It was always Helen Hall’s dream to own her own restaurant. It’s safe to say that the co-owner of Peckham Cellars has realised it. A restaurant, wine bar and wine shop in the heart of the south east London suburb, Peckham Cellars is the quintessential neighbourhood joint that just so happens to have made a city-wide impact.
While opening her own establishment may have been the end goal for Hall, and the highlight of her career, the work she did beforehand was no less interesting or important. In fact, Hall is someone who has had a finger in her fair share of pies, tracking a career path that moves between bar work, hospitality management and cheffing – all the while notching up a qualification from Leiths School of Food & Wine.
“I started working at Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen. I had always liked the idea of owning a restaurant, but it was never something I took particularly seriously. When I started working at the bar, though, I just really loved it,” Hall tells me. Her career then took her to Birdcage on Columbia Road, before she set out on her own to run pop-ups and events with a friend, and then moved onto the management training scheme at the Columbo Group – it was a move that was integral to Hall’s career, and she moved her way up the business, eventually being appointed assistant general manager for the Brixton outpost of The Blues Kitchen.
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A desire to go to cookery school eventually drew her away from this role and into Leiths. “When I was there I wasn't thinking at all of becoming a chef,” Hall tells me. “But they do live demonstrations with different restaurants, and everyone who comes in says, ‘Just go and spend some time in kitchens,’ and that cookery school can never emulate what it's like to be able to grow in kitchen environments.” Hall followed this advice, and took short term roles at a few restaurants before landing a spot at Yotam Ottolenghi’s Rovi in advance of its opening.
“Ottolenghi is like my hero. I'm obsessed with him, obsessed with his cookery books,” says Hall. “I applied to work there for the opening. And I did a six month stint at Rovi. And then I felt like probably that was enough time in kitchens. Like, it was great. And I think in some other world, maybe I could have become a chef, but it's just really, really intense.” Alongside her business partners Ben and Luke, the trio all reached a point in their careers at a similar time where it made sense to take the plunge. Unfortunately, that point was reached in November 2019, when Peckham Cellars opened – just a few months before Covid descended and the industry was thrown into disarray.
There was a sexualisation of women on the floor or behind the bar that I found quite difficult. It’s something I’ve had to confront
“Obviously we didn’t see it coming, and it was a huge obstacle to overcome,” Hall tells me, when we touch on the difficulties faced by Covid, especially for such a young business. “The first three months were really tough and we didn’t quite get it right in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s been quite good for us – we’ve got customers all over the place that we hadn’t had before, most of our regulars heard about us from us selling wine in lockdown, and we now have this delivery business that we didn’t have before – but it was an incredibly stressful time, and we basically had to rethink our business from the ground up.” Now, though, Hall says it was all worth it. “We’ve really got something special and concrete and I feel now is the best it’s been.”
While Hall may have achieved what she set out to do in hospitality, that’s not to say there weren’t obstacles faced along the way. When I ask about navigating this industry as a woman from so many different angles – both in kitchens, on the floor and in management positions – she acknowledges that there were multiple occasions where it felt like being a woman changed things. “In the kitchen I think we were 18 chefs, and I was one of three women, and the other two were both in the pastry section. So in that sense I felt different, because you’re one of the very few women on the team,” says Hall. “It was very apparent that I was a woman – I was treated differently, but kind of in a nice way. If I made a mistake I’d get quite a different response. It’s kind of sexist, but you’re sort of looked after, weirdly.”
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Outside of the kitchen, the gender dynamic was more subtle but still present. “There have been difficult things around with women. Not really to me, but who we should employ and the way that they should look,” she says. “There was a kind of sexualisation of women on the floor or behind the bar that I found quite difficult. It’s something I’ve had to confront, and something I look back on with a slightly uncomfortable tint. I feel like I was part of an environment that wasn’t particularly respectful of women, which I think is probably something that happens a lot in hospitality.”
Now, as a business owner, Hall is looking to help encourage a positive change. “I think it’s nice to be leading. I think it’s changing and getting better for women and I want to be someone who leads a more equitable environment for women to be in,” she tells me. “I think more and more you’re seeing women in the industry being celebrated and seeing more and more women coming through.”
In terms of Peckham Cellars, it seems that after a tumultuous few years and some fairly effective business adaptations, the restaurant is finally hitting its stride and embodying the ambitions Hall and her business partners had for the space. They’re considering expanding the cellars brand into other spaces and finding a more permanent home for the delivery business too. But, most importantly, it seems the trio are lapping up every moment of seeing their goals come to fruition.
“My favourite thing about the industry is on a really busy Friday night, when we have the tables outside, and you’re just running around,” says Hall. “You look around and everything’s under control, the team are all working together in harmony, and everything’s going really well. You just don’t get that anywhere else.”