Women of Sheffield Awards: Inspirational nominee overcomes trauma and hardship to start successful catering business in city

An abuse survivor who used her love for cooking to help her cope through her harsh childhood, before making it into her career, is one of the proud nominees of this year’s Women of Sheffield awards.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 4:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 3:34 pm

Paulian Francis was born in a town called Bo in Sierra Leone until the age of twelve when her family fled from the Civil War to the UK.

As a child, Paulina was the victim of abuse and mistreatment, and turned to cooking and the kitchen environment where she found an escape from her harsh reality.

She said: “As an African girl it was compulsory to learn how to cook from an early age and so I began cooking at the age of nine. I am the second of three siblings within a large extended family. I was the only child that took an interest in cooking.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Paulina Francis posing for the camera in the Kitchen

“Cooking was an escape for me, my coping mechanism and a place for me to de-stress. There was a lot going on at home and cooking for me, it was a way to feel alive,” she said.

During her adolescence, she would watch her grandmother cook, and this helped her to learn about different techniques and styles of cooking.

Paulina and her family fled the conflict of the civil war in Sierra Leone when she was just 12-years-old, through which she lost a number of family members, including her grandmother.

After coming to the United Kingdom, Paulina and her family arrived in London at first as refugees, before eventually settling in Sheffield.

During her years in Sheffield, Paulina moved from one hostel to another because she struggled with her relationship with her Mum.

She says the hostels were not safe, and that her safety was at risk while she stayed there.

“I tried several times to take my own life because I thought this is what I deserved as from childhood...I used to get beaten up several times - nearly every day. Sometimes for no reason.

“So every time I felt alone and suicidal I would go into the kitchen and cook something. I would continuously do research and ask questions about food and how it was prepared, cooked and originated from. I would pay attention to details such as what seasonings were used and think about ways in which I could improve the recipe. Also, I had the privilege of having the opportunity to visit different restaurants to taste and learn about foods from different cultures,” Paulina added.

Paulina’s life didn’t get any easier after this as she found herself in another abusive relationship with a partner who physically abused her and attacked her twice. But she survived this too and came out of it stronger.

She opened her catering business, Blessone’s Kitchen in July 2016 as a way to provide for her family, continue her passion for cooking and to share her African and Caribbean dishes with others.

“The name Blessone's Kitchen came about after I started referring to myself as 'Blessone’s. I changed my name on Facebook and the name stuck. I see myself as a survivor and recognise the fact that I am extremely blessed to be where I am today. Throughout all the chaos in myself I was given another opportunity to take part in a cooking competition show on ITV called Chopping Block where I was awarded second place but to me, it felt like first place. I also did the BBC Sheffield radio cooking show as well as several other events in and around Sheffield.”

She said that she is known in Sheffield for her cooking and has made a name for herself online. Today, Paulina is a nominee for the Women of Steel Award, for the Kathleen Roberts Award for Grit and says she been nominated by her friends who follow her online.

“I’m known in Sheffield for my cooking and I get a lot of messages from people asking for advice on their cooking skills so I heard about the awards through Facebook. Because I do food, I found out about it through people inboxing me. Friends online, customers and some really nice people that I don’t know but who’ve tried my food from festivals.

When asked how she felt about being nominated for this Sheffield Award, she said: “I wasn’t expecting to be nominated. Wasn’t expecting it at all. Doing what I do and showcasing it, it’s not for how some people say: ‘for the likes’. It has a deeper meaning than that.” She said.

Paulina has also started working towards her NVQ Level 3 advanced professional cookery course at Sheffield College, city campus.

“College is going well. Having a business and raising children at the same time is hard but really rewarding. Before starting my business I struggled a lot with my mental health and it’s really helped me.” She said.

“In the future I would like a community place where people can come to be encouraged and develop their cooking skills. Somewhere people can come to learn to cook. Something fun for kids that find it hard to work academically - that would prefer to learn vocationally and for adults to come too. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop, to be honest,” Paulina said.

We are still accepting nominees for the Women of Sheffield awards.

Deadline for entries is Friday, February 8, at 6pm - all entries via the website at www.womenofsheffield.co.uk/