. Finally, after some significant naval-gazing, an overhaul is underway. More supportive kitchen environments are becoming the norm, encouraging talented young people of both sexes to start and stay in the business. ‘The 100 Most Influential Women In Hospitality’ – a list compiled by industry publication CODE earlier this year, stated: “Talking candidly about mental health, running kitchens and front-of-house where there is zero-tolerance of abuse and either modelling or establishing customised working hours are all highly significant in 2018.”

Sam Quinn, Co-Founder of experience dining company Woodfired Canteen, explains that disrupting traditional perceptions of the industry is intrinsic to the business model she has established alongside her husband Ben. “We don’t do egos,” Sam explains. “It’s important to us to create a positive working environment where equality and respect is totally ingrained. Our team are part of the buzzing community we are building around the business, and communities should be internally supportive.”

Women have been both the cause and the beneficiaries of the shift Sam describes; a generation of talented individuals have carved their way to the top, along the way embedding the seeds of change the industry so desperately needs.

Included in the CODE list were Cornwall’s Emily Scott and Jill Stein. Emily trained to become a chef in France and is now Chef Patron of The St Tudy Inn near Bodmin. “The industry has changed a lot – for the better – since I trained,” says Emily. “The presence of more women in leading roles has played a massive part in that. I really hope that my inclusion in this list will encourage young women in Cornwall to enter the industry, or continue their training.”

Jill Stein agrees, adding: ““It would be great to have a balance of genders – which is optimum for a healthy working environment. The idea of doing a catering course or an apprenticeship might seem daunting, but it is vital that we invest in young women to give them the confidence to follow their dreams.”

Hospitality Table Cornwall, a project run by Truro and Penwith College and funded by the European Social Fund, will be instrumental in encouraging young women to follow in Jill and Emily’s footsteps. The team is developing new vocational career pathways within the sector, raising career aspirations and increasing recruitment. Project Coordinator Jayne Cornish explains: “Bringing more talented women into hospitality is one objective of this project. We want to highlight the diversity of career paths available, including becoming a chef, sommelier, mixologist or barista, manager or indeed a small business owner.”

Elly Owen started working as a Waitress at Fifteen Cornwall in 2009 where she is now Head Sommelier. Her role includes training new staff, writing the wine list and hosting events based around food and wine matching. “I love my job, especially the educational and travel aspects,” says Elly. “Yes, it can be a tough industry, and you have to work evenings and weekends, but if you find a good employer who will help you identify your strengths and invest in training, the sky is the limit.”

This is certainly proving to be the case for Rachael Henley, Food and Beverage Manager at The Idle Rocks in St Mawes. Rachael joined the hotel in 2016 and was quickly promoted to Food & Beverage Manager, going on to win an Acorn Award this year. These prestigious UK-wide awards recognise top industry talent under the age of 30. The hotel has now created a bespoke programme to help Rachael, who previously worked in luxury hotels in Africa and the South Pacific, become General Manager within seven years.

Michelle Brown, Head of People & Development at The Headland Hotel, has also risen through the ranks to lead in her chosen area of specialism. She started at the hotel as a housekeeper at 18, becoming Head Housekeeper just before she turned 21. She was supported by the management through various qualifications, including a Masters Degree. She believes flexible working hours are key to recruiting and retaining talent: “Hospitality is a 24hr business. This can mean unsociable hours, but the flip side is that parents of both sexes can continue with their careers as well as spend time with their kids. For example, part of our catering team has just moved to a four-day working week, which is proving really successful.”

There are also plenty of opportunities available for freelancers and the self-employed. Kate Attlee worked front-of-house at the River Café in Hammersmith before becoming a self-taught chef. She was chosen from 3,000 applicants to appear on MasterChef 2018 and made it to the quarter-finals. She lives in Truro, where she hosts pop-up events, blogs about cooking generally (and the realities of feeding two young children) and writes her food column for Cornwall Today. “I get to indulge my two passions – cooking and writing – and working freelance gives me flexibility and plenty of scope for new projects,” explains Kate.

As Jayne Cornish of Hospitality Table Cornwall puts it: “With role models like this – experts in their fields, natural leaders, creative individuals – there is a lot for young women joining the industry to aspire to.” However Emily Scott has the ultimate endorsement: “If my daughter Evie was thinking about a career in hospitality I would encourage that now – I don’t think, hand-on-heart, I would have said that ten years ago!”

To find out more about the Hospitality Table Cornwall project please email