Interview with Amber Francis – Senior Sous Chef at Bermondsey Larder & Youth Ambassador for Craft Guild of Chefs
We recently caught up with inspiring young chef Amber Francis, Senior Sous Chef at Bermondsey Larder, to discover more about the resilience of working in the restaurant world during lockdown. Plus as Youth Ambassador for The Craft Guild of Chefs, she spoke to our co-founder Mecca Ibrahim about the importance of training, development, women in the industry and her clear love for the hospitality world.
How did you start working in the food world and where did you train to be a chef?
I was incredibly fortunate to have a family that had a borderline obsession for food and most of my childhood memories are based around mealtimes. My parents encouraged my sister and I to try all sorts of different foods and cuisines growing up and that stuck with me. Meals were special times to be shared with loved ones, so I think I was probably always destined to have a future in food and it has always just been such a big part of my life.
I was set to be academic (or at least that’s what my school wanted me to do) and I was told repeatedly by my teachers that going to college to train to be a chef after my A Levels would be “going backwards”. However, I was fortunate to have the support of my family in exploring other more vocational paths.
I was encouraged by a local chef, who became a mentor to me, to undertake as many stages as possible to see if cooking was a career that I could see myself following. I emailed restaurants determinedly, some twenty odd at a time, until I began to get replies. I worked as a KP at a pub on weekends to save up money to allow me to travel and stay near the restaurants that I staged at. By the time I had reached Sixth Form I had several Michelin starred stages under my belt and knew that this was the career for me.
I set about looking into the most suitable training path and discovered the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Scholarship programme with Bournemouth and Poole college. I encourage any young aspiring chef to look in to this course, it’s not easy, but it’s one of the best out there.
What where some of the most challenging things you learnt moving from culinary school to professional kitchens?
The Royal Academy Scholarship with Bournemouth and Poole College is very supportive in the transition from education to the workplace. It is a three month training – nine month working placement style apprenticeship which allows students to engage in focused learning at college but also experience the “real world” of being a chef whilst studying the three year course, with the support of lecturers.
However, nothing can prepare you for the reality of working in kitchens, it’s tough, the hours are long, you become accustomed to being exhausted, the pay is often low and you lose any semblance of a work-life balance, but they tell you about this. What they don’t tell you about is the warmth of the industry and the sense that you have become part of a huge family. It’s a small world with a lot of love. The passion that hospitality workers have for their career, their craft, is second to none. We wouldn’t do this job if we didn’t love it. That love transcends into how we treat one another.
Yes there are the people we won’t mention, the bullies and people that will use the often hierarchical structure of kitchens to their advantage. But for the most part hospitality is an industry built on care and love, for produce, for craft, for guests and for one another. So if you ever find yourself struggling, questioning why things seem so hard – reach out. There are people that care and understand.
What have been the biggest highlights or areas you are most proud of in your career?
I’ve only been a chef for five years or so now but it is a career that has enabled me to travel to different parts of the world and to compete in both national and international competitions, representing my country in my craft.
But what being a chef has enabled me to do is share my knowledge. The ability to understand a skill that can be passed on to others is special. I have taught adult learners in college, set up projects teaching local primary school children to cook with the food they grew in their allotment and volunteered to teach vulnerable and homeless adults with Refettorio Felix to name just a few. These are the things that fulfil me and let me know why I chose this career. Cooking is about sharing, whether that’s sharing food, knowledge or love.
Describe your typical day at Bermondsey Larder (previously known as The Dairy Bermondsey)! How much has this changed since COVID?
Gosh, is there ever such a thing as a typical day as a chef? First and foremost it’s a coffee after opening up the kitchen. Then we work as a team to get the deliveries packed away. A quick briefing follows where we discuss the plan for the day and any concerns or new ideas from the team over breakfast. A few hours of hard graft getting all the mise en place set for lunch service, then Will, our head chef, or I will run a briefing with front of house to discuss the day’s menu, guests and any other points of note for the service. Then lunch begins. The afternoon is focused on getting a break for the team – sitting down and eating dinner together, and topping up prep for the following evening service. Then a big old clean down and home time.
COVID-19 has changed the way we work hugely over the last year. I shan’t get political about it, there is enough written on that topic. But it’s amazing how adaptable and resilient this industry is and that has been proven beyond a doubt throughout this pandemic. During lockdown some of the restaurants in our group opened up as delis; as lockdown eased I helped Darby’s to provide additional takeaway services and a pizza hatch, before helping to open the restaurant up again to a fully functioning capacity, whilst following all government guidelines. Then it was on to open up The Dairy Bermondsey (now known as Bermondsey Larder) again – which was a huge challenge in a whole different way.
The curfew has meant that we open our evening service an hour early to allow for diners to enjoy what Robin Gill has coined “Linner” (lunch and dinner). We also all wear masks throughout the duration of our shifts, ensure that social distancing is in place in the restaurant and have upped our already stringent cleaning systems.
How has it been working at the new location at The Dairy?
We were devastated to have to close our Clapham site, it was a second home for us and a place of truly special memories. However we are incredibly thankful for the opportunity to open a new site in Bermondsey. The new location is bright and shiny and it’s an exciting opportunity to be working in such a beautiful venue. It’s a big change from Clapham but one that the team has welcomed and coped so well with over the past few months. Renaming to Bermondsey Larder had brought a breath of fresh air to the restaurant and marks the start of a new era for us.
We are lucky enough get to know a whole new community in Bermondsey whilst still getting visited by our old Clapham regulars. Nearly every service we have a note on our booking system from some wonderful guests saying that they have been visiting us for years and are so happy that the team have found a new home – and so are we. New faces mingle with well loved regulars, and that’s one of the things that made The Dairy so special.
How did you move into becoming a youth ambassador for The Craft Guild of Chefs & what do you most enjoy about it?
I have been a member of The Craft Guild of Chefs for many years, having first competed in The Graduate Awards and then Young National Chef of the Year. They are a wonderful organisation that encourages education throughout all stages of your career and provide many opportunities for learning, developing skills and networking.
Around a year ago I was invited to a youth panel to discuss how the Guild could get more youth involvement. I was perhaps a little too outspoken for my own good. However the team were open to new ideas and opportunities and so they got in touch with me after the event to ask if I would become an ambassador and lend my ideas to different panels. Since then we have worked on developing an app and creating a new sector of the Guild called Culinaire, which focuses on youth involvement and mentorship. I am also working to bring together other hospitality focused organisations with the Guild to better support its members. Earlier this year I supported a collaboration between the Guild and Kelly’s Cause, a charity for which I am a mental health champion. It provides mental health first aid training specifically to those in the industry and I am delighted that the two organisations have been able to join forces to better improve awareness of mental health within the industry.
Have you always worked in kitchens where women have been in the minority? Do you think it’s important to have more of a gender balance?
Women have always been the minority in kitchens that I have worked in, though the ratio fluctuates continuously. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed but it’s so deep rooted in the culture of the industry that it’s hard to unpick in one concise answer.
The industry is getting better at addressing some of the attitudes and imbalances that dissuade women from entering and remaining in kitchens, but there is still work to be done. The hardcore and “macho” kitchen environments that encourage prejudices, bullying and unfairness are just as damaging to the men that work in them as they are women. The lack of flexibility in working hours and work-life balance, low pay and high stress is detrimental across the board, especially but not limited to when individuals wish to start families. These are issues that are used to explain a lack of diversity and women in kitchens, but they are root issues that are slowly destroying the industry and damaging the individuals that work in it. Root issues that are being addressed, but so much more needs to be done.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when starting out?
Reach out, find your people and don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are people that care and want to help. The industry may seem scary and daunting but people want one another to succeed. When you struggle at work, ask someone for help, when you don’t know what to do next, ask for advice, when it all seems overwhelming, ask for support. Be creative. Let your drive and passion lead you. Success is not just Michelin stars and accolades, start to think about what fulfils you and follow that gut instinct. Network and talk to people, you never know where one conversation could lead.
We have teamed up with The Craft Guild of Chefs to offer all of our members a free year’s membership of the leading chefs association in the UK. Read on to discover the benefits of joining.