On the evening of 4th October, Borough Market will open its doors to up to 150 guests for a prosecco and canapé reception followed by a three course meal from the Severn Sisters—a group of 11 hugely talented female chefs who’ve banded together to cook up a multicultural feast, in aid of Action Against Hunger and in celebration of local produce, female cheffing talent and the joys of coming together over food. Clare Finney finds out more
Some bedfellows are unlikely—Celine Dion and R Kelly, for example, or the coffee-spaghetti bolognese combination much scorned by the Twittersphere. Every so often, though, you discover a union so brilliant, so beautifully obvious, your only real questions is, why didn’t they do this sooner? Now in its second year, the Severn Sisters feast is a prime example: a collaboration between some of the finest female cheffing talents in the UK.
It’s the brainchild of Romy Gill, the pioneering Bristolian chef whose services to the hospitality industry—and to British Indian cuisine in particular—earned her an MBE in 2016. “I wanted to raise money for Action Against Hunger, and I ended up bringing all these different women in food together, to cook for charity,” she says. “My friend Kim Somauroo came up with the name—we are sisters, and the Severn is a river in the south-west, which is where the collaboration originally formed.”
The result was extraordinary: a band of talented women serving nine courses to dozens of people and raising money for charity, in the first collaborative dinner (so far as we know) to have an all-female line up. It inspired a Radio 4 programme, courtesy of Sheila Dillon and the Food Programme, and laid the groundwork for subsequent collaborations within the group of women, all of whom have since become great friends. “I cannot describe it. There was so much emotion there, so much happiness. All these women from all these different countries helping and celebrating each other—our similarities and our differences.”
Bigger and bolder
A second event, bigger, bolder and in Borough Market, was a no-brainer. Where better to hold it, Romy points out, than a natural home to multiculturalism and female entrepreneurship, and the beating heart of the food community in London and the UK?
For, as much as Severn Sisters is about women in food, it's also about diversity in food. This year the 11 participant chefs span Ghana, Northern Ireland, India, Greece, Siberia and the Ukraine. “We all come from different counties, and we want to show how united we are,” says Romy. “To show the world is really important, especially after what happened in June.”
A sneak preview of the menu, courtesy of the event’s curator Alissa Timoshkina (of food and film club KinoVino) reveals a spread of dishes from around the world. “Each chef suggested a recipe they’d like to cook”—biriyani, garden egg (a type of aubergine) on Ghanian bread and Ossetian pie stuffed with cheese are just a few mouthwatering examples—“but it will be really collaborative,” Alissa explains. “There’s no ‘this is my dish and once I’ve finished that I’m done. We will all help each other with everything,” Romy agrees. That’s the beauty of working with other women, she continues. “We all help each other.”
At the coalface
It’s a tough industry, cheffing and food writing, and still largely male-dominated. “There are so many great female food writers and chefs out there, but they just don’t get as much press,” adds Zoe Adjonyoh, a new Severn Sisters recruit. “I jumped at the chance to collaborate. I’d been so busy at the coalface, trying to raise awareness of African food and breaking down resistance to it, I didn’t realise how many great, talented women there are in the industry. It’s only since I’ve been invited to more foodie events—book launches and so on—that I’ve realised. The world of prime time TV shows and magazines is still very much led by men in food.”
Zoe cites Borough Market as an example; a place where women have “struck out on their own” both within the Market itself, where traders like Marianna of Oliveology, Nadia of Gourmet Goat, Flip of Pate Moi, Lizzie of Wild Beef, Hayleigh of So Chocolicious, Thea of Exquisite Deli and Debbie of Ellie’s Dairy have led the way for women running their own food businesses, and within the office where “there are a number of very strong women who have worked hard to put Borough Market on the food map”.
“It’s a nice fit, between us as independent food writers, chefs and stylists, and the Market as a place for independent producers,” Zoe continues. “I love the Market,” Romy adds. “It’s the perfect place for us women to be.”
Championing female food talent
One of the main issues with the industry being presented by the mainstream media as male-dominated is that “there is less inspiration for women to take their love of food out of a domestic setting, and make a business of it.” That’s why the support of the Market, which will host many of the Severn Sisters in the Demo Kitchen in the run up to the event, as well as editors like Kate Hamilton (of Suitcase magazine) and Radio 4’s Sheila Dillon has been so invaluable. “She’s really championed female food talent, and she’s been so supportive of this London edition of Severn Sisters,” says Alissa warmly.
Alissa will be in charge of creating the right tone for the evening—“rustic, warm, stylish” she hopes—and organising the raffle. Not content with donating their time and their talents to the cause of Action Against Hunger, each one of the participating women will donate a prize: from signed cookbooks, to cookery courses, to free meals. Much of the food will be donated too, from traders in the Market and elsewhere, to ensure every penny raised by the feast goes toward feeding others.
“I am speechless at how everyone is helping,” says Romy. “We are all so different, and yet when we start cooking and eating and working together, we realise how similar we are, in so many ways.”