An interview with Emily Watkins
"The industry is a man's world"
Emily Watkins has 18 years working as a chef, and took over The Plough at Kingham in 2007.
As part of our celebration of Oxfordshire’s women for International Women’s Day, OX spoke to Emily about her thoughts on how gender affects her industry and how we can improve things.
Hi Emily, how did you work your way up the industry to get where you are now?
Stubbornness, really. Like any career, it's about hard graft – always putting in the hours, trying to do better and stay conscientious about what you're doing. It's also important to stay up-to-date and make sure you're aware of what's going on in the wider industry.
In a lot of restaurant kitchens you have a degree of military-style discipline going on. Did you ever find that some kitchens were like "boys' clubs" in that respect?
Yes and no. There's definitely "banter" which goes on, and I think any environment in which you spend a lot of hours with the same people in a very small space brings with it a certain attitude. It's quite good for morale, really, as long as it's not taken personally. That's the danger. The industry is a man's world, at the moment.
Is it about separating business and personal?
Yes. There's a lot of respect for each other in kitchens, as well as for the work that everyone is doing and for the customer, but there has to be a light-hearted escape from it all at times, otherwise it'll start getting everyone down.
Last time we spoke to you, you mentioned Angela Hartnett as your greatest female role model. Which women do you particularly admire outside of the kitchen?
Without sounding too cheesy, I probably would say my mother. She has always just got on with life. No matter how hard times have been, or how tight money has been, she has never complained. She just gets on with it with a smile.
So what does your mum do?
At the moment, she's the manager of a hotel which she has worked at for the last 20 years. She did all kind of jobs to fit in being a mother at the same time - she'd go off and do horrible jobs like milk recording, which involves standing in the pits at the back of a dairy, measuring the milk on behalf of DEFRA between 4 and 7 in the morning.
Do you think there is anything that should be done, politically or legally, to improve the standing of women in your industry or in general?
It's a really tough one. Of course, I'd like to see more women in the industry and see greater camaraderie between women in the industry. I have one female chef in the kitchen at the moment, and you can tell she's going to go far – she's got the right attitude and just wants to do well, which is what it's all about. For me, I think the whole industry needs an injection of cash, in order to provide better wages. There are lots of women who are very talented cooks and who could do very well in the professional industry, but it is difficult to justify the work/life balance, particularly when you have small children. I find it hard. I have children under the age of 7 and I'm not going to lie to you – it is a very hard balance to find, so if you can forge a career in cooking, but not necessarily in a professional kitchen, then that does look more attractive to some. For example, a lot of these famous food bloggers and food journalists are women, so they have a career in the industry which they love, and it suits them better, which I do understand. If we're going to tempt more women into professional kitchens, there needs to be a more attractive package, and that can only be achieved if there's more cash to allow you to offer either less hours or a higher salary. Practically, I think the only way to achieve this quickly is for VAT to be lowered in the hospitality industry to allow for bigger margins. If I had more time I'd start campaigning for it.
Obviously you have experience from both the 'chef' side and from the 'proprietor' side. Are there any female head chefs who you have your eye on at the moment?
There are a few who I have my eye on and who I'm longing to go and see – unfortunately I haven't been able to eat at many of their places because of time constraints. Marianne Lumb is one who I've been dying to go and see. I love the idea of her place: just a really small, intimate dining room doing fantastic food. There are a lot of women doing amazing things.
What are your plans for the future?
I'd like to do more, but again it's about getting the balance right and it is quite difficult with the children. At the moment, I'm equally torn between work and home, so to put more work into the equation would mean taking it out of 'kid time', which obviously I'm reluctant to do. For the time being, it's working well and I've got a good balance, but over the next few years I would like to do more - I've just taken on a consultancy down in Cornwall and I'd like to do more of that, and I'd really like to do cookery books, more growing and research by myself at home, and one day I'd love to own a smallholding and be doing more experimental stuff.
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