In light of International Women’s Day, I think it’s more than fair to say that women were integral to the development of modern-day Irish food culture, whether through growing food, rearing livestock, making butter and cheese or working as chefs. Today, however, women within the hospitality and agricultural industries still face challenges as they progress within their chosen fields.

As a young restaurant chef in Canada, I was surrounded by men and often worked under rough conditions. For years, I tried to fit into that male-dominated world instead of embracing my own learned experiences and abilities. The truth I came to realise is that women in food are just as highly skilled and capable of greatness as our male counterparts – but sometimes, we aren’t as vocal about it.

This is also why Parabere Forum – an independent, not-for-profit, international organisation which aims to improve the food industry through empowerment, diversity and inclusion – was created.

Maria Canabal

Maria Canabal is founder and CEO of Parabere Forum, an annual gastronomy summit which celebrates women in food.

Founder and CEO of Parabere Forum, Maria Canabal, developed the idea for the organisation while working as a food journalist. She tells Irish Country Living that she would spend much of her year travelling to food conferences all around the world, only to see the same white, male chefs being featured each time.

“I was travelling 260 days per year and I was seeing women [in food] everywhere – in bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants – but they were not being invited to these conferences,” she recalls.

“Women represent 55% of the planet, so I started saying: ‘If you don’t have women at these kinds of conferences, you are missing 50% of the talent.’

“I created Parabere and the idea was to empower and give a voice to women in hospitality. Men have always been invited as speakers, and 20% of our participants are men, [so it’s not like] if you support women you’re against men. More rights for women doesn’t mean fewer rights for men.”

Equality still an issue

Originally, Maria thought that Parabere Forum wouldn’t always need to exist as the industry embraced gender equality. Unfortunately, 10 years since the first one, this is still not the case.

“Unfortunately, things have not changed,” Maria says. “Our industry has the highest rates of harassment and we are second in the world with the biggest gender pay gap. We are on the top for the wrong reasons.”

Since its establishment, there has been a strong Irish delegation in attendance at Parabere Forum including chefs, farmers, educators, journalists and those in public relations or marketing. The main take-away each year is the quiet power women in food – in Ireland and all over the world – have in them, if they are only given the opportunity to share their expertise.

“I must admit that when the Irish professionals first arrived to Parabere, I didn’t know any of them,” Maria says, “but I immediately connected with many of them.

“I am very proud that every year there is a huge Irish delegation with Jess Murphy [chef/owner of Kai Restaurant, Galway] as our official correspondent.”

About Parabere Forum 2024

The theme of this year’s forum, held on 3-4 March in Rome, was The Politics of Food. Delegates highlighted how food can be weaponised, and the situation in Gaza was referenced. Other topics of note were nutrition and health, biodiversity loss and climate change. Award-winning restaurateur Asma Khan presented on her commitment to social change in the restaurant industry.

Former agriculture, forestry and rural development advisor to French president Emmanuel Macron, Audrey Bourollieu, presented on Hectar – a regenerative pilot farm located just outside of Paris which includes an entrepreneurial training space and accelerator programme for food start-ups. In conversation with Irish Country Living, Audrey explained her set-up which includes a 100% grass-fed dairy herd of 40. All of the milk produced on her farm goes into a value-added product - yogHurt - which she feels has been a successful model.

As the forum is held in a new city each year, the conference closed with the announcement that next year’s event will take place in New York City.

This year’s forum saw a number of new Irish delegates in attendance, including Julia Hemingway, who owns and operates Julia’s Lobster Truck in Co Clare, and Ciara Daly, food and drink

marketing strategist, operating Irish Country Living spoke with both women about their experience.

Ciara Daly – food and drink marketing strategist, Co Galway

Ciara Daly owns the digital marketing company Conquer Digital, which works solely with food and drink operators in Ireland.

“Conquer Digital is a marketing agency specialising in social media services for food and drink businesses,” Ciara explains. “We try to help clients save time and money through services like workshops and training, but we really only work with clients who share our values around climate and a sustainable future, as well as profit.

“A big reason why I went to Parabere Forum is because over that weekend, I celebrated five years in business. Running a business is very lonely at times, and because I work solely with food and drink clients, it can often feel like I’m on my own little floating island.

“On a personal level, attending Parabere was my chance to catch up with one of those bigger floating islands to figure out what I could learn. There are so many inspiring thinkers in this industry and I’m eager to listen and learn from them.

“I do a lot of consulting and what I notice is, a lot of times I’ll work with female business owners who have so much knowledge – such a deep and interesting approach about the impact they want their business to have – but they are so humble, and it’s almost like we miss how valuable the knowledge they have is. Some of these women have changed the way I run my business and my whole value system as a person. That’s why I think it’s so important for these business owners to share their stories.”

Julia Hemingway – Julia’s Lobster Truck, Co Clare

Julia Hemingway – Julia’s Lobster Truck, Co Clare.

“When I was 18, I attended Prue Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London,” Julia tells Irish Country Living. “I’m 51 now, so I’ve been in the food industry for quite a long time.

“I always knew I wanted to open something of my own, but I didn’t want to make a huge investment [in a premise]. I have three children and some major commitments. That’s why I decided on the food truck. I love that the lobster fishermen I first met 26 or 27 years ago [while working at Linnane’s Lobster Bar] are still the ones supplying my business. I have two or three growers living locally who I use for all of my veggies, herbs and salads. I even have a farmer living on a small island off Kinvarra who supplies me with his Maris Piper potatoes for my chips.

“That said, the fish side of my business is changing. I am using less fish and focusing more on shellfish because I feel that the industry is no longer sustainable. Parabere Forum’s theme this year was The Politics of Food and I was interested to hear the opinions of others on issues like sustainable seafood.

“I had previously watched people going to Parabere and would think, ‘this is just incredible; so inspiring,’ and for that reason I wanted to go this year. At this point, my business is seven years old and every year, I question it with everything going on – the cost of living, the hike in ingredients costs, the price of gas and heading into this year of employing people, I often wonder how I’m going to do it.”


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