Case study - CJ Jackson, Billingsgate Seafood School

If you were to ask a person to describe CJ Jackson to you, it is highly likely that the words 'powerhouse' or 'dynamic' would be used. As the CEO of the Billingsgate Seafood School since 2005; previous vice-principal of Leith's School of Food and Wine;  author of the Leith's Fish Bible and Billingsgate Market Cookbook; not to mention a guest on numerous television programmes; CJ has been a tireless face of cooking seafood.
Photo of CJ Jackson

CJ - her actual name is a closely guarded secret - was brought up on a largely self-sufficient farm, and family holidays meant  fishing trips to Scotland and hours spent on the River Findhorn waiting for 'the boys' to catch trout and salmon. "I remember gutting and cooking my first salmon at 8, and a passion for cooking fish and shellfish developed from there."

CJ trained as a chef, and went onto teach and travel the globe, before joining the staff at the prestigious Leith's School of Food and Wine in 1989. "Each teacher was encouraged to have a 'specialist' subject and mine automatically became fish and seafood, so I put a proposal forward to co-author the Leith's Fish Bible". In 1995, CJ became the vice-principals of Leith's, before moving onto product development for M&S, and further cookery writing.

Whilst her love of seafood started early, CJ didn't enter the seafood industry until 2005 when she became CEO of the Billingsgate Seafood School, part of Billingsgate Seafood Market and the largest inland fish market in the UK. The market is predominantly staffed by male merchants, with a handful of women working as sales people and businesses. "When I first arrived many of the merchants were very dismissive of me - although not overly rude."

"When I asked where product came from, the merchants favourite line was 'from the seaside' - and some wouldn't speak to me at all."

CJ persevered, and resolved to get out onto the market as much as possible to prove her knowledge. "I don't have a sales or buying back ground - but I have a very extensive knowledge of the product and that was accepted". It still took her around 2 - 3 years to gain respect, much of which came from her visible success with developing the Seafood School, and in bringing in visitors to the market floor. "I now have some very close and valuable friendships down there and I consider myself as 'one of the boys'!"

Her career has not been without its challenges however - the recession has bought many changes to the way merchants do business. "When I first arrived there were very few merchants that were keen to break boxes and sell smaller quantities - many now see Saturday as the 'public day' and sell accordingly." 

For CJ however, it's easy to keep herself motivated in the face of adversity. "There is always a new group of people wanting to learn about the market and although we show similar things daily - it is usually to a new appreciative audience. In my role I love market mornings - even after 10 years at the school."

"I am still thrilled by a box of 'stiff alive' fish - mackerel, sprats, tilapia, etc.  I also enjoy being around people who also love seeing fresh product that show cases our industry. There are very few environments where you can turn up at 5.30 in the morning and be greeted warmly by lots of people and offered a cup of tea - it is like a town at the market - everyone knows everyone else and it's a close knit community."

We asked CJ some questions about women in the seafood industry, and her experiences throughout her career.

  1. Do you know of any other women who work in a similar role to you? Do you think there is a reason for this?
    There aren't many seafood schools around - although Roberta Muir principal of the Sydney Seafood School at Sydney market is a close friend. There aren't many women here - and this is partly to do with the hours the market operates (not conducive to family life!) Although I do spend much time promoting and planning in the office - I also have to roll up my sleeves and take part in lots of areas of the school - which is very manual - and I think that may challenge some women. I deliver many courses at the school and teach cutting and cooking fish. There are quite a few successful women fishmongers running businesses around the UK.
  2. Did you ever have any doubts or fears about entering this industry? Do you feel it is an industry that is adaptable and open to change?
    Privately - I was concerned about working in such a male dominated environment - but I wouldn't change that for the world now. I think some areas may be slow to adapt and change. There is still some resistance to women working in the industry - and certainly I have found some poor attitudes to women - some would still consider it unlucky to have a woman on board a fishing vessel as an example.
  3. What are the biggest challenges of working in the seafood industry from a personal and professional point of view?
    As a woman and a mum - the hours have been challenging, but I have worked a way forward with my husband and we share responsibility for our son - who is partially disabled. I am the key breadwinner in our house.
    From a professional point of view - it still can be challenging being a woman, but I have learnt how to deal with this - certainly at Billingsgate, but I still have to stay one step ahead.
  4. What advice would you have for women who were thinking of a career in this industry?
    Be able to embrace all the challenges that arise daily. Know or learn how to work alongside men.  I like working with men - they are usually much less complicated, never take offence and work hard to gain respect.
  5. In reference to the furore surrounding the term 'fishermen' - do you think we need a gender-neutral term for fishermen?
    Well - it depends how many women are actually on board a boat. I am proud to be a 'liveryman' at fishmonger's company -although I call myself a 'lady fishmonger' - the term liveryman still stands. I don't have any issues about the term fisherman - It should be gender neutral and 'man' is the nearest thing we've had to neutral.

Author and CEO of Billingsgate Seafood School