Dame Sue Carter – interview

Indispensable rock of Les Dames d’Escoffier London

Sue CarterDame Sue Carter is the indispensable rock of Les Dames d’Escoffier London Chapter and is the hard-working and dedicated Secretary. She is also the founder, the inspiration for our group, and without her we can truly say we wouldn’t exist at all.

In 2009 Sue Carter returned from the US where she and her husband owned and ran a successful wine shop in Austin, Texas for 15 years. Three years before returning to the UK she was invited to become a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, Austin.

I asked Sue Carter if she had always worked in the wine industry. Had it always been her passion?
‘No, I went to art school and I was very much an ‘arts’ person. I studied graphic design and later, when we had this brainwave to invest in a wine store it was a very useful skill to have, for branding and so on, along with my husband’s accounting skills.’

Did you choose wine just ‘out of the air’?
‘No, we were very keen wine drinkers and enthusiasts and at one point we had thought about offering a wine subscription service in the UK: we would go to France and buy inexpensive bulk wine.

Californian and world wines

‘After many trips to Texas we fell in love with the place, and formulated a plan to move to Austin. We did our research, decided that there was a market for us, got our investment visa, and moved there in 1986. We had a great start, opening in October, just before the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. We learned a lot from the agents and distributors, and Californian wines were gaining in reputation. At the same time there were plenty of tech company start-ups in Austin such as Dell, and the associated venture capital funds, and we captured that market. We were a niche store, and we were really into the Californian and world wines.

‘My husband had a great memory for names, and was able to greet returning customers by name, which makes a big difference; the accent didn’t hurt, either. Eventually other stores began to nibble at our market. Some of the larger chains came in and began to undercut us. We saw the writing on the wall, and were able to sell the store in 2001.

‘I went back to painting and took some courses in fine arts, which I really enjoyed. I got a call from a board member of the non-profit Wine and Food Festival for central Texas who recruited me for the Wine Coordinator position. I hadn’t been intending to go back to work, but I enjoyed the job and being back in the world of wine. I worked a lot with the wine distribution world, and met many people from not only the wine industry but also the culinary world. At the same time I started consulting work with a local winery and, together with the owner started catering monthly winery dinners. Then the Festival Director quit and I was offered the job, which I took for three years.

A London chapter

‘During that time I was asked by the Austin chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier if I would be interested in being nominated to be a member, which I accepted. When they heard that I was leaving the USA, they threw a party for me, which was very sweet of them! Someone there whispered the suggestion that I might set up a London chapter.

Dames group
‘After settling back in London, I thought about Les Dames, but I had no connections in the food world here. A contact in the Guild of Food Writers offered to help promote the idea by publishing an invitation to interested people to contact me. Valentina Harris and Marianne Lumb wrote to me, and they were able to bring in other founding members. I did all the admin work, and we got the Chapter ratified in 2010. That was my entry back into the wine and food world, and I have never regretted it.’

Was it your idea to start the ‘Edible London’ project?
‘Dame Ashley James, who had been a member whilst working at Tom Aikens in London, returned to the USA and was able to transfer her membership to the New York chapter. She had talked there to the Founder of the organisation, Carol Brock, who wanted to ensure that the London chapter survived. Ashley suggested to me that we arrange a ‘symposium’ to which we could invite the American Dames.

‘We needed something to galvanise the chapter, and to give our members the chance to meet US Dames as it’s difficult for most to ‘get’ the whole feeling of sisterhood as a satellite chapter. Eventually I won everyone round to the idea, and we decided that, rather than running a dry symposium, we instead arrange four days of foodie ‘madness’, showing the US Dames our London and the trends, things they would not have encountered in the US, or as a regular tourist to London.

Dames lanyard A force to be reckoned with

‘The reason that we are now starting to talk about 2018 is because it does give us, as a chapter, something to rally around, and to meet the US Dames, and to show that we are a force to be reckoned with in the industry when we all come together. When I went to Annual Conference in the US after the first Edible London there was a standing ovation, and the next time our current president Dame Jackie Pickles received the same warm praise. So we obviously got something right, and that’s why we want to repeat it. A recent survey of our previous guests showed that at least half of those intend to come again.’

Dame Sue Carter is a tireless worker for Les Dames d’Escoffier London Chapter. Her quiet manner, sense of fun and commitment have been the reasons this Chapter, and the women we support, have continued to thrive.

Learn more about Les Dames d’Escoffier London Chapter here


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Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018