• Fully Booked's events have included a dinner cooked by Christine Manfield and Thi Le at Anchovy, in Melbourne. (Atlanta Bell)
Working in a food business can mean long hours and not much time for seeing friends. These dinners and trips aim to help women build a community together.
Hilary McNevin

3 Mar 2017 - 12:16 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2017 - 12:32 PM

The call out for International Women's Day 2017, held every year on March 8, is to #BeBoldForChange.

This year, the initiative urges women to “call on the masses or call on yourself to help forge a better working world - a more gender inclusive world”. She may not see it as a bold move, but Melbourne-based events organiser Sharlee Gibb called on herself over a year ago to forge a community that focuses on helping women in the food and drink industries.

Fully Booked is built around the idea of connecting women who work in the food and wine industries, which are often physically taxing and exhausting businesses. Hours are long and getting together socially can be difficult, but Fully Booked addresses this by having events with loads of notice featuring a different female chef, producer or winemaker as the focal point of each get together.

Gibb had been tossing around the idea of creating a way to connect women in the hospitality community after attending the Do Lectures in 2014. “I wanted to be a do-er, create a community, make social change and encourage like-minded women to connect.”  She took about 18 months rolling the idea around and brainstorming with friends before Fully Booked was launched.

The name is a nod to the hospitality industry where the term fully booked refers to a packed dining room. Gibb entered the hospitality industry as a young adult, deferring after first year of university in Brisbane to move to the Whitsundays. “I loved the people I worked with, the close-knit group you became, I became interested in dining out and never looked back. These days my interest lies more in the food side of things rather than the restaurant side of hospitality, as I love that food connects people. And that is what Fully Booked is about, connecting women.”

After her move to Melbourne, Gibb spent time with the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival as a program manager. While she didn’t know for sure how Fully Booked would be received, her time with the Festival allowed her to see that there was room in the market for such a community.

“The gap I saw was that there were too little opportunities for women to be the talent at events, festivals, classes and chef collaboration dinners. I wanted to make those opportunities happen and for women to be profiled so that more people could know about them and other invitations could come their way.”

The first Fully Booked event was in October 2015 and featured chef Jo Barrett, currently co-chef at Oakridge Estate in the Yarra Valley. It was a sell-out and every event Gibb has created since has been, you guessed it, fully booked. 

“The response has been fantastic and the community continues to grow. We have community all throughout Australia and internationally,” says Gibb.

While the response to the events has been positive, Gibb says she can’t say for sure if it’s helping the industry directly, but she sees signs of growing gender awareness. “I can't comment on how life is for women in hospitality as I am not working in restaurants and kitchens anymore. Regardless of your sex, it [hospitality work] is a tough gig, long days, unsociable hours, not family friendly. I believe there are still kitchens that don't value female staff but the tide is slowly changing. And I think women are looking for environments that they can feel supported and nurtured by the team.”

The desire to create strong female connections in the industry is international and Gibb is insprired by other women’s groups around the globe and at home. She says, “Internationally there is the yearly conference Parabere Forum run by Maria Canabel, in its third year and being held in Barcelona in March it focuses on women speakers and gives opportunities for social enterprises to tell their story.” She’s also a fan of Cherry Bombe, a US-based food magazine focussed on women in food.  “They have a yearly conference called Jubilee and had Martha Stewart talking at it last year among many other amazing women,” she says. “My goal would be to run a conference on this nature for Fully Booked.”

And, she speaks of other local heroes, both Sydney-based. “Women in Hospitality is a not-for-profit organisation set up by Julia Campbell who was part of a similar group when she worked in the States. It will be a membership-based group and they plan to roll out events in all states. And Females in Food, also a membership-based organisation that helps women build and grow their food businesses.”

Fully Booked’s upcoming events include a story-telling event called Tales of Food Writers and Travellers in early April and a fermenting workshop in May.

Food is also a theme at many International Women’s Day events in Australia, with breakfasts, morning teas, lunches and dinners being held across Australia, along with events ranging from a women’s basketball game to music and art events.

Women to watch
Bold women take the lead on International Women’s Day
Watch six films to celebrate International Women’s Day on SBS On Demand.