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International Women’s Day 2021: Women in Food

To celebrate International Women’s Day we’ve spoken with four women whose work is changing the food industry. Through organic farming, charity work and giving traditional dishes a modern twist, they’re rewriting the rules and inspiring a new generation of women in food.

Denai Moore

Denai Moore is a recipe developer, chef and musician. She’s also the founder of Dee’s Table, a blog and supper club serving modern vegan Jamaican food. 

“For women, the amazing thing about the world right now is that we have tools that make it possible to turn our ideas into reality. So, whether your first step is registering a business name or just finding that sense of belief in yourself, let go of the fear and do it.

I finally got the guts to start Dee’s Table three years ago. Food has always been an enthusiastic hobby of mine, and Dee’s Table is me sharing how I interpret the Jamaican flavours I grew up with. Food is such an amazing part of a culture, of our heritage.

I’ve been vegan for six years; in that time veganism has come a long way. It’s an exciting cuisine because there is no crash course – it’s a constant exploration. Some people do come to Dee’s Table with a sceptical view: ‘How can you have meat-free Jamaican food?’. I think that’s the magic of vegan food – it questions your traditional idea of where flavours should come from.

This year, my hope is to do something physical. I want to build a space where I can work with chefs who are like-minded and excited by food. Right now, the food scene is quite exciting, with a wave of new chefs, concepts and pop-ups – a new generation bringing together the authentic flavours of their own culture with the techniques they may have learned in cooking school. It’s diversifying the food scene and it’s very cool.” 

Asma Khan

Asma Khan is a chef and the owner of Darjeeling Express; a restaurant that started as a supper club.

“I never wanted to be a chef when I was young, I just wanted to eat. I wanted to be a pirate. A Robin Hood kind of pirate, redistributing wealth and challenging privilege. In some ways, I am doing that.

My kitchen has an all-female team. On the day I was meant to present my business plan to secure a restaurant space in Soho, I took my team to the boardroom. Most had been cooking beside me for four years, since I started a supper club in my kitchen in 2012. There’s a rhythm to the way we work together. We were all taught by our mothers and grandmothers, cooking intuitively. Advice I often give is to find allies who understand your point of view, and look for strength from others when you feel vulnerable. 

When I started cooking for others, I lacked confidence. I’ve been fortunate to have support on my journey – and the inspiration of my mother who had her own catering business. She managed a complex group, many of them women abandoned by their families. My mother was keen for every member of her team to feel they were an integral part of her business – quite unusual in the Indian context, where there is a lot of hierarchy. Her ability to face difficulties, find solutions and stay compassionate and fearless has stayed with me.

We need women in positions of power so they can influence decision-making and ensure a gender balance in the workplace. Limiting the scope for women to progress is deeply destructive. My plan to start a mentoring school for future female leaders in the food business is a step towards addressing this. It’s also a space to network, share expertise, build confidence and understand the value of solidarity.

On the last night of service in 2020, a young girl dined at Darjeeling with her parents. Her mother was South Asian and wrote to tell me that her daughter had said: ‘The lady with the colourful clothes, I want to be like her and make vegetables and feed people.’ I meet a lot of young girls who tell me they want to cook and open restaurants. If a few of them fulfil the dream, it will be my greatest legacy, because I never used to see anyone who looked or spoke like me in food media. This generation of young girls can see someone they can relate to and that is so empowering.”

Helen Browning OBE

Helen Browning OBE is an organic farmer and CEO of the Soil Association.

“By the time I was 10, I knew I wanted to be a farmer. It was my father’s profession but that was not the attraction. His generation had an autocratic way of doing things; I wanted to find a different way. I had five amazing great aunts who lived together on a farm – they seemed to have a very free life when most women in rural communities were held to traditional roles. 

I was 24 when I took over Eastbrook Farm, heading up a staff of men who were used to my father’s leadership. Yet there I was, meeting their scepticism with new ideas built on organic farming. I had already started to see hedgerows being ripped out, and I’ve always had a strong animal welfare streak – finding organic farming as a potential solution felt important. This was an area where I could explore the opportunities it provides.

Finding the confidence to express yourself can be a challenge, but what pushes me beyond my comfort zone is the fact that it’s really important. Right now, the most important thing to talk about is the next decade: we have, at most, 10 years to turn around climate change and the biodiversity crash. For us, it’s about normalising what we’ve done with organic methods and The Soil Association. And we need integrated solutions because actions that, in theory, are fine for carbon and climate change, might mess up biodiversity. The UK is in an interesting position; whether you like Brexit or you hate it, it has put us in the situation where we’re going to have to find a new way forward. There is opportunity in that.”

Laura Winningham OBE

Laura Winningham OBE is the co-founder and CEO of London-based food redistribution charity, City Harvest

“I’m a New Yorker who worked on Wall Street, moved to London and left the world of finance to co-found City Harvest. It’s been going for six years. At times I’m still shocked by the level of need. Before COVID-19 we were making 80,000 deliveries a week; overnight, demand saw deliveries double to 200,000. Part of the drive to start City Harvest was knowing that there are such high levels of edible food waste. We realised that if we could find suppliers willing to give us their surplus food, and acquire the means to transport it to the people who could use it, we would have an immediate and tangible impact.

We know that we may not be able to stop poverty, but we can help people who are living in poverty have a greater sense of wellbeing. Our focus is not just on giving any food, but good food – high quality and culturally appropriate. 

I think it’s easier to start something without the weight of a big plan. If our ambition had been to deliver 15 million meals, it might have been harder to take those first steps. All of this started with me helping a friend find a charity to take the extra food being donated to the soup kitchen where he worked. 

Our growth has been organic. We found a second charity, then a second supplier. We’ve carried on adding and now help almost 350 charities. Many are grassroots, run by inspirational local heroes who know the people who need help. There may not be an end in sight to food poverty, but meeting people like this keeps me motivated.”

To find out more about women in retail – read our supplier spotlight on female-led brands.

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