Sally Abé’s ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen’ – Reviewed by Antonia Lloyd

A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen – the long-awaited memoir of British culinary star Sally Abé is out this June and it’s a searingly honest account of a young cook’s ascent to the top of the restaurant industry. Following in the vein of Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Sally’s grit and determination to succeed shines through every sentence, intensifying as she faces hostile situations and a brutal working environment.  Our Ambassador of Women In the Food Industry and Writer, Antonia Lloyd, reviews Sally’s debut book.

Sally’s title is deliberately double-edged. A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen is a misogynistic reminder that while mothers generally rule the home kitchen they are ironically almost invisible in the profession. Women in the UK still only account for 17% of professional chefs.  Sally asks us to wake up, for these will be her Chef’s Dispatches From Behind the Pass – she is sharing her personal story but also underlining her true mission to challenge the status quo and report on the state of the industry.

A Womans Place is in the Kitchen - Sally Abe

Cover Image by Axel Oswith & used with the permission of Little Brown Book Group

Sally is entertaining, wilfully contrary, and exceptionally resilient throughout which fits with the rise of this formidable chef through some of the finest fine-dining establishments in the UK. Over the last twenty years award-winning Sally has worked at The Savoy, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, The Ledbury under Brett Graham (with two Michelin stars at the time), The Harwood Arms where she earned a Michelin star, and as Chef Consultant at her current restaurant, The Pem, in Mayfair.

There is also a mysterious kitchen that Sally calls Jeff’s which she endured before meeting Chef Patron Brett Graham who was a ‘breath of fresh air’ and always a huge support. Sally exposes the appalling treatment at Jeff’s and the way they were ritually humiliated: ‘no one should come home and burst into tears every night or hope to get hit by a bus to get some rest.’ This is a stain on the industry that Sally calls out, appealing to anyone in that situation to move on and reminding all professionals not to fall into a cycle of toxic behaviour.

Sally Abé - Photo by Lateef Okunnu

Sally Abé – Photo by Lateef Okunnu & used with the permission of The Pem

The memoir is gripping from the off and rich in detail. Sally takes us through her humble start as an impoverished student in Sheffield working 40-hour weekly bar shifts while making Richmond sausages and Smash at home, to her big break in the big smoke: a part-time lowly commis chef position paying £12,000 a year at The Savoy struggling to pay her rent for her box-room. Although Sally admits to being totally ‘out of her depth’, her ability to be a step ahead and totally single-minded shines through. Her mother arms her with a copy of Gordon’s autobiography, Humble Pie, which reveals his horror of liars, dirty chefs and clock-watchers that is noted from the off. Sally throws herself into The Savoy canapes, the gruelling repetition of thin breadstick crisps, fine herb garnish, and takes a crash course in knife skills losing fingernails and receiving countless nicks and cuts along the way.

With time as she earns a full-time position, the darker aspects of the kitchen emerge. They have an alarming moniker ‘Suicide Sundays’ when Sally explains that the Savoy capitalises on the longer service hours in Theatreland from midday to 10pm and chefs have no time for a break, to eat or even a toilet visit. It’s 2005 and Sally also witnesses how vicious kitchen culture can be: an American intern called Brad, ‘the butt of everyone’s jokes’, is subjected to a hideous send-off, wrapped in clingfilm, put in a stock pot and covered in fish stock and meat juices.  There’s also the MDMA laced drink that she’s slipped by a ‘friend’ at the restaurant on a night off. Sally tells us her unfiltered ups and downs which will resonate with many men and women who have come through the industry and make for eye-opening reading.

A Womans Place is in The Kitchen by Sally Abe - Fleet

Image of Sally by Danny J Peace & used with the permission of Little Brown Book Group

From The Savoy to Claridge’s under Mark Sargeant, Sally goes. She learns to ‘work hard, play hard’, and be ‘one of the boys’, working ‘seventy-plus hours a week and spending days off partying all night’.  Self-care at this point hasn’t made its way into hospitality and neither have sensible contracts or feeding the staff properly. She learns to thrive when the going gets tough – after a bad service and public reprimand, she digs in deeper and moves faster. Sally has tactics to fit in creating a hard outer shell, never showing female weakness and never letting anyone see her cry. Standing five foot two inches high, Sally also faces a distinct disadvantage physically – even when faced with the Sauce section with a stock pot 80cm tall on a metre high plus stove, she’d rather struggle on regardless than ask for help. Having interviewed women chefs in the industry recently, these strategies are common. As Candice Brown says: ‘Sally really tells it how it is’, and ‘this book will be a go-to for those needing that bit of bravery and resilience in a world that needs more people like her’.

Sally Abé - Photo by Lateef Okunnu

Sally Abé – Photo by Lateef Okunnu & used with the permission of The Pem

There are also lighter moments that will make you smile – when Sally goes to Claridge’s with her mum, and they’re treated like royalty; the camaraderie and bonds made along the way; and sometimes ‘having too much fun’ like in Pastry at The Ledbury ‘racing to crack cases of eggs for souffles’ with Nik. There are also the stories that speak volumes about this crazy industry – Sally slicing the end of her finger off and worrying about taking time off, the kitchen team at The Ledbury scaring off rioters in London 2011 with kitchen implements (but no knives), and the euphoria of winning a Michelin star at The Harwood Arms.

Sally is an inspiration in this industry because she chooses, once Head Chef, to change things for the better – offering different hours for a pregnant chef who is an asset to her team, creating a staff meal plan delivering decent food not rubbish, training her staff properly, and avoiding all public humiliation and shouting.  Sally admits that she’s no angel – this tough industry has shaped her to be the person she is today.

Sally Abe - Great British Menu 2022 Central Region

So what about the portrayal of professional kitchens on TV? Despite prior warnings, Sally finds the experience of competing on BBC Two’s Great British Menu and reaching the Banquet a positive one, enjoying her new ‘brush with fame’ and concluding that ‘TV still rules’ when it comes to the volume of business it brings to her restaurant. When it comes to high octane chef dramas like Philip Barantini’s Boiling Point often accused of over-dramatization, Sally says: ‘For me, watching it was like observing a (albeit dramatized) busy Saturday night service.’ In an industry that isn’t all ‘hugs and high fives’, this is a case of art mimicking life.  Rather than condemn the media for fuelling the fire, Sally leaves the responsibility firmly with the industry itself.

A Womans Place is in the Kitchen by Sally Abe - Dedication page

This memoir is an insightful personal journey that serves as a whirlwind behind the scenes tour of the top London restaurant scene. The industry is improving but Sally’s account is a harsh reminder that toxic behaviour must be called out: ‘If a restaurant cannot produce intricate, haute cuisine without abusing or exploiting its staff, it raises the question: should it exist at all?’ The importance of this book is that Sally shows that change is possible and that for every woman in hospitality, everything is possible – her ultimate goal is to create a more respectful, humane hospitality industry.

 Sally Abé’s A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen is published by Fleet

You may also like to read Antonia’s cookbook reviews of Elly Wentworth at The Angel of Dartmouth, Cooking with Anna by Anna HaughEasy Wins by Anna JonesThe Taste of Belgium by Ruth Van Waerebeek and her review of Plant Feasts by Frankie Paz, our review of Recipes for a Better Menopause by Jane Baxter & Dr Federica Amati and our book review of Modern South Asian Kitchen by Sabrina Gidda

Sally Abe’s Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen – Panel Event & Book Signing

Women in the Food Industry hosted an event on 11th June centred around the launch of Sally Abé’s debut memoir – A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen – a chef’s dispactches from behind the pass. Sally’s book is about her journey of becoming an award-winning chef in the brutal world of restaurant kitchens. It is also a stirring manifesto which shows how we can change them for the better. See the recap of an inspiring panel of women who are working to bring hope for the culinary landscape’s future.

Recap of A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen event

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