To illustrate the many and varied talents of the members of LDE London, each month, we spotlight, in no particular order, one of our Dames.
Dame Chrissie Walker, a well-known and highly respected food and travel writer, will use her piercing interview techniques to offer a fresh view of these women we think we know so well. Expect to learn random and offbeat facts about their lives, as well as the stories of their careers.
This month we feature Ashley James – our only dual-chapter member – whose restaurant Stagolee’s opens in early April . . .
I met Ashley for morning coffee; it had to be early as this chef has a full schedule before the opening of her new restaurant in Fulham. It’s a REAL American restaurant and will offer dishes which will be familiar to anyone from the Southern States or those with African American heritage. It’s called Stagolee’s and fills a culinary gap in the London restaurant foodscape.
Ashley was raised in Houston, Texas, but moved to Philadelphia which was the home of her grandparents. ‘I’ve probably spend half my growing-up there and half in east Texas,’ she says. ‘My grandparents were my great food influence. As far as grandchildren go, there were three: I was the middle one and the one who always spent time with them and cooked with them. My chefdom ultimately came out of that relationship.
‘I always planned to be an attorney, right up to my last year of university, when I was applying for law schools. But I have always been an avid home cook, and I used to do dinner parties for my friends at college, and things like that. I supposed that after I had made all my money being a ‘powerhouse attorney’ I would have invested in a home interior business – tables, plates, things like that. It’s not that my parents beat it into me or anything, but my mind was always set on academia, and that’s where I wanted to go.
‘But it came down to: I love law and I love research and I love food. So I decided to try being a chef, and I moved to Philly. I worked at a boutique hotel, then I ended up at Dandelion. The chef who opened Dandelion is Robert, the twin brother of Tom Aikens, and I worked for him for a year and a half or so. Then my husband and I moved to Connecticut, and Robert and I kept in touch. He knew that I wanted to move to London eventually, so when Tom was coming to New York for a James Beard event Robert invited me to come down and meet him, and he offered me a job. I came to London in 2012.
‘I found Les Dames d’Escoffier because I knew how crazy this was going to be for me, and I was looking for some level of support system. Sue, Valentina and Jacqui sort of ‘took me in’! So I was here for a year.’ Ashley returned to the States, where she continued working in the restaurant industry, gaining more experience and gathering recipes and inspiration for her new London restaurant Stagolee’s.
‘I feel like I am in a unique position in Les Dames because when I first came over here I was looking for advice to help me figure out London. I knew I was coming to work crazy hours, coming into a situation not favourable to my sex, and so on. They took me on and I joined the group. So I got the help I needed regularly, having access to people to talk to, a network of established women. When I moved back to Connecticut my house was halfway between New York and Boston; I chose the New York chapter!
‘It was great because a few women reached out to me – none of them were chefs, but PR, wine, different aspects of the industry, which was even more important than talking just to people who do the same as you. I joined the programs committee there. Several of those women have been so supportive to me. It makes me realise how lucky I have been to have the encouragement of Les Dames. It’s good to be able to pay something back, which is why I agreed to become chair of the programmes committee in London. If we can do more good for more women and raise more money, so much the better.
‘Les Dames d’Escoffier London sent me to the Conference in October 2012, which was so eye-opening – you don’t understand the weight of the organisation unless you go to a Conference! Delegates from all the different chapters in the US and Canada are there. You see how amazing these women are, and what they are doing. And it was the most fun conference I have ever been to!
‘I can’t emphasise enough the help that Valentina and Sue and Jacqui gave me – even if I didn’t call them often, just knowing that they were there was so important. I would love to be able to do the same for others.’