From Mile End to Masterchef: Terri Mercieca’s fight for equality
Terri Mercieca on nana’s home cooking, comfort eating, and making the culinary world a better place for the LGBT+ community.
Nestled under the railway arches on Burdett road in Mile End you will find Happy Endings Ice Cream. The rhythmic hum from passing trains above is a reassuring sound to the East End shop owners below, who belong to a tight-knit sanctuary away from the rush of commuters. Mercieca’s shop stands alongside a Chinese restaurant, two East End mechanics, a screen printer, and other local spots that epitomise the area’s diversity.
Happy Endings’ owner, Terri Mercieca, speaks openly about her past and the bumpy road to success, both professionally and personally. A chef’s apprentice in Australia for twelve years, Mercieca was immediately assigned to the pastry section, an area most common for beginners and women. Instead of seeing this as an inferior station, she has since made pastry her area of expertise to create desserts that reflect her skill and passion.
Mercieca, who lives in Whitechapel, was a guest judge on episode eight of Masterchef UK which aired on 16 January 2023. While grateful for her inclusion on mainstream television and the boon to female and LGBT+ visibility in the industry, she hopes it will raise awareness about the inclusive values of her business.
She said: ‘Being on British TV was really good, this will help us do better and help other people understand what we’re doing. Maybe it’s a slow burn, the jury’s out on what that will do for us.’
Experiences of harassment at work, as well as insecurity around her sexuality in childhood, have determined her outlook as a chef and business owner.
‘There was one job in the last ten years where I was made to feel really uncomfortable. My boss made it my issue to deal with and I thought – you’re not addressing it because you feel uncomfortable,’ she said.
Instead of being discouraged by this threatening behaviour, Mercieca decided she would do better as a leader in her own kitchen. She implemented a company manifesto that includes a zero-tolerance approach towards intimidation and harassment.
On sexual harassment in the workplace she said, ‘I would absolutely do something straight away – call the person who was doing it out, see what the issues were and see that the person who was on the receiving end was in a safe place.’
Mercieca once booted out a customer who was ‘cracking on’ with a staff member. Her approach is indicative of a woman who has had tough moments in the industry and does not want the same for her peers.
In difficult moments we all have our crutch, something we reach for, whether that is a quiet place for reflection such as Victoria Park, or a favourite food. For Mercieca, it is her Italian grandma’s home cooking, recalling those delicious aromas that could be smelled before even entering her house. Although her surname is of Maltese origins, Italian is the second language of the tiny island nation and forms a crucial part of Mercieca’s childhood.
‘My comfort foods are biscuits or pasta, but particularly my nana’s pasta sauce,’ she said. ‘I’m a massive comfort eater – food has been a really safe place for me. I have an association with my grandma, so if I’m sad or stressed I go for that.’
Eating well has fond associations with her nana’s home cooking that sewed the seeds of her career. But comfort eating is a habit she qualifies as ‘not ideal’, but one she shares with many of us.
When asked about her relationship with her parents, Mercieca’s exuberance fades a bit: ‘My upbringing was a bit challenging, but I remember that we used to go for ice creams and that was an early memory for me and my mum,’ she said.
Making ice creams is now her livelihood and her business does not stand still. In a commercial world with culinary schools still dominated by white men, Mercieca is proud to be a woman LGBT+ boss, a feat she would have never imagined nor understood in childhood.
‘I didn’t have a clue about homosexuality and how to go about it,’ she said. ‘My first week in a kitchen I worked with a chef who had a bisexual partner – I was fascinated and in awe about it,’ she said.
Since then, Mercieca has developed a strong sense of identity and set of values she wants to instil at work. In a world where LGBT+ people still face discrimination, Mercieca feels the need to protect those around her from harm.
Two years after a homophobic murder in Tower Hamlets Cemetary Park in 2021, Mercieca is diligent about protecting her colleagues. She said there was a definite worry about the safety of queer men in her team, but that the community under the arches is very accepting.
‘I haven’t really felt unsafe holding my girlfriend’s hand,’ she said. ‘I have had moments as a woman where I thought I have to cross to road because someone was walking too close, but I’ve rarely had problems in East London.
‘I talk about my girlfriend with the mechanics and they don’t give a sh*t, they’ve got other things to think about than me and my relationship. I doubt they think about much else than about us giving them ice cream.’
The most recent hurdle for Mercieca’s and her business was covid. Lockdowns struck just after her girlfriend broke her leg while bouldering at a time when Happy Endings were struggling to pay their bills.
At this point in the interview, Mercieca started playing Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But the Rent’, an apt song to summarise the problems many of us faced during covid, and are still struggling with now in the cost-of-living crisis.
‘Seriously everyone deserves to pay their rent, really, to feel safe at work and to be able to pay your way is just a basic right,’ she said.
Having hustled to secure four months free rent during covid and bagged a government grant to see Happy Endings through, Mercieca hopes a 2022 shrouded in uncertainty has cleared the path for a brighter 2023 and will offer a just reward for her resilience.
‘We feel all of the pain, but we know that people will support us. As ever, I will go with the community and the people who are with me,’ she said.
Life’s hardships come and go, but Mercieca’s East End community under the arches know they can rely on her delicious ice creams to weather the storm.
Happy Endings Ice Cream can be found at Arch 437 Burdett Rd, E3 4AT and their website is happyendingsldn.com
For another of our articles about local voices, read about Safia Jama’s rise from Bow comprehensive to MBE.
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