Bristol is not a melting pot, part 2
A conversation between Fozia Ismail, Holly Nash, Aine Morris, Khalil Abdi and Jan Ostle
Good morning and welcome to this special edition of Vittles. Normally Friday articles are paywalled, but I have dropped the paywall for today because I would like this conversation to be widely read, especially by people in Bristol.
The following article is an abridged transcript of a conversation between five people involved in the Bristol food and media scene ─ Fozia Ismail, Jan Ostle, Aine Morris, Khalil Abdi and Holly Nash ─ taking off from an article published last year in Vittles. If you wish to listen to the whole thing, then the podcast is embedded in the article. All contributors are paid for their time, so if you can, please do consider subscribing through Patreon.
About a year ago, I received a pitch from the journalist Holly Nash who wanted to write an article about the Bristol Food Union (BFU), which had recently formed. I commissioned it, first of all because I was interested in how restaurants were changing to adapt to the pandemic conditions and there seemed to be a hopefulness that business models could be permanently shifted to take a wider community into account. I was also interested on a personal level, that I seemed to know more about the food ecosystem of New York or Los Angeles more than I did Bristol, so dominant is the London narrative in food writing.
A few weeks later, not too long after a Guardian article which promoted the community work of four pandemic success stories, including the BFU, Holly returned to me saying that the issue was more complex than she had initially anticipated. Although the BFU was undeniably doing good work, there were many more organisations doing community work that needed promoting, as well as a feeling of insider/outsider-ism in terms of who gets media coverage. After chatting to her about it, we agreed on a new direction, and I also put her in touch with the chef and writer Fozia Ismail, who was able to confirm these ambiguities and also put Holly in touch with more chefs and activists. All in all, the article took around four months to publish and was, at that point, the longest I’ve ever had an article in edits.
Holly’s article remains one of the things I’m most proud of publishing at Vittles. When it got published, the response from people who lived in Bristol was overwhelmingly positive ─ that it was one of the first times they had seen Bristol food culture be accurately portrayed in a non-local publication, but also that it did not shy away from the truth that there is an elitism and hierarchy in what the media usually choose to portray. Another reason I’m proud of it is because it was taken in the way it was meant to be taken ─ as a piece of constructive critique rather than a takedown. I think many people could have ignored it, or shut down any criticism, but Aine Morris, who is one of the BFU’s founders, engaged with the hard questions that the piece asked.
It is because of Aine, who proposed this talk, as well as Fozia and Holly, that we are having this conversation today. Over the past few months I have been reflecting on food community projects ─ having talked to other people in charge of community work and seeing how it plays out in my own community ─ and how complex the subject is. No one article can capture the logistics involved, as well as the trade-offs every organiser has to make: whether to get corporate sponsorship, how to marshall the media to grab attention, whether to stay small and local or to increase your reach and spread yourself thinner. Larger projects can overshadow smaller ones, but it’s also true that they can also be responsible for funding or supplying food to them ─ as Bristol Food Union does.
The aim of today’s discussion is to look as those complexities, and unpick the areas of commonality and the areas of friction, and look at how collaboration between sectors is possible, and indeed, where there have already been collaborations. In addition to Fozia ─ who will be leading today’s conversation ─ Holly and Aine, we also have Jan Ostle from the acclaimed restaurant Wilsons and Khalil Abdi from Bristol Horn Youth Concern. Over to Fozia!
Fozia: Thank you all for being here! I’m just going to kick it off with some of the themes we want to talk about. The article caused controversy at the time but we really wanted to explore what is it about the Bristol food scene that is unique compared to London. Bristol does get a lot of food media attention in some respects, but there is a lot that is also ignored by the media. So we’d love to get your opinion on what you think characterises the Bristol food scene? Aine shall we start with you?
Aine: Thank you, both. Holly for writing the original article, and Fozia and Jonathan for creating the space to be able to continue the conversation. I think I came to you after the article because it felt like there was more to be said, both around the challenges, but also the potential here in Bristol to deliver something that is genuinely unique and more inclusive than food communities in other cities.
How would we characterise the Bristol food scene? In and of itself, that’s quite a challenging question. Because what’s come out, not in the article, but instigated by the article is this period of collective thinking. It’s clear that while we have a thriving food community here, one which is genuinely committed to change and food access at every level of society, we also have quite a silo-ised food movement. Not just silos in terms of celebrity or Michelin starred chefs vs community food projects, but we have a very white, middle class, farmers market and food sustainability movement here, we have a very active food access and food waste charity sector here, which can be separate from the fine dining and food media collective. I would characterise what already exists here, and I would say it carefully, as having lots of potential, but not being particularly joined up in the way we think it is, or in the way it comes across in media articles to people who don’t live here.
Khalil: Thank you for organising this, I really appreciate it. It’s the first time we have been involved in something like this. To answer the question: Bristol has been dominated by white led food banks, which don’t want to engage in the community. We don’t have that much connection. There’s a lack of communication and lack of connection with them, because they know people, they’re well connected, and they dominate because they know each other. They have links and they have more opportunities than us. When they come into the community, they don’t give us culturally appropriate food: people wanting Halal food for instance, or people who come from Africa wanting to see African food. There’s a lack of language ─ people give tins of meat that are not Halal which people don’t understand. And that’s why people don’t accept the food, because they don’t know what’s in it. Most of the people who work in food banks are white, they have no connection to the community, they don’t speak the language.
That’s how it is in Bristol. It’s segregated when it comes to food. They often don’t want you to be involved; they never invite you to the meetings, or if they have an event. In terms of media, they only want to interview you if there’s something negative. When you’re doing something positive, they don’t want to promote it. That’s the culture in Bristol. We’ve seen many times when there’s something negative, all the media come, but not when there’s something positive.
“That’s how it is in Bristol. It’s segregated when it comes to food.”
Fozia: That’s a really interesting point Khalil. You’re talking about the wider system of accessing, I guess, funding, and also those networks about who gets to access these networks in the Bristol space. Not just funding but media attention. I’ve seen a lot of grassroots mutual aid groups being set up by BAME groups, and that’s amazing to see on the ground. It is interesting that this doesn’t get spoken about in the same way.
Khalil: Other big food banks or charities don’t want to entrust things to you, or want you to be seen as a success. They don’t want to give you a platform. They have the power, they have the connections, they have a system where they can access more information than you. They always shut you down and change the subject if you manage to get a little bit up the ladder, and the next time you won’t get an invitation, especially if you speak up about how you feel about it. Other people tell you “oh the meeting is still happening, we haven’t seen you?”. But that’s how it works.
Fozia: Holly you interviewed a few other organisations working in this space, do you think what Khalil says is reflected in the work you did last year on this article?
Holly: Yeah, what was just spoken about, definitely. I think the intention is always there in Bristol to have this really cohesive food scene but I think, there’s not an awareness of the disparity. I mean, I found out so much just from writing that piece, and stuff I was so ignorant of, so I’m a case for the point.
Fozia: Going forward, how can we think about what can be done differently in our local and national media representation?
Aine: I don’t want to speak for Jan, but both of us have been quite conscious about coming to this conversation with bringing our listening. Part of what I found challenging about Holly’s article personally, was that the BFU came across as the establishment, and I don’t see us as the establishment, or that we represent only a group of white, middle-class, Michelin starred restaurants. There is a problem with Michelin-starred chefs behaving like superheroes and going into communities and saying “don’t worry everyone, we’re going to cook for you now”, but it didn’t feel like that’s what we were doing in Bristol. Because, yes, we were working with kitchens to produce food, but we were supplying those meals directly into the Community Kitchen that featured in the article, or Baraka Community café, which featured in the article.
We were working with those organisations not to override what they already do, but to plug into systems and communities, and become a source of nutritious, restaurant quality ready meals to get out during the pandemic. And I think, it felt a little bit like we weren’t successfully capturing this in how we were communicating about the project. You start with what you know, and ultimately the people we started with were the people who knew each other already. So when the article comes up to say that not everyone has this same experience in Bristol, what I’m hearing is that there are communities here that very much don’t have that access to that same inclusion and opportunity for participation. So we have to be open to listening to that. We have to come from a place of “as the established community project in Bristol who do a lot of strategic work about how to move the city forward, we need to do a lot better”. And there’s no point to argue on that front, we have to just do it, because these communities are telling us that this is their experience of trying to collaborate with the Bristol food community.
“There is a problem with Michelin-starred chefs behaving like superheroes and going into communities and saying “don’t worry everyone, we’re going to cook for you now””
Jonathan: Just to interrupt for a second, are there accurate local representations of Bristol relating to what is happening? Because I understand that national media always want a big story that’s easily sellable to a white, middle class public, and in that sense, the BFU is a great story to focus on. But Holly, have you found that the local media representation is also a problem?
Holly: Yes, I would say it’s quite similar to the Guardian stance from what I’ve seen. There’s Bristol 24/7 and probably some grassroots publications that I’m missing. But yes, from what I’ve seen it’s been quite similar. There is a bit more on the ground reporting.
Jan: Sorry, I’ve been listening and I’d just like to share my thoughts and a bit of my experience on a couple of the topics. I think the Bristol food media is an exclusive thing that covers the same thing on repetition. I believe that we are in an echo chamber. It’s a nice echo chamber, but it is an echo chamber.
I think what Aine says about us feeling like outsiders, I mean, I still feel like an outsider. You always feel like the little guy, but then you realise there’s guys in your community who are littler and need a hand. For me recognising that even though I’m liberal, even though I always try to do the right thing, I’m part of the system that is holding people in my community back. And that’s really really uncomfortable. So sometimes I don’t really want to face it. For me the crux of the matter is that there is an issue in Bristol with people in our community not getting the support and exposure that they deserve because what they’re doing is infinitely more valuable than what I’m doing. So even though it’s uncomfortable, you have to start addressing that. And that starts with making that decision as a business.
Aine: That feeling of discomfort, that’s probably a really appropriate feeling for the conversation that we’re trying to have. I hope Jan won’t mind me saying that when we were discussing the possibility of getting involved on this panel, he was like ‘hold on a minute, what if I’m a part of the problem?’. But we might all be part of the problem. The business of change, and not tokenistic change or the need to recruit a few more faces of colour into your business, but deep systemic, community led change, is risky, and its sticky and it’s a bit messy, and you have to be willing to get some stuff wrong, and be accountable and think ‘what do I need to take responsibility for in this situation?’. We need change, and we need change at the speed and scale that our communities are changing, and the systems we depend on are changing. That means just rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. I’d rather be in it and have it be imperfect, than be so afraid of getting it wrong that we stopped being active.
Jan: That’s the thing, there’s a reluctance to take the risk. I think it’s a lot safer all of us patting each other on the back in our little social media echo chamber, where you have the same people. You go to an event and see them ─ it’s a closed system. A lot of it is self serving, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. I don’t have anything else to add, it’s just uncomfortable that this problem is going on. If we can show people a pathway, and we can start walking that path, then others will follow because that’s how Bristol works. There are key people we need to get sat down in a room and make them fucking listen, not talk. We’ve done enough talking, we need to do a bit of listening.
Fozia: Listening, but also acting actually. Small acts can make a huge difference. Like Jan taking a huge risk on the supperclub, that was four years ago wasn’t it? That was incredibly generous of you, and actually that got us into Crumbs and that got us into other things. So that was a tiny act of kindness, Jan didn’t have to do that, he chose to do that, and Somali food got repped. It was just wonderful to be given a restaurant space like that to do Somali food. So it’s stuff like that that can have a knock-on effect.
Jan: But what I’d like to say is that these acts of kindness as you call them ─ and they are acts of kindness ─ also benefit me as a business. They improve my social standing. I think that’s sometimes what we don’t want to talk about ─ being generous and being seen as liberal, massively benefits me. So if we benefit from that, then that should be built into our business plans. So rather than it be a one off thing, we should say look, let’s get a year of bookings on Sunday at Wilsons for people who need the profile. Let’s start coming up with something practical ─ it doesn’t cost me anything.
“I think that’s sometimes what we don’t want to talk about ─ being generous and being seen as liberal, massively benefits me. So if we benefit from that, then that should be built into our business plans.”
Fozia: It’s something that Asma Khan does with Darjeeling Express in London, and that makes a huge difference to so many supperclubs and businesses run by diasporic communities to get into the restaurant industry. So just little practical ways that crosscut across the network. There are so many people out there who don’t have access to the right space, or don’t even know how to go about it.
Aine: How do we create spaces from a restaurant community perspective that are inclusive for those who don’t feel comfortable in restaurant spaces? Dining in a restaurant in and of itself, of course its exclusive. You have to have the surplus income to afford the meal, feel confident to order dishes, or wines that you might not recognise. There is an assumption that ‘my restaurant is open and anyone can come in and sit down, so how am I not inclusive?’. But we really need to recognise that.
I keep thinking that the BFU should run something around ‘democratic dining,’ where we use funding to subsidise meals in restaurants for people from communities who don’t normally come and experience them. I’m a big believer in taste and deliciousness, and the sensory experience of dining, as being a massive driver for change in people ─ at least, that’s what transformed my life. There is a space for fine dining, and a space for dining as art, and the sensory experience of food and how it can change your perception. So I worry about a situation where we’re solely critical of the structure that exists, no matter how imperfect it might be; the challenge becomes how do we make sure that those spaces open up to become more inclusive and everyone feels the benefits? experience. And vice versa ─ how do we get chefs into communities on a regular basis so that they have the experience of being on the ground, feeding people, and they get some experience from that.
Fozia: There’s two issues there. One, which is a wider societal problem about how you feel in these spaces. I know, I had a terrible experience. I’m sure Khalil will know this ─ if you’re with a group of Black or Somali people and there’s three or four of you and you walk into a space, it’s totally different to when you’re with white people. And I’ve experienced this in Bristol in certain places, which has really shocked me to the point where I’m like “this is really not acceptable”. I’ve been here with my husband before and it’s been fine, and now I’m here with my friends and the treatment is shady, to say the least. So that’s a wider issue which is more complicated.
The Watershed are doing a lot of training around this. Do you know Lorraine Copes, Aine? She’s amazing. She worked under Gordon Ramsay sorting out the HR across his restaurants. She’s a Black woman from Birmingham, she set up Be Inclusive Hospitality with the awareness that front of house should be trained appropriately. Running a restaurant is a business at the end of the day, and I think it’s sad that certain places do miss out from communities which do have disposable income, but a negative review would spread across the Black community. I wouldn’t go to that restaurant, I’d go somewhere else. There’s also an issue about staffing: is it a trade that people would go into?
“If you’re with a group of Black or Somali people and there’s three or four of you and you walk into a space, it’s totally different to when you’re with white people. And I’ve experienced this in Bristol in certain places, which has really shocked me”
Aine: Interestingly I’ve had three different chefs talk to me, in the last week or two, specifically as a lot of Bristol hospitality is now recruiting, and saying “we want to make sure we actively are recruiting from minority communities and we’re a little bit unsure as to how to go about doing that, is there any advice or policy?”. Khalil, it would be really interesting to hear your perspective as to how easy it is for people from your community to get involved in careers in hospitality.
Khalil: I would like to give you an example. There’s a sports centre in the heart of the community and the community was not using it at all. There was a new manager and he sent me an email saying “your community is not using us, is there any problem?”. And I said, “yes there is” because the former manager did not listen to us. Because we are Muslim, women want to have their own space, they want to have female coaches, female workers. So the manager said “yes, I can accommodate that”. So he designated that Muslim women could come on Sunday when there would be no men, all the workers are female. And hundreds of people came on Sunday and raised the roof. He was shocked. There was no talk, just action. And that’s what we want: action. Many times I’ve gone to meetings, like this, but there’s no action, just talk talk.
So what I say to people is there’s a lot of young people and unemployment. When they apply for a job, it’s very difficult for them to get accepted, because of their colour, because of their name. Most of the time they’ve been declined, and they don’t want to apply again. The advice we got was “change your name”! Put your name as ‘Smith’ or something like that. And that’s the people at the top, that’s the way they think about change. But that changes nothing, because you cannot change your name, you cannot change your colour.
I think the best way is to offer the people and offer the community training, to build their confidence and to show that you want to support and help them getting a job. Some of them haven’t worked before and this is the first time they’ve worked, and they’re coming out of their comfort zone, they’re coming somewhere where they’re not comfortable. When I talk to schools and say is there any POC working, they say “yes”, and I say “where?” and then they say “they are the cleaners”. Which is not right. So we want young people to learn how to cook or learn how to become a chef and raise their aspirations, to maybe have your own restaurant, or own business or write your own book. It would be good to start somewhere like that.
For us, when we started work in Bristol, Bristol city council shut down the conversation. They said no, you can’t do it. But when we worked with Fozia, we became a success. We had 200 young people accessing our activities, we met over 1000 young people a year, we have 400 families coming for food access. But this hasn’t come from nothing, it’s come from people like Fozia massively supporting us to help us get the network to access them. Things like that help us. When you don’t have all the things to network you get stuck and can’t do much. But when you have the people who are willing to support you and willing to open the doors, just showing you how to do it and how to get the help, who to speak to. An opportunity like this, it’s a great thing; the access, and sharing, and discussion, and to be a part of this, is a great thing. That the thing that we want: practical actions.
“And that’s what we want: action. Many times I’ve gone to meetings, like this, but there’s no action, just talk talk. “
Fozia: Thanks Khalil. I spent 20 years working with vulnerable young people and community projects in London, and I think that’s the element that’s underestimated: the amount of support needed for young people, particularly young people who might have been excluded. Actually working in the restaurant trade, or any alternative trade where it’s more practical, hands on, there’s so many opportunities there. There’s a thriving food scene here. Maybe that’s something simple that can come out of this conversation and having Khalil here, connecting him up to your work Aine, looking at how we can get more support for young BAME people who might want to go into the restaurant trade.
Jan: Khalil, a question for you. This may be me making some assumptions but, we’re part of the established...we get media attention, and we want to help. If there were three things we could do, right now, to improve the situation and to start getting your project closer to B from A, what would they be? Three practical things that my business and my colleagues could do. I could turn around and say, “you know what, I can’t do that”. But I think, if there was a practical pathway that I could start walking down, I’d be willing to start walking down that path and making something happen.
Khalil: I think if we developed links with businesses and us, it would help to create and maintain an inclusive strategy, that would be one thing. Also to get the publicity, and to be a part of it. And to support our young people, to access opportunity in employment and training, including women who have small businesses in catering for events, like weddings. To help them access financial advice, to set up accounts, things like that will help us and help our community. And that is something we are looking for. There are many people who want to create businesses but don’t know how to do it. Very small businesses can become successful within the community but they don’t know how to set it up, to get registered, to access financial investment. If somebody mentored and coached them, that would help, and would improve employment for the community.
Jan: So this is something I’ve been ticking over in my head, but if we were to enable some of the people you’re working with to use our space like one Sunday a month, or a different one a month. Because before I opened Wilsons, I did a series of pop-ups right, and that’s how I got to the stage of opening a restaurant. It was a way I could trial my systems and the food that I wanted to cook, how I engaged with customers, how much money it made. All that stuff. If we were to say, “ok, every last Sunday of the month, you can take it over, you can get used to the kitchen”, we would help with going through the business proposal, costing, how it works. Mary, my business partner and my life partner, has also expressed some interest in maybe creating a small amount of money to help float the business, so a small investment so they can buy the raw ingredients. That figure would be paid back from the money that they take, and the profits they would keep. And then obviously that could be promoted through Wilsons social media, stuff like that. Is that useful?
Khalil: Yes, definitely, that would help. Because it’s something that they need. We have a lot of Somali women who have food businesses, and that would promote them, that would lift them up. That’s something that we’re looking for.
Jan: Ok, I think we have to have another meeting after this then. I’ll get your details.
Aine: There are skills that the hospitality industry has to do with sourcing and pricing and costing up dishes, and EHO and health and safety, that we can facilitate this transfer of knowledge that could be really useful to food projects as well.
Jan: The only thing that I would just be conscientious of, if that obviously you guys want the promotion and we want to help, but for me a part of the problem is...it’s not greenwashing but it’s a thing where you do good deeds and everyone applauds you, I would be reluctant to be overtly say, ‘look at us we’re doing all this nice stuff’. I just want to get it done, and have some practical impacts on people. That’s not a question for me to answer, that’s a question for you guys to answer, and how you’d want it to work.
Aine: You should never be doing anything if the outcome is ‘what are other people going to think about me for doing this?’. One of the things Holly’s article did for me on a really personal level was that it made me think long and hard about why I do this work. If any of us are only in the business of feeding people because we want an article to cover us, then it doesn’t feel like the right reason to work as hard as we do, in an industry that can be this thankless. You have to have a deeper connection to your work in food.
Fozia: I was just going to say, I think it’s been really fruitful, I think all of the conversations have been really fruitful and that there’s been some real practical things that have come out of it. In terms of Jan and Khalil, and the support around that, that’s fantastic. Jan, what would you need to help with that process? Is there support from the BFU to support restaurants like Jan’s or?
Jan: To be honest, I don’t need support. I need to support. We’re alright. I need some time with Khalil, my business partner and anybody else who wants to be involved. I don’t want to be the one that’s commanding the conversation, right. I want to stand there and listen and try and be helpful. It needs to be about the person that’s cooking here, and not about Wilsons.
“If any of us are only in the business of feeding people because we want an article to cover us, then it doesn’t feel like the right reason to work as hard as we do, in an industry that can be this thankless. You have to have a deeper connection to your work in food.”
Fozia: I think that’s great, but I think there will be some practical things, like setting it up. I think if you and Khalil meet then that’s fantastic, that’s a great outcome from just this discussion. Because I’m working with Khalil and there’s a lot of young people who are desperate for work, or who are desperate to get training or employment, and they’re really enthusiastic. There are so many skill sets in various communities.
Jan: There’s enough for me to learn as well. I see it as a bilateral transaction. I’m going to gain from it.
Fozia: Also Aine, on a wider scale, I guess, how do we support people like Khalil to be more involved in the Bristol Food Union? Not just Khalil but there are many other groups as well, like No More Exclusions; the exclusion rate in Bristol for Black boys is just through the roof. It’s really sickening. There’s a lot of really good opportunities to link up with youth projects, I think. And for the Union to support some of the work going on on the ground, maybe? Having models like that would be really useful and beneficial.
Aine: I really agree. Where I would push back on Jan ever so slightly ─ every individual restaurant is a business in its own right, and can do more on an individual basis to create spaces and invite people in. What’s quite interesting is that by having a programme and creating a structure, what you do is embed that in in the much longer term. Restaurants are incredibly busy enterprises, and the people who run them spend a lot of time just busy with the daily work of running a food business sustainably and profitably, which in the current environment is not an easy task. So where I think the BFU can create structures for support is ─ it might not be as simple as one chef and one community project, it might be making sure there are systems that there’s a clear programme of activity and a chance for participation and involvement.
Jonathan: Can I ask everyone a very simple question? A year on since the pandemic started, how would you characterise the change that has happened in Bristol. If any change. Would you say things have fundamentally changed in this conversation in terms of what it was like a year ago?
Holly: No not particularly. That’s the main thing that I hope that piece was really about as well: the way stuff feeds into what the media covers. I think the media has a massive role in the problem. I think things like Vittles have massive potential, in the same way these discussions do, and writing the article pulled up discussion. We need more alternative publications, alternative spaces, and I don’t think we have that in Bristol.
“That’s the main thing that I hope that piece was really about as well: the way stuff feeds into what the media covers. I think the media has a massive role in the problem.”
Aine: It feels remiss of me not to mention a couple of things: the Bristol Cable is doing good things, not necessarily focused on food, but as a community led independent publication they are willing to occupy those more challenging spaces. And particularly with Crumbs magazine not being active in Bristol at the moment, there absolutely is a space for an alternative platform that talks about food in the city in an honest and inclusive way.
But there are also projects in the city that are putting in place structures of inclusion from the ground up, and it’s important that we talk about people like 91 Ways, which is going into immigrant and refugee communities, finding women who wish to share their culture, and create opportunities for them to do that. And also with the work that Feeding Bristol are doing with the kids food clubs around the city ─ that’s the first food project, which is taking the approach of ‘it’s not just enough to give people food’ there also has to be engagement around cooking schools, around child nutrition, around the culture of how we cook and eat together. So, I think they’re both good examples of projects that are making progress in the right sort of way.
Jonathan, you asked at the beginning about the difference between Bristol and London ─ what’s interesting about Bristol is that we’re limited by our size. Because of the structure of the city and the rivers we’re never going to be a city that can expand too massively outside of the available space, so Bristol often feels like a big village in the sense that it feels possible and feasible to get the people who need to be in a room together, together.
Khalil: I guess for me, it’s the same for us. I haven’t seen any change. I think only a little bit, there’s a journalist called Ellie who we trust to do some work on tackling the issues that communities are suffering. She always comes to the positive not the negative. From Bristol 24/7.
Fozia: Ellie Pipe is really good. I agree,Khalil, she’s good at stories which aren’t really told otherwise. Media coverage? We’re still fighting the good fight I feel *laughs*. I feel like I just do this constantly. I think the media has a long way to go. Holly, well done on the article. I feel it was a really brave piece. It was really good and I don’t think we’d be having this conversation had you not taken the time to do the research and interview the people that you did. So I think that was a really fantastic thing.
You know, we’re under a hostile environment, and under our government the work we’re trying to do is really hard. I do feel it’s a massive battle but this stuff really helps, and I hope going forward we can do some practical things. Just linking different people up is one way, but it is frustrating if you’re outside the system. It would be wonderful to have some practical things that come out, because it’s tiny practical things that lead to wider systemic changes. I think those things can be underestimated.
I don’t see enough Black sous chefs, I don’t see enough Black or Asian workers in our restaurant spaces. That is a massive disservice to the community in Bristol. So there is a problem in the hospitality industry in that way, in the same way that there is within the media industry and within all industries. There is something going on in how we can have a population like we do have in Bristol, and not have BAME waitresses, and sous chefs? That is a problem, and I think there’s an opportunity for Bristol Food Union to really push its members on thinking about.
This is a very segregated city. It’s a problem in education, and it’s a problem in Bristol in general. In terms of how it compares to London, that’s the main thing for me. Having come from London, having grown up in London, having worked in restaurants in London, in Mayfair and other places, and actually they were more diverse even then. I’m talking about high-end and low. Even if you didn’t see that many of us, we were there.
“There is something going on in how we can have a population like we do have in Bristol, and not have BAME waitresses, and sous chefs? That is a problem”
Aine: What’s interesting about hospitality as an industry is that it wants to think of itself as really open and inclusive, no? You work in kitchens to find a family if you feel like you don’t have family and community in your own life. Like that’s the pull for a lot of people who work in food is that it does give you community, and it does give you people, those ‘Band of Brother’ sort of relationships. I think as an industry, we want to think of ourselves as progressive and inclusive and liberal, and the learning coming out of last year is, that there is potential for good stuff, but also a lot of people in this city in particular, given the national profile of our food scene, who feel like they’re not part of that, and it’s not open to them. It’s quite exclusive, so it becomes our responsibility to be constantly saying ‘how do we need to learn and grow in this situation?’.
Fozia: I do think that there are sometimes practical things. Give young people opportunities: work experience, links to schools ─ I work with a couple of people who do stuff around secondary schools, there are kids who would happily take work experience in a restaurant. So you have them in for a week or two. There are some really easy practical wins that wouldn’t be that hard to put in place, that is what I believe.
Jan: As an employer, just on a practical note. Everyone says getting apprenticeships in is a practical and easy way. It’s not. There are other ways we can do it, but apprenticeships are super, super, super complicated. This is just me being honest. But having young people coming into a restaurant that is operating at this level: the worst thing that can happen is they don’t like the experience and they fall out of love with the industry. And you lose them to the hospitality monsters. We’ve tried it before and we’ve really really struggled, trying to curtail our business to meet the needs of people coming in. That’s been really really tricky. I need support in making that happen, because if you get someone in from 7 in the morning until midnight, they’re going to want to do it for too long. We have to try and find a way of easing people into it.
Aine: It’s interesting because it draws us to the point that working in hospitality has become fundamentally unsustainable. I know a lot of chefs in the city who are talking about how the pandemic has made them realise they don’t have to work a 100+ hour week and have no money to show for it by the end of the week, because their outgoing costs are almost as high as what they are bringing in.
There was a group of us back in the summer sat around a table discussing what the Food Union could be in the future, and someone said “Of course we’re burnt out, we’re hospitality. Hospitality is always burnt out. When do you get the chance not to be?”. I’m committed to creating an organisation that thinks about those things, that doesn’t require people to throw in 100+ hours for hardly any money to not have a social life and miss every family wedding. Working in the hospitality industry you’ve got to have so much passion and commitment for the hours and grunt work in the doing of the job: how do you sell that to young people? Not just young people of colour, but young people coming into the industry as a whole. I think there’s a lot to think about what’s involved in running a genuinely sustainable food business: sustainable for people, for the planet and financially, that can do the things we’re talking about and still be a viable operation.
Fozia: Thank you guys. I just want to say I really appreciate that you all came to it and you brought your whole selves. It is a really difficult thing what we’re trying to do, and it’s an experiment. It’s worthwhile remembering that. Little experiments lead to some wonderful things. I love that Khalil is here, I know that he’s on the ground! In Easton, in Barton Hill! He’s my man that connects me up to the community! So it’s wonderful for me to see someone like that in this space, talking to Jan, talking to Jonathan, talking to you Aine, talking to Holly. Because it’s like Khalil says, a lot of the people like him who are on the ground doing this work in very difficult circumstances are never here.
And I don’t want to be the one talking for Khalil either, because it’s easy for the media to represent me as the voice of the people. But actually, what am I? I’m a very middle class Somali woman writing, doing projects, but I’m not actually on the ground doing the work in the same way. So it’s important to have those people in the room. So I acknowledge my privilege in this conversation as well, I live a very comfortable life, I’m not struggling in the same way, so how can we use whatever space we have in this pandemic and act on these connections we’re making. And who would have thought Holly’s article would have led to this? Personally I think it’s brilliant. I hope it’s been a positive experience. Thank you.
Fozia Ismail is a Bristol based food writer, activist and chef. She also runs Arawelo Eats, a supper club which explores politics, identity and colonialism through East African food.
Holly Nash is a Bristol based journalist and copywriter, who predominantly writes either for or about restaurants.
Jan Ostle is the owner and co-founder of Wilsons, a bistro in Redland, Bristol. Jan has worked in acclaimed kitchens around the country, and Wilsons is run on a commitment of sustainability and working with producers who use ethical and low impact methods.
Khalil Abdi is the director of Bristol Horn Youth Concern, which provides youth provision for young people of African ethnic heritage. He has extensive experience of working with young people, mainly from BAME communities, in Bristol. During COVID-19, Bristol Horn Youth Concern started working families and youth to provide culturally appropriate weekly food.
Aine Morris is the Managing Director of the Bristol Food Union, a new social enterprise born out of the Covid-19 crisis when a group of the city’s independent restaurants and food businesses came together to help keep Bristol fed. Prior to the crisis, Aine was Chief Executive of the Abergavenny Food Festival, and was previously Director of Communications at the Sustainable Food Trust.
All contributors were paid for their time or donated their fee.