Interview with Amber Francis representing the South West region on Great British Menu 2023 – Women In the Food Industry

Great British Menu (GBM) returned to our screens on 31st January 2023 for series 18. The BBC Two show puts the nation’s most talented chefs to the test. At Women in the Food Industry we are interviewing the strong female line-up of chefs from across Britain competing to serve their dish at the final banquet. To kick start the series, our co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, interviewed Amber Francis, Head Chef at The Zebra Riding Club, in the grounds of Hertfordshire’s Birch Community.

Amber was awarded Young Chef of the Year 2022 at the British Restaurant Awards. Originally from Bristol, Amber is representing the South West region.

How did you start working in the hospitality world and where did you train to be a chef?

I started by cooking a lot at home and then looked into the career paths of cheffing. I then found the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Specialist Chef Scholarship applied through that while I was also applying for universities. I found out I had a place the morning of one of my aptitude tests for a university. I decided to follow my heart and did the Specialist Chef Scholarship. With that I trained at Bournemouth and Poole College at the Royal Academy and was working at The Ritz as an apprentice.

I then went to The French Laundry and River Cottage for work experience stages. That’s where I realised that working with local growers and seasonal produce was important to me. That really sparked my career direction into restaurants I worked in later on: The Dairy, Bermondsey Larder, I did some work in Darby’s during lockdown. I had learnt a huge amount there, but wanted to flex my management skills and see if I could manage a team I’d never met before. That’s when I moved to Brawn. I worked there as a senior sous chef for nearly a year. Then it was time for the next challenge. I was looking at my options and The Zebra Riding Club came up. I started in April 2022 and am really enjoying it.

This is your first time on Great British Menu, how did you get onto Great British Menu?

I was approached by one of the producers several years ago when I was at Darby’s during one of the lockdowns. I went through all of the audition processes, but it was decided that I wasn’t quite the right fit at the time as I was senior sous chef.

I then became Head Chef at The Zebra Riding Club and within about two or three months, I got another contact from the producers through Instagram. Had more video calls and auditions and the rest is history.

How did you prepare for the animation theme at GBM?

A lot of hard work and recipe testing. I watched some of the previous series, I grew up watching Great British Menu. I started watching when Tom Kerridge was competing. I found when I was re-watching it and I knew I competing in it, I started getting too into my own head about what other people were doing.  That’s when I stopped and thought if I going to do this, I am going to do my food – the food that I am proud of and want to cook and want to eat.

The theme was so creative and so much fun. Food is  all about sharing memories and nostalgia with people.

I had loads of wonderful conversations with friends and family. Some of the inspiration that I reference isn’t something that I grew up with, but it’s something that my parents grew up with. So that was really lovely to do.

How did you find it working with the cameras and a film crew?

Working with cameras is definitely a new experience but I really enjoyed it. It was eye opening for me and a completely difference approach to working in a service kitchen. You had to get used to things like remembering to tell the camera people when you were going to the oven. But what I’ve always loved about the hospitality industry is the different avenues a career in that field can take. Seeing the filming side of things was absolutely fascinating for me. Working with the home economists on site was incredible. You couldn’t ask for a better support system. I took everything as a massive learning experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it and tried to learn as much as I could.

What was one of the most enjoyable challenges?

Probably my starter. It had to be vegan. When you are brainstorming ideas you start with your starters. Whilst I cook quite a lot of naturally vegan foods – I don’t use a lot of protein alternatives. I had to think not only do I have to get the brief on a plate but utilise  vegan ingredients and techniques too. It was a tough challenge but a really rewarding one at the end of it.

GBM is very much known for its props, did you embrace the props on the show?

I embraced the props to extent that it’s part of the fun of Great British Menu. It always will be a big part of the programme. It allows chefs to be able to flex their creativity in different ways than they would be able to than in a standard service kitchen or restaurant.

I tried to keep as true to my food as possible. But I did dabble in a few props here and there. I was also massively helped by friends and family. My mother-in-law made some props. My partner helped to make some props, so the whole family was involved.

Which chef that you have worked with has given you the most inspiration?

Currently in my career it’s my team that give me a huge amount of inspiration. I work with a lot of new chefs to the industry. I wouldn’t call them young because there are  some individuals that have had career changes. Their desire to learn and progress is really inspiring to me.  You can’t stand still when you have a team around you that are really geed up and excited about learning new techniques. I have an amazing sous chef called Niall who is an absolute star to bounce ideas off.

In terms of inspiration across my career, I have been really inspired by Sally Abé when she did Great British Menu. I think her drive and passion was really clear, but she also wasn’t afraid to show a little bit of vulnerability and that was really amazing to see. I am inspired by how she pushes women forward in her own restaurant. She’s inspiring to a new generation of not only women chefs but chefs in general.

If you were marooned on a desert island, what was the one type of dish you could happily live on?

That’s a mean question to ask a chef. It’s like asking to choose your favourite child. In terms of food that I cook I love the mushroom dish that I have on the menu. Just grilled mushrooms over a fire, olive oil, herbs, buttter – you can’t get better than that.  Home cooking – it’s a daal, I love daal.  It’s a storecupboard staple and it always makes you feel better.

Finally, what do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when you were starting out?

I would tell myself that I followed my heart to get into this career and the best way to develop myself and to continue progressing is to continue to follow my heart. Trust your gut, know what works for you and what you want to get out of your career and this amazing industry. You trusted yourself to follow this path and you’ll be able to guide yourself through that.

Amber will be appearing on Great British Menu from Tuesday 7th February 2023 representing the South West region.  Look out for more in our series of interviews with the great women chefs on Great British Menu 2023 soon.

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