A few weeks ago, we were excited to be invited to Bywty Maes y Parc, Coleg Ceredigion’s restaurant in Cardigan, for a meal prepared and served by the college’s Catering and Hospitality students. The meal was excellent – an incredible testament to the skills of the young people here in west Wales, and to the mentoring and guidance offered by their tutors. During the evening, Ellen and Sally were privileged to meet the amazing force that is Hazel Thomas – and we thought it was only appropriate, this International Women’s Day, to celebrate this trailblazer of the food industry. 

A trailblazer of the food industry

You may never have heard Hazel’s name, but her story is nothing short of remarkable – the first woman to take a place in Anton Mosimann’s kitchen brigade at The Dorchester Hotel, London, back in 1977, when women were rarely seen in professional kitchens – let alone kitchens of such high regard. What’s even more astonishing (although perhaps not SO astonishing, having met Hazel in person) is the story of how a girl from Drefach, Llanwenog, who had never left Wales before she went to catering college made it to be the first qualified female chef in such a prestigious establishment.

"No thought of a career in food"

Picture the scene – a young girl from a relatively poor, rural background; in touch with her food, but no thought to a career beyond secretarial work, and certainly no idea that she could make a living in food. As Hazel told us:

We were a ‘working poor’ family. No carpet, no central heating – that sort of thing. We spoke Welsh at home, and really, I wasn’t encouraged in any sort of way to have a ‘career’ and certainly not to look at anything that might take me away from where I was living – where my family had always lived. 

I had a summer job as a secretary. It was the most boring thing I have ever done – but in those days, especially for women, the options were really limited. No one ever suggested there might be something more to life.

Planting the seed for a career in food

Lucky for Hazel, then, that she was encouraged to switch her summer job and went to work in the Black Lion Royal Hotel in Lampeter. Under the oversight of the ex RAF head chef, Doug Harvey, Hazel quickly found herself enjoying the odd job he would task her with in the kitchen. It was Doug who first planted the idea that she could make a career out of cooking – and he who advised her that to do so, she really needed to head to London.

I’d never left Wales, but I set out for Westminster College, with the kind support of Elwyn Jones the creator of Z Cars and Softly Softly, who had moved to Llanwenog. My dad was the stonemason renovating his Welsh farmhouse. Elwyn and Jen, his wife, also had a house in Holland Park and so it was that they took me to London on that first week of term. On my first day at college, Elwyn Jones  arranged for me to be driven to the college in a chauffeur-driven car! 

I was going to find myself a bedsit but that was so daunting that Mair, also a student at Westminster College (whose mum had lived in the Lampeter area during the war as an evacuee) could see how upset I was and offered to take me to her home in East Finchley for the weekend. I ended up living with them for the first term of college.

“It was incredibly lonely to begin with – no one could understand me, and I was really homesick. I constantly questioned why I’d moved away – but then I would hear the voice of my great aunt, Amy, angry and unforgiving, telling me she knew I was making a mistake leaving Wales, and I hardened my resolve to stay and make a success of it all”.

And make a success she did.

By my first Christmas in London, I was a city girl. Talk about the stars aligning, you could not make this up!   On my 17th birthday Elwyn and Jen took me and a friend to the Savage Club for dinner. This was a posh private dining club and that was when I realized I wanted to cook at that level."

Chef Mosimann and Cuisine Naturelle

After passing The Dorchester on her bus ride to college, wishing she could end up working there one day, she had the opportunity to apply for a job – and secured one of 2 spots available on the kitchen team – the first woman to be employed by Anton Mosimann who was the new head chef.  She remembers being around when Chef Mosimann introduced the world to Cuisine Naturelle. A totally new approach to cooking far removed from the classical French style she had been taught at college.

It was just music to my ears – and my tastebuds! I’d grown up knowing where everything on my plate came from (mostly our own produce) so this move to more responsible food sourcing and thoughtful recipe development and preparation was right up my street.

It wasn’t just work that was exciting.

London was an incredible place to be as a student. A college friend knew Marc Bolan (T-Rex), so we knew where he would be appearing and would turn up just to see him. I saw Kiss live on their first visit to London. That was just college days. Once at the Dorchester, movie stars would come in and either eat with us or be staying there.  It was just amazing.”

Hazel spent almost 3 years at The Dorchester, but then a tug pulled her west to the Treganna Castle Hotel in St Ives, Cornwall. 

Back to Wales - but still with a focus on Food

She eventually moved back to Wales after a serious car accident, but even after marrying and establishing a hair salon with her husband, Hazel never really left the world of food. Working as a consultant she helped promote Welsh food and drink producers at prestigious food events in London for the Welsh Government Food Directorate. Back in 1986 she was a guest chef on the back-to-back series on HTV, following an epidemiology study on heart disease in Wales. She helped establish the Lampeter Food Festival in 1989, has run cooking demonstrations, opened a delicatessen called Food Fountain in Lampeter and managed her own café in Tregaron.  She enjoyed nothing more than working with and mentoring young people while delivering apprenticeships in Hospitality for Cambrian Training. Even though she loved every minute of the evening at Coleg Ceredigion, she told us afterwards that “Really, I’d have much rather been in the kitchen with the students, working on the dishes, than eating them!

From our perspective though, we were glad Hazel was a guest, and that we were sitting on her table. And even though her days working with Anton Mosimann are over, those moments are recorded in perpetuity – as Hazel told us:

Well, last year, Meryl, my friend, and I went to Switzerland to visit my daughter, and we went to a museum dedicated to Anton Mosimann. We walked through the door and there on the wall was a photo – and I recognised it immediately! It was a photo from Anton Mosimann’s 60th birthday party where I was a guest." 

Hazel now works for UWTSD and Ellen will be hosted by UWTSD in the Lloyd Thomas Dining Hall, Lampeter campus on Wednesday May 15th at 5.30 p.m. She’ll be talking about building a business generally, and In the Welsh Wind specifically, after which it will be over to the talented students from Coleg Ceredigion for some cocktails and mocktails – join us if you can!

Contact Hazel for more information and to reserve your place: hazel.thomas@uwtsd.ac.uk or 07973840285