If you think Kate Nicholls OBE is all legislation, all lobbying, you’d be wrong. Such work takes up much of her time, but you might also find her in Ministry of Sound, the famously raucous South London nightclub, or listening to K-Pop with her two daughters at home in Ealing. Her favourite band? ‘BTS’.
Her appreciation of Korean culture goes beyond music. ‘It’s probably my favourite cuisine’, she says. ‘There’s a brilliant Korean restaurant near me – we [together with her civil servant husband] go quite a lot for kimchi and fried chicken. Although I love Chinese, Japanese food too.’
How fortuitous then that we find ourselves in Yauatcha, a Cantonese restaurant in the West End. It is Pride month and so we order steaming baskets of rainbow dumplings, a plate of cheung fung and cups of tea.
Only weeks before, Nicholls, in her role as CEO of UKHospitality, launched a new workforce strategy in a bid to combat crises affecting the sector. The paper examines labour shortfalls as it does rising costs and looks to shift the industry’s occasionally mottled image further towards that of a professional career.
‘For too many, it’s seen as a stop-gap – there’s nothing wrong with casual work and students pulling pints, but more people here need to view hospitality as a long-term plan’.
It was the pandemic that made such shortfalls so evident. And it was in the pandemic that Nicholls truly made her name.
She cut an illustrious figure during the darker moments of lockdown. In March 2020, businesses closing without the certainty of recompense, Nicholls was thrust well into the spotlight, forever campaigning for the conservation of one of the UK’s most prosperous industries. Such was the demonisation of the industry as viral panic took hold, her position as leader of a then relatively unknown UKHospitality brought about a relentless and compassionate defence of pubs, restaurants, and hotels. Doing so earned her countless BBC appearances – and ultimately her OBE.
‘I don’t really remember it, not those early days anyway’, she says. It sounds crippling? ‘I think, to an extent, everyone sort of shut off their receptors. It was such a blur and I was working close to 24 hours a day.
‘And that was the first lockdown for me – just fighting. But it was also a novelty and there was such spirit. The second lockdown was more depressing, because there was no banana bread or Joe Wicks workout videos, just endless worry, especially for businesses.’
Taxing as her role might be, Nicholls’ approach has always been one of collaboration and of compromise. Where ministers were met with a tirade of anger after enforcing ‘ridiculous’ rules like the 10pm curfew, later bringing about the now near-mythical Scotch egg debacle, Nicholls needed and sought to cooperate: ‘It was really important to be that bridge. There were lots of people campaigning, and a lot of people were understandably upset, but I stepped in as the figurehead and kept that accord with ministers. It was heartening to have people support me. Our aim was to get people to listen’.
Thankfully, those hallowed days now feel a world away, and bitterness is more likely to manifest as ennui. Our last meeting was just over a year before, when outside dining was the best anyone could hope for. Today, we are in a crowded, noisy Soho Chinese restaurant, snagging dumplings with chopsticks like it’s 2019.
Nicholls, 52, hasn’t always been in London, and hasn’t always been a vanguard for hospitality. Life started in a mining village in County Durham, where she went to the local state comprehensive before going on to read English at Cambridge. She had hoped to become a journalist.
‘I managed to get a place on a training programme for a newspaper in Newcastle – I wanted to be a war reporter – but funding cuts meant that I had to go away and do something else,’ says Nicholls. ‘They said come back in a year, ‘we’ll honour your place’, but I got into politics and never looked back’.
Politics took Nicholls first to the European Parliament, to roles in London, Strasbourg, and Brussels. Food has always been a theme. In fact, we might all thank her for saving prawn cocktail crisps.
‘I did food, and worked on legislation,’ she explains. ‘A lot of that was to do with food colourings and flavourings, what was allowed and what wasn’t. Prawn cocktail crisps need certain ingredients and I saved those from being banned.
‘It was all quite interesting. How to make sausages pink, and tins of peas green. I’ve always loved food, and eating out, so this has been a natural progression for me’.
For Nicholls to heap praise and adoration onto UK hospitality comes as no surprise. It does, though, appear genuine, and today, in yet another ‘challenging’ economic climate, the cost of living taking its toll, she is again fighting to see an industry preserved, just against an ever-evolving foe.
‘I think what you get in a recession, or in tricky economic times, is polarisation, and this is true in any sector’, she says. ‘But we can be grateful to have food of such great quality up and down the market – the explosion of casual dining on the high street has made eating out even more accessible today. Hospitality has been rightly democratised’.
Nicholls adds: ‘There’s a lot that needs to change and improve. We have a staffing crisis, energy bills are up and food costs are rising.
‘Then there are people on the lower end of the wage spectrum, and too few women in senior positions. These are problems we’re working on.’
How do more women attain jobs such as hers? ‘I’ve always said, ‘lift as you climb’. I’ve worked hard to be where I am, but growing up, I do think some women who achieved this did so just for them, and didn’t look back. Working in male dominated industries, we have to be inclusive, and support everyone’.
Our dumplings are long gone. It is well into the afternoon and Nicholls has another meeting of some description to attend, possibly with a Select Committee. Will she hit Ministry after meeting with ministers?
Apparently more relaxed evenings are due. ‘It’s my younger daughter’s birthday soon, so we’re going to go out somewhere special. We love Hélène Darroze at The Connaught, and Murano – Angela’s [Hartnett] cooking is delicious. We’ll have some nice champagne.
‘But you never know when the next big night out might be. I’ll be on a dancefloor again soon I’m sure’.
Our industry is led by many influential women, from Lorraine Copes, whose company Be Inclusive Hospitality works to improve diversity, inclusivity and provide opportunities to everyone, regardless of their background, to this year’s Most Influential Woman, Kate Nicholls – the fearless voice of our industry and a driving force to get us through the hardship of the pandemic.
Harri champions diversity, equality and inclusion in the hospitality industry, and that includes ensuring that women are represented across all levels of hospitality businesses. We work closely with industry icons such as Ann Elliott, whose Plan B mentoring network has propelled women into the roles they deserve but might not have achieved without the inspiration and support of other successful leaders in hospitality.
Supporting this year’s Most Influential Woman in Hospitality award is nothing short of an honour, as we shine a light on the amazing work so many women do for our industry, and inspire the next generation to continue to fly the flag for hospitality.