Roots to work: The Women’s Food Champion
Mex is co-founder of Women in the Food Industry – an initiative working to bring together and shine a spotlight on inspiring women working in food.
Amy Luck talks to Mecca Ibrahim about encouraging more women into the food sector, her advice for good food business owners and how to improve the sustainable food scene.
Mex spent almost 8 years working at Great British Chefs as Head of Marketing and Social Media and started her good food career through a food blog. She is also a member of the Guild of Food Writers and her expertise spans sustainability, food entrepreneurs and equality within the industry. Here she tells us about her inspirations and how things are changing for the better in the world of good food.
How did you get into the food sector?
My food “work” started as a hobby as I helped to set up a food bloggers’ version of MasterChef called Nom Nom Nom which ran at Cookery School in Little Portland Street for five years from 2008. We worked with lots of chefs (including Jellied Eel columnist Tom Hunt) and editors of food magazines when Twitter was in its infancy, so it’s amazing to see how things have changed since then. Nom Nom Nom was instrumental to me getting my role as Head of Social Media and Marketing for Great British Chefs – the UK’s fastest growing food site – which I joined at the company’s start in 2011. I loved working with the UK’s best chefs, food writers and producers and we provided an amazing & beautifully designed resource for ambitious home cooks.
What was your inspiration for setting up Women in the Food Industry and what does it do?
I was always aware that female chefs did not seem to be represented in the same way as male chefs and also that there were fewer of them at award-winning levels. This also seemed to be the case in terms of founders of food companies and so myself and my co-founder Janie Ash felt the time was right to shine a spotlight on all of the wonderful work that women are doing in the industry. We ran a number of physical events mainly centred around International Women’s Day to inspire people and also provide networking opportunities. We cover topics such as food sustainability, the politics of food, women in food photography, women working in the drinks industry, pioneering women in food and more. Additionally, we carry out interviews and podcasts with inspiring women and in 2021 we are re-launching our membership to provide greater benefits to our supporters. Watch this space!
Who or what has inspired you along the way?
Asma Khan has been a big influence on me. I had lunch with her before starting up Women In the Food Industry and I always remember her quoting Madeleine Allbright who said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” The work Asma does in showing that women of all ages can be a powerful force in the food world is really inspirational. She always gives women the confidence to think of themselves as leaders.
What advice would you give to other women looking to work in good food or set up their own business?
To ask for help. You will always find that someone has probably encountered the same challenges as yourself when starting up a business or wishing to move into the good food world. The food industry is great at sharing knowledge. Many women at senior levels are only too happy to help more women get into the food world and I have always been humbled and grateful for how generous people are with their time and support.
What barriers exist for women in the food sector and do you think this is changing?
There was a time not too long ago where women were seen as too weak to be able to lift heavy pans and therefore having lots of women in professional kitchens was seen as a bad thing! Also professional kitchens had a very masculine and macho persona which meant they were often not pleasant places to be in if you were not “strong” enough to deal with male banter or rough talk. Fortunately, these attitudes are being called out and social media has been a big help for others to share examples of bad behaviour and bad practices.
If you were Mayor of London – what would you do to improve Londoners relationship with diet or the food industry?
Getting people to better understand where their food comes from would certainly help them value the food supply chain more. One of the very few good things to come out of coronavirus was a greater appreciation of local suppliers and less reliance on the huge supermarket chains. If I was Mayor I would highlight growers and suppliers in London so that people could see great examples of food supplied with low food miles.
I would also do more to highlight the work of food banks and organisations that help to distribute surplus food. Household food waste is still one of the largest forms of food waste and even though it is falling, the volume of food still wasted equates to 10 billion edible meals. This doesn’t sit naturally with the fact that food insecurity is a big issue in London and it should be easier to get food to those who need it.
How can we get the sustainable food scene to better reflect the diversity and mix of cultures we have available to us in London?
Sharing stories is important and London has a rich mix of cultures that are very much reflected in the food we see in markets and prepared in restaurants. Many cultures are sustainable by nature with a strong ethos in avoiding food waste and making sure that all parts of vegetables, fruit, meat and poultry are used. We should challenge ourselves to experiment with our cooking and try a new ingredient from a different culture at least once a month. This will hopefully make us appreciate food’s huge diversity much more.
Check out Mex’s recent Jellied Eel article about the sustainable food scene in London.