It’s International Women’s Day, so check out our latest interview with senior sous chef, Ayisha Compaore who shares her experience as a woman in a modern restaurant kitchen.
Watch the video to hear Ayisha discuss her journey, mental health and being a woman in a modern restaurant kitchen.
Resilience. It’s a trait that we’ve all had to demonstrate, in one way or another, in the last year. The ability to adapt in the face of adversity, to bounce back from setbacks, to move on, build momentum and thrive once more.
And there are few industries that have shown more resilience in recent months than the UK hospitality industry and its 3.2 million workers. Decimated by the pandemic and subjected to Draconian measures (with little supporting evidence), the hospitality industry is in the midst of an existential crisis, yet it continues to battle on, adapting where possible, refusing to go quietly.
If resilience had once been a useful attribute to have in hospitality, it has now become an essential one.
Ayisha Compaore, senior sous chef at Peru Perdu restaurant in Manchester, knows a thing or two about resilience.
From being a teenager in a foreign land thrown into one of its most intimidating kitchens to stepping up to run a brigade following multiple walkouts, to moving North to an unknown city to open a new restaurant serving a cuisine she’d never even tasted (let alone cooked), Ayisha has developed and demonstrated resilience in many forms.
Born in Italy to Ghanaian parents, Ayisha says that her choices were limited from the off. “Italy is a hard country, for us as black people or minorities, it’s different,” she tells us. “There’s not so much opportunity for you to do what you’d like to do.”
A West End star is born
Arriving in the UK at eighteen years old, Ayisha spent a short stint working as a babysitter before finding her way into the kitchen of The Ivy in London’s West End – one of the UK’s most prestigious restaurants.
Thrown into the KP section with ten other kitchen porters, Ayisha says, “I remember walking down and seeing a massive kitchen. I was shocked. I’d never seen a kitchen this big before and so many people in a kitchen like this.” It quickly became clear that Ayisha was cut from a different cloth. She recalls wryly her colleagues remarking, “Wow, we’ve never seen a woman working this hard as a KP before”.
Soon she was given a chance to prove herself (“The chef could see I was moving fast and knew what I was doing”). On her first day, the sous chef came, gave her two things to chop and left. It was sink or swim time, or, more appropriately, chop or run. She chopped… for a whole year.
Ayisha was eventually bumped up to commis chef, then to demi chef de partie. “I remember the first service… I was sh**ing myself,” she says. “We had booked 198… the chef looked at me and said ‘Ayisha, don’t you f**king cry, be strong, you can do this.”
She was strong, She definitely didn’t cry. She made it through. “It was the best feeling ever,” she remembers.
Climbing the ranks
Several years later and Ayisha had become too comfortable at The Ivy. The head chef made it clear that he wanted her to go and experience other kitchens. So, she took a job at Daylesford Organic, where issues with itchy-footed head chefs meant she was often forced to take the reins.
“After four months the head chef left. I was left with no head chef, no sous chef, it was me running a kitchen of six or seven people. It was just crazy, I changed three or four head chefs in a year,” she remembers.
Though this proved to be a turbulent time for Ayisha, she emerged from the kitchens of Daylesford not just a stronger chef, but also as a leader. “That really formed me in terms of how to manage people and create a strong team,” she says.
Following a diversion into contract catering (“working in stadiums and events, I’ve seen so many amazing places.”), Ayisha took her newly learned leadership credentials to Manchester late in 2019, helping to launch a new Peruvian-inspired restaurant, Peru Perdu, in the city centre.
While she admits the move North has not been easy, it’s far from the toughest challenge she’s had to overcome in her career. “Being a woman in the kitchen is hard,” she says. “You really need to stand your ground… you need to make sure people know that you’re in the kitchen.”
One sure fire way to do that, Ayisha says, is “to take people by the (ahem) and make them understand things properly.”
That’s certainly one way to test resilience.