Sally Abé on taking the fuss out of fine dining at The Pem

Sally Abé’s CV is impressive. She has worked at top kitchens across the country, including The Savoy, Claridge’s, The Ledbury and The Harwood Arms, under chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Brett Graham. Today, she helms The Pem, a fine-dining restaurant with a central London location in Conrad London St James Hotel. 

After a successful opening last July, The Pem has quickly become a go-to spot in prime London. And Sally is about as celebrated as they come after being identified as a ‘Chef to Watch’ by the National Restaurant Awards 2019 and awarded ‘Chef of the Year’ in the Estrella Damm  Top 50 Gastropubs 2020.

We caught up with Sally to talk about life at The Pem, how she’s taking the fuss out of fine dining and the role women play in creating expertly curated culinary experiences.

How did it feel when The Pem was named ‘One to Watch’ at the National Restaurant Awards?

It was such a great feeling as the restaurant had only been open almost two months so to be recognised so soon was fantastic moral for the team.

At The Pem, you’ve taken the fuss out of fine dining. It feels fun and relaxed, but also somewhere you could celebrate a very special occasion. Is that the vibe you were hoping for?

Yes totally, we wanted to create somewhere where the food was high end and delicious but also where people felt they could let their hair down and have a good time.

What’s your favourite dish on the menu? Anything a first-timer shouldn’t miss?

We’re launching our new spring menu soon, so expect to see lots of asparagus, peas and morels. If you’re dining for the first time, don’t miss the knife and fork bacon – it’s fast becoming a signature.

You also oversee the menu at the hotel’s Blue Boar Pub. What can diners expect there? Are any of the dishes inspired by your time at the Harwood Arms?

Diners can expect proper British pub classics, such as fish and chips and Scotch eggs. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, the aim is to do classics to a high level. There are a few nods to my time at The Harwood, and game plays a part on the menu during the season.

You have an incredible female-led team at The Pem, with Laetizia Keating as Head Chef and Emma Underwood as your General Manager. Do you think we will see more women entering hospitality as kitchen culture improves?

I really hope so, and I think hospitality is moving in the right direction regarding staff welfare and hours, etcetera. Hopefully, this will encourage more women to come into the industry and add to the already-excellent female presence.

You recently hosted a very successful International Women’s Day event, including a panel discussion with some of the industry’s most inspiring women. Were there any insights they shared which you found particularly interesting? Are there plans to do more industry events like this?

It was such an amazing day and we managed to cover so many topics. I think there is a real appetite for more networking social for women in the industry which is something i’d like to look at organising, and we are definitely going to be organising more events here at the Conrad!

What advice would you give to the next generation of aspiring chefs?

My biggest piece of advice is to believe in yourself. Back yourself, trust your judgement and also ask lots of questions. Asking questions is a sign of strength, shows eagerness and, ultimately, will help you become more confident.

When you’re not working, where do you like to dine out in London?

I love trying new restaurants all the time, my favourites recently have been Chishuru in Brixton and Manteca in Shoreditch.

And when you have time to travel, where are your favourite foodie destinations?

San Sebastian in Spain for pintxos and Bangkok for the street food.

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