To celebrate International Womens Day we've asked one of our Chefs, Ella Piazzi to tell us more about herself!
Tell us about your career before joining GEC?
When I moved to London, 10 years ago, I was looking for a breakthrough in life. Italy wasn’t offering much of a position – seasonal contracts or temporary jobs, where the price for the commuting was higher than the wage. I had no idea what I was looking for, anything would have done, as long as it granted me enough money to reach the end of the month. I started to work as a waitress in a catering company based in the City of London. One of the chefs was keen on growing internal new talents instead of hiring new people (we all worked on zero-hours contracts, so I think it only made sense) and he agreed to get me on board. I didn’t have a formal training, but I am Italian: the first thing you learn as a baby is to stand, the second thing you learn is cooking. If you can stand, then you can climb on top of a chair and help – small hands, still two hands. Usually you learn from grannies and my generation was the last lucky one: all our grannies come from WWII backgrounds, they can prepare a feast with very little. I think it’s an incommensurable skill when you work in a kitchen. From there I moved to the staff restaurant of a national newspaper, where I worked for almost 3 years. I went from a pure commis chef position to actually being in charge of a section first and then to a chef de partie position and bigger responsibilities: in time I went from being the baby that needed to be looked after to being the one looking after the commis chef, the various trainees we guested and in the end I was in charge of the lunch service and the whole kitchen in case of necessity. Unfortunately the restaurant had been closed and we had all been made redundant. But when one door closes, another one opens and that’s how I landed my job with GEC.
What made you want to join GEC ?
When I applied, I didn’t do it with the idea of “I absolutely want to go there”. Being made redundant meant send as many applications as you can and see what happens. I received different answers and I attended some interviews. At the end of some I also received an offer, but GEC was the one that made the difference. The site was big, like double the size I was used to, and that in itself was already a great challenge. But what made me say yes to GEC instead of other companies or sites was the staff: everyone was super-friendly, kind and patient. I did my trial shift on a busy day at the end of June but I can’t recall a single person who didn’t come around and asked me if I was ok, if I wanted a coffee or water, or didn’t introduce himself. The management alone checked on me on four different occasions during the day. It was amazing how despite everything people were still people and not production machines.
Tell us about your experience after joining GEC?
When I started I was based in the Hot food production kitchen: we were in charge of breakfast, hot meals and snacks, but also of a few cooked ingredients for the sandwich kitchen. Then a series of events (some of them personal, other simply due to a career progression) led me from the Hot Food section to the Pastry Kitchen, this little and sweet-smelly space away from the frenzies of the main building. The only problem was: beside a couple of sponges or the occasional Tiramisu, I never backed a cake before. As incredible as it might sound, I am not a sweet tooth at all! In the beginning it was hard, and I really mean hard. I worked with a chef that did culinary school and dedicated to pastry something close to 15 years of her life, when I baked for about 15 minutes. I thought about leaving, I have to say, and in more than one occasion. But then my sous-chef said to me: “Why don’t you go to school? There is plenty of NVQ courses that you can take, the company can help, financially and with working-hours flexibility. Beside, it’s gonna be a skill that you learn and nothing or no one will ever take it from you”. I had nothing to lose. So I asked the management, who was super enthusiastic about it (every time I saw Carlos since I started the course, he never missed the occasion to ask what I was doing in school and how much I was learning) and that gave me enough confidence to finally be at ease in such a high-skilled section. A while after, things changed again and Marc, my French mentor, took over the position of head pastry chef. It was like a whole new world: I swear, the guy is a living baking encyclopaedia. The things he knows, the things he showed or taught me. It’s amazing working with him!
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
Well, now with the Covid crisis and the stuff reduction, the pastry kitchen is temporarily shut. But mind it: I said temporarily! I am sure we’ll be back!
What I am enjoying is the fact that I am back to the Hot Food section: it was the first section where I started and I missed it over time. Beside it’s nice to change. I love this, the fact that now I have a basic training in so many different sections and I can actually work in all of them. It’s amazing how much GEC gave me in these 4 years in terms of skills.
What inspired you to follow your Culinary Career?
The fact that I know my time in London is limited. The world is big and, hopefully soon, ready to be explored again. Having a good culinary background will definitely help me to land a job in a different country, letting alone all the things I could learn from a different culinary tradition. Beside I would love to finish my working career in a hot place. Having a small shack on the beach, where I can serve some simple snacks and something to drink definitely is very appealing!
What do you think is the secret to a successful culinary career?
Passion. You need to love food. But not just love food, you need to respect it too. It’s important to understand how to reduce waste to a minimum, because food is precious. I don’t agree 100% with people that say that cooking is like an art: if I was to see a painting, I’ll go to the National Gallery, not to a restaurant. I come from a poor culture and I firmly believe that food has to be tasty beside to good looking. On the other side, it doesn’t have to be crap either. Highly-processed food, for example, is far from my idea of “a good meal”. Cook from scratch, with love. Follow a recipe – internet is full of it, nowadays you also have videos and step-by-step recipes. Start with something simple and you’ll see how rewarding it will be. You have to be curious, try different things, mix ingredients. In a way it’s alchemy.
To sum it up: the secret of a successful culinary career are love, passion, attention and curiosity.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone wanting to work in the same type of role as you have currently, what would it be?
Think why you want to do it, then think it twice. Make a list of pros and cons and then bin it. If you want to do it, just do it. The best thing you could do is give it a go and see what happens. Worse case scenario, you learnt how to poach and egg. But what if you like? What if you love it? Can you imagine how far you can go then?
What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome in your career?
Being accepted in such a masculine environment. It’s not easy. At all. Some will look at you like a circus freak, others will make not really subtle comments on your body, even if it’s much better than it was 10 years ago. Time goes by and even the kitchens, male environments since ever are finally smothering their sharp edges. Now women are looked like peers, a lot of men are not annoyed anymore to have a woman boss and there are many more girls that chose a culinary career. The future is bright.
What is your signature dish?
Lasagna. I do everything from scratch – ragout that has to cook at least 3 ½ hours (grandma’s recipe), traditional or vegan bechamel, pasta – and I can do it according to different tastes and dietary requirements.
What can GEC do to promote gender diversity in culinary roles?
Organise days or occasions where the girls take over: let us drive the kitchen for a day, or put us in charge of a specific section in a specific occasion. I think it will be funny!
What else should we know about you, Ella?
While in London I got a BA in Creative Writing. So when I am not in the kitchen, I am sitting at my desk plotting stories and sending queries for my first novel. The ambition is to get published. I could cater for my book launching event! That would be amazing!
My motto? I believe in many things, like never give up or work hard or be fearless, but if I have to point my finger at one thing, that will be ‘no matter what you do, always do it having fun. Life is short and tears won’t sort it out anyway. Go out there and have as much fun as you can while it last’.