International Women’s Day 2021: ‘Newly forged female friendships are the reason I’ve managed to navigate the last year’

Emma Underwood
·6-min read
<p>Extraordinary change: for Emma Underwood, general manager of Darby’s, the past year has been one of constant upheaval</p> (Staff Canteen)

Extraordinary change: for Emma Underwood, general manager of Darby’s, the past year has been one of constant upheaval

(Staff Canteen)

At the end of February last year I went for dinner with four female friends who work in hospitality. We were a head chef, a restaurateur, two food writers and me, the general manager of Darby’s, the restaurant next to the American Embassy.

The night had needed a month of planning – owing to the typically tricky coordination of five very busy diaries – but during the evening we joked how we would be seeing one another regularly in the weeks to come, an anomaly caused by International Women’s Day. It normally fills March with events and occasions celebrating women in hospitality. Often a little hollow and tokenistic, we laughingly noted that it’s the only time of year we manage to take the limelight off our dazzling male counterparts. For us, five women who have worked hard to establish ourselves within a male-dominated industry, the day is both frustrating and validating. We’re happy to celebrate each another, but still exasperated at apparently needing to be judged in a separate category from men.

Little more than a week later, of course, the world started changing. Those events were cancelled, our restaurants closed, our work and social life abruptly paused. The feelings of horror in that week will be etched permanently in all of our memories. As our schedules emptied, we filled WhatsApp with messages of helplessness and despair, trying to work out what was going on, and met each other with help, care and unwavering support.

As someone who lives alone, my life was quickly becoming unrecognisable. I remember explaining to my mum back then that I had never once eaten an evening meal alone in my flat – she was incredulous, but that, for me, typifies my life as a woman working in London restaurants. I’m always either serving or dining, always surrounded by people, and there’s scarcely a moment to stop.

Darby’s, where Underwood is general managerMatt Writtle
Darby’s, where Underwood is general managerMatt Writtle

Having this taken away was not just about no longer being able to work or go out. It was a stripping away of purpose, a dizzying displacement of energy. We were left to fill our time in ways we’d never had to contemplate before: providers of hospitality, but our outlet gone. Our roles were changing immeasurably – for who were we, without anyone to take care of?

Within the hospitality industry, International Women’s Day is largely a celebration of its role models. While it provokes countless discussions of its relevance – many deride its potential for gender separatism – the day is still a great tool for enticing women into working in restaurants, pubs and bars. All too often, restaurant media is dominated by male representation. It’s a simple and self-perpetuating cycle: a larger proportion of men work in the industry, so they are rightly celebrated in the media. This attracts more men to work in restaurants, resulting in it appearing less female-friendly. International Women’s Day works in some ways to repair this imbalance, and typically the discourse around IWD in hospitality is peppered with semantics of strength.

Just as the past year has caused drastic changes to the nature of hospitality work, there has been a shift in the definitions of success. Banned from normality, we’ve still managed to scratch at providing a service for our guests. Some have come to our shop in near tears, as we’re the only people they speak to all week. We glean satisfaction not from glowing reviews but from well-packed takeaway boxes. To mark this year’s International Women’s Day with a reeling off of achievements, then, would seem incongruous, but it’s important to speak about the vital support women in the industry have provided one another during the past year.

I’ve often had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant women but, usually beleaguered by our busy diaries, social interactions were kept to polite small talk at events... This year has given us valuable time to get to know one another.

This is something quite new to me. Throughout my career, I’ve often had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant women but, usually beleaguered by our busy diaries, social interactions were kept to polite small talk at events. Friendships were formed achingly slowly, built through hasty post-shift replies to 12-hour-old texts and precious but sporadic Sunday evening glasses of wine. This year has given us valuable time to get to know one another. We’ve been able to communicate more freely and more often than ever and as a result, we’ve supported each other in ways we might never have imagined before. Whether it be through comparing takeaways, lending each other jigsaw puzzles, donating sourdough starters or even becoming bubbles, we’ve actually had the chance to bond with one another. Business has pivoted, new ventures have sprouted, and lifelong friendships have been forged. It is with this spirit that IWD should be celebrated.

As it was for many, one of my lowest points of last year was Christmas. News of the sudden closure of restaurants was heartbreaking: for our industry, Christmas week is the pinnacle of the year, a time when moments at the table matter most and memories are forged, and to help create them is a privilege we all relish, sacrificing our own celebrations to provide joy for others. It’s the essence of hospitality.

During the last Darby’s lunch service, my mum texted to tell me my stepdad had Covid and I wouldn’t be able to go home. This was before the travel ban and I was devastated. I left the floor at the end of service to phone my friend, who owns a restaurant. I was in tears. She was overwhelmed too, faced with a huge workload sprung from an unanticipated influx of Christmas meal kit orders. I jumped at her request to help her out. Together we spent the week leading up to the big day in her restaurant, her tables heaving with packaging instead of guests, prepping meal kits for 100 people. Both of us are used to spending Christmas very differently – her on the beaches of Sydney and me in the snowy hills of North Wales – but this year, we peeled kilo after kilo of parsnips. We joked. We told stories. We were providing one another with precious support and comfort.

With the rolling BBC Covid announcements in the background, we squeezed sage butter into its packaging and wrapped up the last of the kits, the distraction helping dispel our longing to be in our busy restaurants and, later, with our sorely missed families. It was only with this friendship, and with so many other female friendships – some freshly formed, others old bonds now forged firmer than ever – that I have managed to navigate the last 12 months relatively unscathed. This year on International Women’s Day, it is upon these women and the strength they provided me that I will reflect.

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