Go into any restaurant kitchen in Australia and you’ll find men are often the majority. As chefs increasingly enjoy a level of mild celebrity, it means the equally hard-working women in hospitality rarely share the same limelight.

While there are many excellent female chefs in the city we could celebrate, we took the opportunity to meet the women in Melbourne’s hospitality industry who, for years now, have been getting on with it and making magic in restaurants; the ones who keep our glasses topped up and who know what we need before we do.

They’re often the quiet achievers of the restaurant world, the ones who orchestrate and maintain the consistency you feel around you at the haunts you keep returning to. Actually, they are probably a big part of what makes your favourite restaurant, your favourite. These are the people taking care of you front of house (FOH).

Sally Humble has worked in some of Melbourne’s greatest restaurants, including St Kilda’s Circa and Cutler & Co. in Fitzroy. With an encyclopedic knowledge of all things beverages, she challenged diners with her food and wine matches at South Melbourne’s Lûmé and has since taken a break from restaurants to work with wine distributor Stock On Hand Wines. She and her partner, chef John Paul Fiechtner, are currently planning a tiny bistro of their own either in Melbourne or Singapore.

Broadsheet: How long have you been working in hospitality? How did you get into it?
Sally Humble: I have been working in hospitality for over 10 years.

Like a lot of people, I started working in restaurants while studying at university, and quickly found myself surrounded by great mentors in an encouraging, booming industry. That combined with a palate for wine. I was completely immersed from the beginning and have still yet to consider pursuing anything else.

BS: What’s the best thing about working FOH (front of house)? And what’s the hardest?
SH: Best: The energy. It is such an indescribable feeling when you are walking to the same tune as your colleagues. Great service is an art form, and in a great team, communication becomes almost telepathic, and service is like music. When the food is on point the service is up-tempo and rhythmic, and the team flows and it feels like playing in an orchestra. My team are super talented and invaluable, and are not “disposable” as service folk can often be considered.

Hardest: The sacrifice. Family is always second; missing Christmas with the family to allow other families to celebrate holidays. Feeding the cat. Even the small sacrifices such as lightening my hair in a salon for a day. When you are under the pump in a busy restaurant, even finding the time outside of service to get your hair “did” is beyond a luxury.

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BS: The restaurant kitchen is known to be male-dominated. Is it a similar scenario FOH? Have you had to manage much sexism in the industry or from customers?
SH: Front of house is not as male dominated as the kitchen, but then again, in the sommelier world, it is. In saying that, this is definitely changing. [At Lûmé I had] a team of seven staff, five of which were female and who were all sommelier-trained.

With regard to sexism, I have experienced the whole gamut – from flashing chefs to guests who make a pass on the way out the door. It’s very much part of the role. I certainly would like to see this change.

Generally speaking, people are really appreciative of the knowledge and effort that goes into what we do. There are, of course, always exceptions, which you learn to take in your stride. Being able to not only diffuse but also lighten a negative interaction is a really necessary skill. I like to think I’ve developed this skill to a fine art.

BS: During your time in the industry, what have been some of the biggest changes in the expectations of diners?
SH: People have become much more knowledgeable about food and wine, and with that there is of course a high expectation of quality, both in product and service. Conversely, with that knowledge comes an openness to trying new things, and hence that's allowed us as chefs and sommeliers to try new things and to challenge expectations.

BS: How has technology changed the way we dine?
SH: Everything is public and instant. When something good happens, it gets out there incredibly quickly, which can be fantastic for business. Equally, you have to be on your toes so that the opposite doesn't happen. Technology is positive, and the restaurant world is so much smaller and accessible [because of it]. People are willing to fly from the other side of the world just to dine nowadays. The use of smartphones at every moment has its shortcomings, however, mainly for the restaurateur rather than the guest. Everyone is a critic, a photographer, which, I find can often come at the expense of etiquette and politeness when dining. I do love a polite diner, and I like to have a chat and a drink rather than check emails at the table.

BS: Where do you like to eat on a day off?
SH: I’ve discovered (as have many locals) Tipo 00. I particularly love a restaurant that I revisit and don’t need to announce my dietary requirement (I’m egg allergic). Tipo just get it, are intuitive and professional – this really puts me at ease when I’m dining.

[Before I left Melbourne], pho [was] a go-to at least once a week. I head to Footscray’s Hao Phong – notwithstanding the salmonella scare a [while] back, their food is cheap and delicious and the service is brutally efficient. If I’m south side, New Wind on Chapel Street. And, when I'm not there I live at Bellota.

I do have to make mention that Café di Stasio and France Soir are my two favourite restaurants in Melbourne, perhaps because I value professional service and people who understand the business of wine. These elements for me are [more important than] all the aesthetics of a restaurant and trends in food and wine.

Read more of this series:

Kate Bartholomew
Jane Semple
Angie Giannakodakis
Anna Touhy
Madeleine Morgan