Inspirational career journeys from across hospitality were explored at the first Club Thrive event, aimed at celebrating diversity in the sector.
Organised by Be Inclusive Hospitality, Thrive in Food featured panellists including Mussa Fati, executive chef at the Ned in London, recipe developer and cookbook author Ixta Belfrage, photographer Lateef Okunnu and writer and campaigner Melissa Thompson.
Each described their career journey, how they had achieved their position and what made them so passionate about their role in hospitality.
Explaining how he became a chef and came to run nine restaurants within the Ned hotel in London, Fati told the audience: "I got into the industry by luck. I started because I needed the money. I used to do music and was a DJ and producer and needed equipment, so I walked into a restaurant and applied as a kitchen porter. Soon enough, I was fascinated. Something so simple as a salad plated beautifully stayed with me.
"My opportunity came when one of the chefs resigned and the head chef gave me the opportunity to step into the kitchen. So I quit the life of a DJ and now I make music in peoples bellies."
Belfrage, who has co-authored books including Flavour with Yotam Ottolenghi, said though she had always been drawn to food, she had to find an occupation outside of a professional kitchen.
"I found being a chef tough and I was doing a terrible job," she admitted. "I wasn't given the job at the Ottolenghi test kitchen because I was doing a good job; I was offered the opportunity of a trial because I was in the right place at the right time. I can cook, but not necessarily in a restaurant environment."
Fellow panellist Okunnu described being drawn away from the family trade of law and politics ("my father is a QC and politician, my sister is currently running for president of Nigeria and my other sister is a judge") and into food photography.
He said: "I get to see chefs at their most creative [as a photographer]. It's an incredible thing to share. The way I see it, they spend a lifetime creating a dish and choose me to come and help share that dish."
Sharing his advice on pursuing their career, Okunnu added: "It's easy to convince family members of what you're doing because they will always support you. One of the biggest things is convincing yourself. That's the person that you see every day. People can see the best of you – the highlights – but sometimes you need to stand in front of the mirror and convince yourself to carry on."
Thompson said that being made redundant turned out to be a blessing for her development.
"I didn't have a choice, but I disliked my job so much that it was obvious I would be next. I was on consultation and I used my time to start pop-ups and supper clubs," she said.
"I built a website and had business cards printed and when I went back in for my last day I gave everyone business cards. Psychologically that was good as it was almost as if I'd chosen to leave.
"I had thought about leaving before, but I was always terrified. In hindsight, I had everything in place and it was my own head that was stopping me."
Belfrage added that she had wanted to leave her job but the trial at Ottolenghi's test kitchen restored her passion.
"That was the best decision of my life. The most important part was getting to spend years with an incredibly kind, wise man who supports people. That's what makes Be Inclusive so special, as it's all about networking, supporting people and bringing people up. That one person can be the difference in your career."
Be Inclusive founder Lorraine Copes said of the event: "Club Thrive is a group for people of colour to thrive. This is through access to scholarships, which are now open, and cover food styling, food photography and knife skills. Today is thrive in food, but next month it will be thrive in wine, followed by thrive in spirits and then thrive in beer. In total we will offer 44 scholarships this year alone, funded by the Gerard Basset Foundation."
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