Women in Food, Fine Beverages and Hospitality

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 Sue Carter – our tireless Secretary and Treasurer

Continued from Home page . . .

I asked Sue if she had always worked in the wine industry. Had it always been her passion?

‘No, I went to art school and I was very much an ‘arts’ person. I studied graphic design and later, when we had this brainwave to invest in a wine store it was a very useful skill to have, for branding and so on, along with my husband’s accounting skills.’

Did you choose wine just ‘out of the air’?

‘No, we were very keen wine drinkers and enthusiasts and at one point we had thought about offering a wine subscription service in the UK: we would go to France and buy inexpensive bulk wine.

After many trips to Texas we fell in love with the place, and formulated a plan to move to Austin. We did our research, decided that there was a market for us, got our investment visa, and moved there in 1986. We had a great start, opening in October, just before the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. We learned a lot from the agents and distributors, and Californian wines were gaining in reputation. At the same time there were plenty of tech company start-ups in Austin such as Dell, and the associated venture capital funds, and we captured that market. We were a niche store, and we were really into the Californian and world wines. My husband had a great memory for names, and was able to greet returning customers by name, which makes a big difference; the accent didn’t hurt, either. Eventually other stores began to nibble at our market, and some of the larger chains came in and began to undercut us. We saw the writing on the wall, and were able to sell the store in 2001.

‘I went back to painting and took some courses in fine arts, which I really enjoyed. I got a call from a board member of the non-profit Wine and Food Festival for central Texas who recruited me for the Wine Coordinator position. I hadn’t been intending to go back to work, but I enjoyed the job and being back in the world of wine. I worked a lot with the wine distribution world, and met many people from not only the wine industry but also the culinary world. At the same time I started consulting work with a local winery and, together with the owner started catering monthly winery dinners.  Then the Festival Director quit and I was offered the job, which I took for three years.

‘During that time I was asked by the Austin chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier if I would be interested in being nominated to be a member, which I accepted. When they heard that I was leaving the USA, they threw a party for me, which was very sweet of them! Someone there whispered the suggestion that I might set up a London chapter.

‘After settling back in London, I thought about Les Dames, but I had no connections in the food world here. A contact in the Guild of Food Writers offered to help promote the idea by publishing an invitation to interested people to contact me. Valentina Harris and Marianne Lumb wrote to me, and they were able to bring in other founding members. I did all the admin work, and we got the Chapter ratified in 2010. That was my entry back into the wine and food world, and I have never regretted it.’

Was it your idea to start the ‘Edible London’ project?

‘Dame Ashley James, who had been a member whilst working at Tom Aikens in London, returned to the USA and was able to transfer her membership to the New York chapter. She had talked there to the Founder of the organisation, Carol Brock, who wanted to ensure that the London chapter survived, and Ashley suggested to me that we arrange a ‘symposium’ to which we could invite the American Dames. We needed something to galvanise the chapter, and to give our members the chance to meet US Dames as it’s difficult for most to ‘get’ the whole feeling of sisterhood as a satellite chapter. Eventually I won everyone round to the idea, and it was decided that, rather than running a dry symposium, we instead arrange four days of foodie ‘madness’, showing the US Dames our London and the trends, things they would not have encountered in the US, or as a regular tourist to London.

‘The reason that we are now starting to talk about 2018 is because it does give us, as a chapter, something to rally around, and to meet the US Dames, and to show that we are a force to be reckoned within the industry when we all come together. When I went to Annual Conference in the US after the first Edible London there was a standing ovation, and the next time our current president Dame Jackie Pickles received the same warm praise. So we obviously got something right, and that’s why we want to repeat it. A recent survey of our previous guests showed that at least half of those intend to come again.’

Dame Sue Carter is a tireless worker for Les Dames d’Escoffier London Chapter. Her quiet manner, sense of fun and commitment have been the reasons this Chapter, and the women we support, have continued to thrive.

Dame Jacqui Pickles

Les Dames d’Escoffier London are enjoying a vibrant calendar of events and are welcoming new members who are eager to participate in activities and raise funds for other women in hospitality. President Jacqui Pickles is one of the Chapter’s founding members and in 2015 took the helm from Valentina Harris, who did such a fine job as the first London President.

Who is this calm and measured lady who manages to instil enthusiasm in such a diverse cross-section of leading women in UK hospitality? She has a successful catering company and has spent almost all her career working in food and wine.

I asked how she first came to hear of Les Dames d’Escoffier. ‘I met Valentina Harris in the early 90s. I was doing some work for an importer of kitchen equipment, and met someone who wanted to set up chef demonstrations. I put some programmes together for her, and got some really good chefs who would go down to her kitchen shop. Valentina was one of those chefs, and we hit it off. I helped her set up a cookery school in France, and we built up a good relationship. It was she who invited me to become one of the founding members of the London Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.’

What are some of Jacqui’s early memories of food?

‘As a child I do remember it was simple food, Northern food. It was my Grandma who taught me the importance of making something taste good. She really only had three seasonings: salt, pepper and butter. She was a natural cook, and couldn’t make pastry to save her life, but she just knew how things should taste, and how to put them together. My mother was a good cook, but she was much more precise. She had been a nurse, and ran the household as if she was running a ward – we had to scrub down before each meal! She worked as hard at being a mother and housekeeper as she had as a nurse in the 1950s.

‘My mother went to Cordon Bleu evening classes once a week and so, suddenly, when I was about ten years old, we were being given pork fillets stuffed with prunes and anchovies, and stuffed peppers… We all embraced this, and these were the days before anyone had seen an avocado pear!

‘My father had a small farm and he set up a market business selling eggs and cheese. His first market stall was in Barnsley, which was odd because we lived in Preston. In those days there was no motorway so he had to get up very early, feed his pigs and whatever, then drive over the Pennines, and clear the snow from Market Hill in Barnsley to set up his stall. He built a successful business of about 30 shops in the end, and it kept my grandfather, father, my uncle and my elder brother going for 50 years.’

How did her career start?

‘I went into the family business. But there were too many ‘chiefs’ there, and one day I told Dad that I was handing in my notice. A week later I left and headed south with no plan. Eventually I found some work at Bourne & Hollingsworth. Then I went to the Cordon Bleu school for a week (which was as much as I could afford), and my interest was piqued.

‘I got a job as a secretary and actually my love of food started in that company. One day my colleague, Mike, asked me to lunch, and took me to the Connaught Grill. In those days it was all silver and waiters in tails – the poshest place I had ever been. The parents of my boyfriend Guy (now my husband) suggested that the next time he invited me to lunch I was to ask to go to Le Gavroche. So we went to Le Gavroche, and I still remember exactly what we had for lunch. We ate so well, and what a performance, a ballet – so fantastic! After that, we always went to Le Gavroche. I remember peeking at the bill, and in 1980 it was £78 for the two of us – quite a lot!

‘Guy and I would take our holidays in the South of France. Coming back we would always stop at a little place called Le Cheval d’Or, which had a great dining room. In1982 I said to Guy, “I really want to learn how to cook!” So I handed in my notice, and left my job in January 1983. I told Mike that I would look for a cookery course, and he took me for a last meal at Le Gavroche. He said, “You never know, you might end up working here.” I laughed, but by May 1984 I was working there!

‘Fate played a big part: I applied to the school at La Petite Cuisine in Richmond and that was such a stroke of luck, because Lyn Hall was a brilliant teacher, and knew every great chef in France. It was a wonderful school and I fell in love with the whole thing. She was such a hard taskmaster, but after just three months with her you could go straight into a professional kitchen. From there I went to France, in May 1983, to the Chateau de Montreuil, near Boulogne.

‘Then Lyn Hall came to visit, and asked me to come back to the school and be the chef’s assistant. I did that, but within a month the chef had left and I was chef! I did love teaching, and building relationships with the students who came through. But I did miss the restaurant.

‘Steven Docherty, the sous-chef at Le Gavroche, was asked to come and give a lecture one evening, and I said to him that I would love to come to the Gavroche kitchen sometime. He said, “Just visit one evening after work, and just peel vegetables or whatever.” So I did that, standing there with a crate of carrots, just watching everything that was going on. So I thought, “I’ve got to get back in!” and one day I asked Albert Roux for a job. He asked, “How serious are you? How long are you going to cook for?” and I replied, “I’m going to cook for life!” so he said, “OK, you can have a job!”

‘I started at Le Gavroche in mid-1984. That was the hardest job of my life! Very tough, and I was the only woman in the kitchen. From Le Gavroche I went into their outside catering business. Then Albert gave me a job of looking after all the chefs in the contract side. When they started to go for the big contracts I was brought into the meetings to help them. I was with them until 1986.

‘I set up my own company, and my first contract was with John Frieda, the up-market hairdresser, so I called the company Head Chefs Ltd – we provided food for their clients and we did his opening party in his Mayfair salon. The outside catering work began then.

‘I travelled a lot. I saw the world in style – Japan, Canada, The States, and all round Europe, and it was fabulous. The only place I actually cooked was in Iceland: a merchant bank client used to take their guests for a fishing trip and I cooked in a fishing lodge for a week every July, and it was really hard work. We started at 6 in the morning and finished at 2 in the morning, but it never got dark so you didn’t notice how tired you were.’

Jacqui Pickles continues to be involved with catering and hospitality, and organising international events. She is charismatic, quietly spoken and persuasive. She has already encouraged many women to get involved with the increasingly influential Les Dames d’Escoffier London Chapter.


Dame Ashley James

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 born in Dallas, Texas, but moved to Philadelphia which was the home of her grandparents. ‘I’ve probably spend half my growing-up there and half in eastern 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.’