Ejay McDowell

Why this Chef Manager is keeping a firm hold on the career ladder

Ejatou McDowell
About the author : Ejatou McDowell

Chef Manager, Sodexo Government Northern Ireland

Published on : 5/20/22
  • Through 70 years of leadership, The Queen has inspired us all. Sodexo features in the only official book marking the Platinum Jubilee pageant in recognition of how we champion women in leadership. To celebrate this honour, we spoke to  Ejatou McDowell, Chef Manager Government Northern Ireland about her experiences, their challenges and the guidance she’d give to others who might want to follow in her footsteps.

    Platinum JubileeEjatou McDowell’s nine-strong team serves 150 people a day at  one of our high profile Government contracts in Northern Ireland. Originally from The Gambia, she’s taken every opportunity to broaden her skills since arriving in Belfast (and joining Sodexo) back in 2007. Ejatou explains how a lack of options at a young age has influenced her approach, and why she sees no barriers in her way as she continues to push herself forward. 

    Separated by a common language 

    English is the official language of The Gambia, but it’s very different to the version they speak here. That was the first thing I learnt when I came to Belfast in 2007. I had never left my home country before, and I’d only heard about Northern Ireland from a friend. 

    Within weeks of arriving on a work visa, I got a job with Sodexo. My first role was as a food service assistant. . As you can imagine, I had 12 months full of strange ‘firsts’, but I got to fall in love with this country, its people and its food through my work.  

    Moving to management 

    My team serves about 150 police officers and staff every day. I make a great fry-up in the mornings, with soda bread and potato cakes, and of course, we make healthier options too.  

    My title is Chef Manager because my work isn’t only in the kitchen. I manage our cleaning team, handle the money side and I’m responsible for health and safety and staff training too. I took this role in 2016 when I moved to this role, at the end of a different journey.  

    To become a chef, you need NVQ Levels 2 and 3, but educating girls wasn’t a priority where I grew up, and my Maths and English weren’t good enough. I could have stopped there, but Sodexo stepped in. 

    Investing in learning Ejay McDowell

    My manager arranged for a tutor to help me at lunchtime, and they came to my workplace, so I didn’t have to travel. I worked hard, improved my core skills, and in 2012 the company funded me to study for my NVQs so I could become a chef. 

    I feel so lucky to have had this support because I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. Where I grew up, women cooked food in the home and not as a profession. My family also arranged for me to be married at 16, which stopped my education there and then. That’s why I take every opportunity to develop my skills now: it’s a privilege. 

    I have had male and female managers here, and they have always supported me to make the next move. I tell my colleagues that if they work hard and love learning, there are no barriers in their way.  

    Advice for other women 

    If anyone asks me for advice, I say ‘learn’! Whenever you can, however you can. I learnt how to lead people and support my customers by watching how my managers did it before me. It can happen naturally too: reducing food waste is easy when you love chatting to your customers every day and just know how much of a dish you will need.  

    There are all sorts of things you can do to expand your horizons. And if you have a particular problem, just ask. I did, and what a difference it made. Sodexo makes learning really easy and there’s always something you can do.  

    Looking ahead 

    I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and it’s definitely paid me back. That’s why I’m not letting go of that career ladder unless someone drags me away.

    My job gave me time to meet my new husband, who’s from Northern Ireland. It’s given me my car, my house and lots of opportunities to watch football, which is my passion. My son plays professionally here, so if I’m not watching him, I’ll be supporting Chelsea while my husband supports whichever team they’re playing against. Perhaps you can’t have everything… 


    Find out more about gender balance