Chef Sally Abé: ‘It’s only when I go into a male-dominated kitchen that I notice the friction’

<span>Chef Sally Abé, photographed for Observer Food Monthly. Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Lancôme and Tigi</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer</span>
Chef Sally Abé, photographed for Observer Food Monthly. Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Lancôme and TigiPhotograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer

When people started to tell Sally Abé that she was brave for writing a memoir, she was perplexed. “I was like, why? And they said, well, what if everyone hates you?” Her book, A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen, is about to be published. “Basically, I’ve had a week of panicking that everyone is going to hate me.” For those of us who aren’t well acquainted with fine-dining kitchens, or commercial kitchens at all, she doesn’t so much pull back the curtains as yank them away, revealing the plain truth of what it takes to get dinner on to your plate.

Now 37, Abé isn’t in the thick of it like she once was, and the long hours punctuated by quick cigarette breaks are behind her. We meet in London, around the corner from Westminster Abbey, in the private dining room of her restaurant, the Pem (a family nickname for the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison). Abé is chef consultant, overseeing a kitchen that is largely staffed by women. In hospitality, this is not a typical state of affairs. According to ONS data gathered between 2009 and 2017, less than 20% of cheffing positions in the UK were held by women. Only 8% of the UK’s Michelin-starred restaurants were led by women, according to a 2023 survey, slightly higher than the international average of 6%.

This is a situation Abé is keen to address, and partly why she is telling her own story. She has worked at a variety of places including the Savoy and Claridge’s, both then under the stewardship of Gordon Ramsay, and the Ledbury under Brett Graham. She became head chef at Graham’s Harwood Arms, helping to retain the gastropub’s Michelin star. The book is thrilling and unvarnished. Some of the more difficult establishments in which she worked remain anonymous; in one, she is given the nickname “tit rat”, while another fosters a culture of fear, and there is bullying and backstabbing. She works with tough chefs and out-of-their-depth chefs, butts heads with colleagues, marries one of them (Matt Abé, whom she met at Claridge’s, though they have since divorced), goes to hospital, throws eggs, burns out, comes back, and eventually establishes a kitchen in which, today, only one of the eight chefs is male. It is about sexism and working conditions in the industry. “For all the stories that are in the book, I’ve probably got another hundred that didn’t make it in,” she says.

Abé grew up in Mansfield, in the east Midlands, in the 1980s, eating tinned spaghetti and frozen pizza. “We never ate at restaurants, it just wasn’t a thing,” she says. “Maybe we’d go once a month to a local pub and have scampi and chips, but I didn’t know what Michelin stars were until I moved to London. It wasn’t on my radar.” While studying for a degree in hospitality in Sheffield, she started working in a local hotel, but abandoned both after a trial shift at the Savoy turned into a full-time job. She soon realised how much she thrived on it and, for all the horror stories in the book, it never loses sight of how electric a busy service can be. “It is exciting! It is a great industry. It’s so fulfilling, it’s taken me all over the world, and I think that it should be celebrated.” Still, she says, it can do better. “On the flip side of that, everybody should be treated properly. It’s not that much to ask, in my opinion.”

I’m not trying to make out I’m some angel chef who’s never shouted at anybody

At one point in her career, Abé was burned out, on the verge of giving it all up, but Ramsay intervened and got her into therapy. “He really did help me through some tough times,” she says. Abé is honest about her own previous outbursts in the kitchen. “It is a very busy pressured environment and tempers do fray,” she says, but in therapy she has learned how to deal with it properly. “I’m not trying to make out I’m some angel chef who’s never shouted at anybody. It’s so much easier to just be like, ‘fuck off’, but ultimately, what does that solve? If somebody’s burned something, you kick off, you make everybody else upset, but the thing is still burned. It won’t un-burn, just because you’re upset.”

These days, guest chefs come into the kitchen at the Pem and remark on the calm atmosphere. “It’s only when I go into a male-dominated kitchen that I notice it. You can feel that friction. It instantly catapults me back and I don’t like it.”

Changing a kitchen culture from within is a big ask, and Abé knows it. She is keen to point out that she has not written an exposé, only her own story. Is there a culture of silence, particularly when it comes to some of the worst behaviour? “In the industry, everybody knows what goes on, and everybody knows who it goes on with,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, it is changing, and it’s changed massively in the last 20 or 30 years, but it’s still not perfect.”

Last year, Abé set up a WhatsApp group for female head chefs. “We’re up to 50 members now, which is amazing.” They might ask for advice on payment systems, for example, or congratulate each other on awards or achievements. “It’s just nice to have that reinforcement, that there are other women out there, and that we are all there to support each other.”

She tells me about receiving a handwritten letter from a nine-year-old girl, who had seen Abé on TV on Great British Menu, and wanted to tell her that she had inspired her to become a chef. “I was in floods of tears,” says Abé, but characteristically, she saw a chance to do something too. She invited the girl and her family to the Pem, and showed her the kitchen, and let her cook and dress a dish. “She’s got a positive view of the industry, because she saw me and thought, ‘I could do that,”’ she says. “That’s what we need more of.”