Restaurant cooking culture is daunting, says chef
- By Stephen Stafford
- BBC News
A self-taught chef says ‘daunting’ working conditions in kitchens need to change if a new generation is attracted to the restaurant industry.
The 30-year-old works at the Boathouse 4 restaurant in Portsmouth’s historic shipyard, having spent her career as a branch manager in the south and south-west of England.
She says she wants to inspire young chefs working in high-end restaurants, but insists: “You have to change the working environment, the hours and the expectations.”
Raised in Hope Cove, Devon, by her grandparents, her first culinary inspiration came from watching Ainsley Harriott on TV favorite Ready Steady Cook.
“I was obsessed with Ainsley – being mixed-race, growing up in South Devon, I thought ‘that’s cool,'” she says.
She remembers copying her grandmother in the kitchen, with mixed results – “no mess, no progress” was her motto at the time.
His West Country roots still inspire his cuisine, as well as his Caribbean heritage.
“My grandma and grandpa loved old-fashioned liver and bacon type food and I love it — and I like to give it a little Caribbean spice too,” she says.
Ms Benham-Corlette admits her career has followed a “different journey” than most.
Instead of doing the “big city restaurant thing”, she weaved her way through gastropubs, restaurants and hotels – all while collecting knowledge from anyone willing to share it.
“I would ask the chefs questions and ask them to show me methods – I learned so much,” she recalls.
“And I spent all my free time browsing through classic French cookbooks.”
After moving to Portsmouth she worked as an agency manager which took her to places such as St Mary’s football stadium, the New Forest country restaurants and eventually the seaside resort of Karma St Martin on the Isles of Scilly.
“I worked somewhere different every night, there was so much variety – I learned from so many chefs,” she says.
She now works at Boathouse 4 in Portsmouth, alongside a 19-year-old clerk.
“It really got me thinking about helping the next generation,” she says.
She admits that working in a fine dining environment can be “intense and scary”.
“It’s about letting other people see you doing things without being a white guy with the loudest voice,” she says.
“You don’t get the best out of staff if they’re scared of you. I’m loud but I would never terrify someone.
“There needs to be more gender equality – it’s something that’s happening and I’m happy with.”
Despite “precision, passion and love”, a career in fine dining takes its toll, says Ms Benham-Corlette.
“It was always difficult – I’m not in any of our family Christmas photos as I was always away for work…I never had weekends or holidays,” he added. She.
“People feel pressured to work, especially agency staff.
“You can be really exhausted – I remember eating vitamins and hoping to stay healthy.”
She says she worries the industry is not attractive to future chefs because of its unsocial and long working hours.
“Would you rather go to hotel school and work 14 hours a day in a kitchen…or be a social media manager?
“We need a work environment that is really pleasant.”
She insists that there is still something to attract young people.
“Service is great when you get a ‘compliment to the chef,'” she says.
“If you’re a creative person, there’s no limit to what you can do.
“It can be a fun environment – you build a family in a kitchen and take care of each other.”
And as her grandmother always told her, she adds, “People will always need to eat.”