Sally Abé and her team on the suffragette-inspired Pem restaurant at Conrad London St James

13 October 2021 by

Sally Abé is calling on chefs to employ more women in their kitchens – and showing how it should be done with her female-led team of hospitality superstars at the Conrad London St James hotel. Katherine Price talks to Abé and her team

The Pem restaurant at the Conrad London St James hotel is a rosy-hued art deco space that manages to be both elegant and warm, and celebrates women in every way.

Sally Abé joined the 256-bedroom property as consultant chef last year, having spent four years at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms pub in Fulham. The hotel announced a £1.75m investment into launching four new food and drink concepts, all operating under her guidance. Over the past six months the spaces have opened one by one: the Blue Boar pub; the Hedgerow cocktail bar; the Orchard room for afternoon tea, meetings and events; and the modern British fine dining restaurant the Pem.

I still get goosebumps every time I walk into the kitchen and see all these women in there. It's amazing

The Pem has a 70-cover dining room and 24-cover private dining room, designed by Wilson Associates. It is named after suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who died after throwing herself under King George V's horse at the 1913 Derby. ‘Pem' was her family's pet name for her, and the golden feathers on the tables are a nod to the feather boa she often wore.

The hotel is overseen by general manager Beverly Payne, and the wine list has been curated by sommelier and wine consultant Emily Harman of VinaLupa. Along with Abé, head chef Laetizia Keating and general manager Emma Underwood (see panels overleaf) oversee the restaurant.

The Pem
The Pem

It's unlikely it would have been noticed had the entire team been male (not in a positive way, at least), but in hospitality an all-female team is something of an outlier, particularly in kitchens. The team says that simply by providing a positive working environment and visibly female leadership, almost everyone who has applied to work at the Pem has been female – just as the opposite effect is often seen in majority male workplaces, where it becomes self-fulfilling.

Abé is fine having become a bit of a trailblazer for female empowerment in the industry alongside restaurateurs like Asma Khan and Chantelle Nicholson. "Hopefully, there are some younger girls looking at me and thinking, ‘I want to do what she's doing'. Without me they might not see that, and then history will perpetuate, and it'll just be kitchens full of white boys," she says.

"That's what's happened to the industry as a whole," agrees Underwood, who adds she can count on one hand how many female chefs she's worked with during her career.

"The fact that we can be an antidote to that is incredible. I still get goosebumps every time I walk into the kitchen and see all these women in there. It's amazing. We're so, so proud of it, and it's what Sally and I have championed for a long time – wanting women to be at the forefront and for the gender balance to be more even and for more women to want to come into the industry. To be able to enact that here is a bit of a career dream come true."

Balancing act

However, tackling the gender inequality of an entire industry is quite a task, so how can male colleagues support this effort? "Hire women for starters!" says Abé. "So many kitchens need to get more women in the kitchen, it's embarrassing. Chefs say, ‘they don't apply'. Well, go out and get them! It's no coincidence that I've got a kitchen full of girls – they want to come and work for me because they know they're going to get treated properly."

She emphasises that diversity must be a decision backed up by actions, and encourages employers to "take a chance" on job applicants who perhaps don't have the best CV but may have missed out on the opportunities afforded to more privileged candidates.

"When restaurants and kitchens are thinking about attracting more women, they need to think about ‘are we going to be able to offer realistic balance?' which we are able to offer here," Underwood adds.

Sally Abé and Laetizia Keating
Sally Abé and Laetizia Keating

It helps that they have the support and backing of the hotel, which is operated under a franchise agreement with Hilton under its Conrad brand.

Teaming up with a corporate branded property may seem an odd choice to some given Abé's background, as well as that of her colleagues. "The plan was to open my own restaurant, but the whole economy was so shaky and has been for the past 18 months – I just thought it was not the safest time to be going out on my own," she explains.

Hilton approached Abé about the role. She says she hit it off straightaway with Payne, and approached Underwood and Keating herself. However, she points out: "At the Harwood, I basically looked after everything, whereas here there's more structure, and there are systems and procedures, which is really good. There's a lot for me to learn from that. I don't think one is better than the other; they're just different."

Underwood and Keating are also strong advocates of the way they have been supported and afforded creative freedom. "We're operating with an independent nature but with the support and all the benefits of Hilton," Underwood explains. "We have pretty much carte blanche here; it was made clear to us that would be the case from the outset. So, although it was seen to many as a big, unusual jump, it really wasn't." "No, it was… opening a restaurant!" laughs Keating.

"We train our team, but all our team are then trained further by the hotel, so it's just all reinforced and really ingrained," Underwood adds.

Having spent a significant sum on refurbishing the spaces during a year when most if not all hospitality businesses have incurred huge losses, has there been any pressure to recoup those losses on opening? "When you work in a hotel…" begins Underwood, turning to Keating to ask, "do you mind if I answer that?" Reassured, she continues: "You have a whole constellation around you; it's not just us that are trying to recuperate. We have the commercial department that we work really closely with. It's a whole team helping to promote the restaurant, encouraging guests and speaking with the residents here."

Peach melba pavlova, lemon verbena, peach ice-cream
Peach melba pavlova, lemon verbena, peach ice-cream

Average spend at the Pem has been "consistent week-on-week", while the guest profile is a mix of hotel guests, local businesses, visiting businesses and people coming because of Abé's profile. The central Westminster site means that ‘local businesses' include politicians, although they won't say who. Bestsellers on the menu so far include the sirloin and rib of Cumbrian beef with oyster, turnip and horseradish (£45), and the poached native lobster was particularly popular on opening, served with shellfish cream, heritage tomato and sweet olive (£28).

It's when they are talking about the menu that their collaborative approach and mutual respect – along with the friendships that have been established – really shine through. For instance, Underwood tells of how, during the Christmas lockdown, she was in a bubble with Abé and her husband Matt (chef-patron at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay). "We had Friday night dinners," she laughs. "I was their third wheel for about three months. The deal was that I would bring the wine."

This friendship extends to their professional relationships too, and it's clear they value each other's opinions. "Obviously, Sally has the final say, but she's never afraid to give me the right to a dish," says Keating. "That's really great of Sally. She's not afraid to share."

Hopefully, there are some younger girls looking at me and thinking, ‘I want to do what she's doing'

One of the dishes conceptualised by Keating includes wood pigeon baba with grilled plum and smoked bone marrow (£23). Abé contributed a jus to the dish, while Underwood suggested the addition of wood sorrel.

"It's so good and so clever…" Underwood enthuses as Keating explains the dish. "Thank you," beams Keating, genuinely touched.

"Because we're able to push the ego aside, we can achieve a lot more in terms of maximising a dish's potential," she adds.

Abé, in a separate conversation, praises Keating's approach: "One of the nice things about working with Laetizia is that she's worked in very different restaurants to me. She thinks about things in a different way than I do, and we collaborate so well because of that. It makes me so proud when I see the food go out, that Laetizia and I created these dishes."

Poached native lobster, shellfish cream, heritage tomato, sweet olive
Poached native lobster, shellfish cream, heritage tomato, sweet olive

Recruitment

Speaking of teams, staffing, of course, crops up. "It's crap, isn't it?" sighs Abé. "It's hard work but it is what it is… I think they're going to have to let EU workers come and work here, I don't really see any other solution." She is spending five days a week at the restaurant, although not for staffing reasons: "It's the first thing that I've properly put my name to, and I want to make sure that it's perfect. It's not a case of micro-managing people, it's just being here, talking to guests and getting feedback and thinking, how can we make this better, what can we do to drive covers and revenue?"

For now, the restaurant is doing dinner service with ad hoc lunches on request, which they can increase as demand (and staffing) allows.

Supply chain disruption, however, is a different story, and like all businesses they have experienced shortages, including 20% of the wine list that was originally designed for the restaurant being unavailable. Thankfully, the menus list ‘Melilot courgette', referring to the farm in Cornwall the produce is from, and ‘Cumbrian beef', say, rather than a variety or colour, so it can be the best quality produce available that day. Staying true to Abé's ethos, she has maintained relationships with small, local suppliers such as Lake District Farmers, Flying Fish and Portland Shellfish.

We touch on the McDonald's milkshake shortage and Keating asks: "I wonder how many of those people actually thought about why that happened, rather than, ‘oh my God, I can't get my milkshake'? Because the supply chain is broken and there are no people wanting that work any more."

Because we're able to push the ego aside, we can achieve a lot more in terms of maximising a dish's potential

She passionately hopes the past year will raise awareness among customers that they may have to pay a bit more for their food to ensure the team that cook it and serve it have a decent work-life balance and working environment.

Staff welfare is clearly a high priority. It's important to the senior team to ensure staff get consecutive days off, a safe commute at the end of a late shift, and an open dialogue so employees feel they can approach their managers for personal and professional matters.

"We haven't allowed conflict to escalate," says Keating. "Anything that might have been a disagreement gets addressed in the early stages. So I think a lot of the staff feel safe and confident about their workplace." It doesn't change the fact, however, that many people have left the industry, whatever their reasons.

"People have forgotten the buzz of service," admits Underwood. "They just need to come and do a shift here. We call it the haven. It's so beautiful and calming and lovely, in the heart of the hotel. It's like being in a hug…

Frozen strawberry shortcake, elderflower jelly, mint
Frozen strawberry shortcake, elderflower jelly, mint

"It's the best feeling in the world, bouncing from table to table and knowing what 50 people are up to at any one time – guests, your team on the floor and in the kitchen – and knowing that every single movement a person makes affects every other thing."

At the time of writing, service at the Pem is starting to get busier following a quiet August, with a busy October and Christmas on the horizon, and a few locals have already become regulars after just two months of being open. It's starting to feel normal again, although the stress the sector has experienced isn't over yet. Abé says she may open her own restaurant eventually, but is still unsure when or what that would entail. "I just want to get this year out of the way and then come up for air next year and reassess where we're at," she says.

Like a lot of chefs, her aim is a full restaurant and happy customers rather than cooking for the guidebooks. "I'm just cooking the food that I want the world to see," she says. "It's food that we really believe in and want to eat, and we enjoy doing. It's been so fun to have complete free rein on this menu. It's exactly what I want it to be and it's a really nice feeling."

Sally Abé, consultant chef

Sally Abé joined Hilton's Conrad London St James hotel last year as consultant chef, having spent four years as head chef at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham.

She cut her teeth as a chef de partie at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and spent five years at Brett Graham's Ledbury in Notting Hill where she was sous chef before moving to the Harwood, which is co-owned by Graham. Abé won the 2020 Cateys Pub and Bar Award for her work at the Harwood, recognising her part in the growth of the business and her initiatives to support her team.

Laetizia Keating, head chef, the Pem

Keating is classically trained in French cuisine and has worked as a chef de partie in Michelin-starred kitchens, including Denmark's Kong Hans Kælder (the first in the country to be awarded a Michelin star) in Copenhagen, at Michelin-starred Mirazur in France under Mauro Colagreco, and at Benu in San Francisco, during which time the restaurant earned a third Michelin star.

After settling in the UK four years ago, she met Abé through her husband, Whatley Manor executive chef Niall Keating, and worked with her briefly during Abé's tenure as head chef at the Harwood Arms.

Emma Underwood, general manager, the Pem

Emma Underwood left her PhD in history to join Gary Usher's Sticky Walnut in Chester as assistant manager in 2012. She later became general manager of Usher's Burnt Truffle restaurant in Heswall on the Wirral, and then general manager of Where The Light Gets In, in Stockport. Her first post in the capital was restaurant manager at Mark Jarvis's Stem in Mayfair. Before joining the Pem, she spent two years as general manager of Robin Gill's Darby's in Vauxhall.

About the Conrad London St James

The Conrad London St James, 22-28 Broadway, London SW1H 0BH

020 3301 8080

Owner KLP (Norway's largest pension fund)

Operator ADDA Hotels

General manager Beverly Payne

Executive chef Michael Riordan

Bedrooms 256

Starting room rate £265

Staff Around 120, but the hotel expects to be back to 250 by halfway through next year

Food and beverage The Pem (fine dining), the Blue Boar (pub), the Orchard room (afternoon tea, meetings and events) and the Hedgerow (cocktail bar)

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