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 for the last 20 years delivering a large programme of courses for chefs, caterers, catering students and members of the public, and now running Kent Seafood; 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.
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.