Look, I know this column is called Where Molly Ate, but this week I’m going to talk about Where Molly Didn’t Eat, or Where Molly Won’t Eat, and this is: Strakers.
If you have been present on social media over the weekend you may have seen a picture doing the rounds. It features eight white men in The Bear’s Carmy-esque white T-shirts and aprons lined up outside Strakers, the restaurant from TikToker Thomas Straker who shot to digital fame for his series making various flavoured butters. Except, Straker is no longer just a social star, because he is one of the few people who have translated that screen celebrity into a real, tangible business with the opening of his Notting Hill restaurant.
He posted the aforementioned photo to his Instagram feed with the caption ‘Chef team assembled.’ Commenters were quick to point out the homogeneity of the photo and to ask why, in a city as diverse as London and a suburb as subject to gentrification as Notting Hill, the only people he could find to fill his kitchen were essentially exact replicas of himself. Straker responded, writing a comment (and then pinning it so it sat at the top of the section for everyone to see), “Honestly, people need to calm down. Firstly there is a shortage of chefs/hospitality workers. Secondly if you feel so passionately please go and gather CVs of any chefs you think we’re missing in the team. Solutions not problems. Thank you.”
Ironically, it’s here where the problem lies. To be clear, I understand it’s the reality of the hospitality industry that there may be times when, simply by the way things have worked out, you end up with a homogenous team. But I do not accept that Thomas Straker didn’t have any applications from equally as talented and qualified women and POC. Strakers has received rave reviews, Thomas himself is a social media personality; it’s the kind of establishment that will have drawn attention from more than just white men. In fact, commenters even proved that, with one female chef writing “I legit went for an interview there and on the second round they ghosted me! On the day of the interview they told me to come and I travelled an hour and a half to get there for the second round and then it turns out they were doing an event on the other side of London and didn’t even apologise or anything of the sort.”
As author Otegha Uwagba pointed out in the comments, a November 2022 profile of Straker in GQ quoted him as saying “We haven’t struggled with staff. Not blowing my own trumpet, but it’s really helped that I have a profile online, to pull in chefs,” something that directly undermines his comment on that very post citing a shortage of chefs. I think Uwagba puts it best when she asks: “So which one is it Thomas?”
Perhaps most (un)surprisingly is that this is not the first time Straker has posted a picture of his all-white, all-male kitchen team, nor is it the first time he's been questioned on it. In a December 2022 post captioned "f***ing love these boyyys", Straker shared a photo of his kitchen team who were – you guessed it! – all white, and all men. Someone commented asking, "do you hire women" and Straker replied, in an echo of his request on this weekend's post, "obviously, just need to apply".
I believe that diverse teams are good for business, particularly in creative jobs such as cooking, but also that people in positions of privilege should use their opportunities to help pull others up alongside them. In a city as diverse as London, I do not see any kind of reason why you should have a team built entirely of one demographic – and yet that’s something that happens far too often. Straker’s response has, in my perception, cemented the idea that diversifying his team never crossed his mind.
As part of a conversation with Maria and Rhiannon of events duo Mam Sham, Straker sent a message that read “I’m not against hiring women. I just feel they are generally attracted to female led restaurants. River Cafe and Spring classic examples.” Which is objectively hilarious but also seems purposefully ignorant of the reasons women might be attracted to kitchens operated by other women (hint: most of the issues women face in professional kitchens are perpetuated by overly macho environments). He then went on to call them “woke”, “keyboard warriors” and “bitter and twisted”.
I have spent the last two and a half years interviewing women from all areas of the hospitality industry about their experiences working in food and drink. My intention was to both tell the story of what it means to be a woman in this industry in this day and age, but also to platform them when they are so often overlooked in favour of their male counterparts. Honestly, I feel like perhaps it lulled me into a false sense of security, as I genuinely felt like things are getting better. And I think in many ways they are, but it’s situations like this, and the Michelin awards earlier in the year when only three women were recognised and no new female chefs received a star, that go to show that the hospitality industry is still very much a white boys club, and it’s responses like Strakers that go to show why.
It’s not illegal to only hire white men to work in your kitchen, obviously, because otherwise half the restaurants in the country would have to shutter, but I think we should all be asking ourselves why we would want to encourage businesses and restaurateurs who feel like it’s acceptable to do so. Many commenters on the Instagram post didn’t feel there was an issue with his selection of team members, and branded those questioning it as ‘woke’ or ‘sensitive’, congratulating Straker for, in their opinion, hiring his team simply on ‘merit’ rather than as a ‘box ticking exercise’.
The problem is, we live in a society where women and people of colour are overlooked every day for jobs they deserve because of their gender or race. I can’t understand why white male business owners wouldn’t want to counteract that and use their privilege in a positive way and make an effort to hire these people into their teams. Because the more diversity we welcome into the workforce and make visible, the more young people will be able to see themselves represented in these industries and realise it’s something they too can make a career out of, rather than something that is the reserve of those that are white and male.
Food is one of those things that transcends cultural boundaries, it brings us together and starts conversations. Flavours travel across borders and oceans and spark joy and wonder. You can be miles away from a place and try its food in a restaurant around the corner from your home and begin to learn a little about the way people across the globe might live. It is a simple fact that food is one of the most diverse parts of our world, and I firmly believe that the people cooking it should represent that.
The most frustrating part is that Straker’s ‘solutions’ are already out there. There are multiple initiatives and companies working to place diverse candidates into restaurant jobs: Counter Talk, The Prince's Trust and Springboard, just to name a few. But if he was really concerned with making his kitchen a diverse and welcoming place, he would have already known that.