Zoe Gill, sector development chef at Brakes, has worked her way up from deli assistant to developing an app for recipe sharing in her spare time. Lisa Jenkins speaks to her.
Did you do any work experience in the industry?
I was fortunate enough to work at some high-profile events, including Buckingham Palace garden parties and the royal opening of the Chelsea Flower shows. But perhaps the pick of the bunch was working at the Ryder Cup in Valderrama in Spain, an amazing experience.
What was your first hospitality job?
I worked at my parents' delicatessen when I was 14, helping with everything from checking the delivery from the local dairy to cutting and weighing meats and cheeses and mopping the floor.
What initially attracted you to working in hospitality?
I've grown up in the industry, following my parents through a bakery and tearoom to a hotel (Romney Bay House). After selling the hotel and opening a delicatessen, mum became a lecturer in the college where I was studying, and yes, she was one of my lecturers! It's simply in my blood.
What was your first job in hospitality?
I started waitressing at our local pub, the Ship, and this was where I learned bar and cellar management. I enjoyed the buzz of creating wonderful experiences for guests' special moments.
Who was your first mentor or role model in hospitality?
Without question, it's my mum. Sadly, she passed away six years ago, but, along with my dad, they made me the person I am today. They both worked incredibly hard and were resilient, determined, driven, passionate and personable. Hopefully they have passed a few of those traits on to me.
Could you talk me through the steps in your career in hospitality to where you are now?
I continued to work at the Ship after finishing college, as head chef and assistant manager, before moving to a family-run hotel, where I was head chef for four years.
Then, in 2003, I joined Brakes as food centre assistant and haven't looked back. Initially, I supported tasting panels and created recipes, but then started to work directly with customers as a development chef.
Now, I'm the first line for customers' menu support, creating dishes, building menus, training chefs and developing amazing food. To experience new menus going live makes the job so worthwhile.
Have you embarked on any additional career development?
This year, I entered the Sammies Sandwich designer of the year award. I got one recipe through to the final and I'm looking forward to entering again next year. During lockdown, I became a teacher for my children and this is where my passion for food and family came together. I wanted to find something that united families and supported children with reading, maths and life skills, so I created Schools Out! Big Cooks & Little Cooks, a platform to share recipe ideas, photos, recommendations and ‘how to' ideas.
Children share their school catering projects, from Victoria sponge to healthy smoothies and we now have more than 1,000 members all over the world. It's wonderful to see one of those 2am ideas grow and inspire so many others. Anyone can join our Facebook group.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced?
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I often feel that I need to prove myself to others. That's why I'm proud that Brakes is supporting the #FairKitchens initiative to improve the wellbeing of hospitality and foodservice workers, with a focus on fair pay, fair treatment and fair hours.
Do you have any regrets?
No, I've had a fantastic journey and my hard work has paid off with a wonderful career.
Would you recommend a career in hospitality to your friends and family?
Long and unsocial hours can be difficult. Although I am not in a commercial kitchen, I often leave at 5am and come home after 10pm, and then do it all again the next day. However, it is so rewarding that you can change someone's day, and even their life, with food. Children who have arrived at school without breakfast and struggled with morning lessons can be transformed with a good meal inside them; or people in care perhaps recovering from an operation or treatment, where food is often medicine itself. When you see the happiness you're creating, then there is no better career.
When you see the happiness you're creating, then there is no better career
Who inspires you in the industry?
My colleagues and those around me, and my husband and children inspire me to keep driving for more, creating the next great idea and continuing to succeed.
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