Leading food industry figures including Oklava’s Selin Kiazim and Niki Kopcke, founder of Mazí Mas, the ‘roaming restaurant’ run by migrant and refugee women, have called for restaurants that trumpet their ethical credentials to put their money where their mouth is by looking after their staff properly.
Speaking at a panel on the challenges facing women working in food, held to mark International Women’s Day at Haché Burgers’ new Holborn site, the pair suggested that a culture of “sustainable people” could be created by taking steps like paying staff the London living wage and offering flexible working arrangements.
“If you look at a lot of the restaurants that are selling themselves as ‘sustainable’, and you ask them what they’re paying their people, it’s not a lot — and I can tell you, it’s a lot less than £10.20 an hour,” Kopcke said.
“So often nowadays places focus on questions like ‘are we sourcing locally?’. But it’s not just the sustainability of the ingredients that’s important — it’s the sustainability of the people who are cooking it. [Diners] want to pay ever-less for food without really understanding what goes into bringing it to their plates in a way that respects and takes care of the people behind it. I wish people thought more about that.”
“So often people aren’t looking further [than ingredients],” added Kiazim. “Who’s cooking their food? What are they earning? What conditions are they working in? It’s so incredibly important.”
For her, one of the things the industry has an ethical duty to embrace is flexibility. “This idea we’ve built up of working however many doubles in a row and this many hours a week, it’s just not feasible for anyone to do that — especially if they want a family. I really want to be an employer who’s saying to people, ‘tell me how we can make this work’.”
The panel, which also included BBC Good Food’s Lulu Grimes and Wine Car Boot founder Ruth Spivey, and was chaired by ES’s Frankie McCoy, acknowledged that doing the right thing comes at a price: making a commitment to paying the living wage, for example, can seriously dent the profitability and longevity of small food businesses in the current climate of wafer-thin margins and rent hikes.
“I’m going to be honest, it’s a really tough sell to pay people £10.20 an hour — it’s one of the reasons that we continue to be partly reliant on grant-funding and private donations,” Kopcke admitted. “But that’s the cost of living in this city. And we want to make sure people can live.” Mazí Mas provides training and employment for women who might otherwise struggle to find work, and aims to help them kickstart a career in hospitality. Its menu, described as representing “the global flavours of modern London,” has been served in the likes of the Selfridges department store and the Tate art gallery.
Kiazim, who started her career working with Peter Gordon at The Providores on Marylebone High Street before opening Oklava in Shoreditch with business partner Laura Christie in 2015, also spoke about the barriers to recruiting young people (particularly young women) into the industry — one of which, she feels, was its reputation for being a joyless slog.
“The industry has got a lot better, although it still has a long way to go,” she said. “But it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of — it’s so accepting, there are so many people to meet and there’s a lot of fun to be had. Yes, it’s hard work. But anything you’re really passionate about is.”