Lunching with Sylvia Jay, the director general of the Food & Drink Federation, must be a little like dining with the Queen. She's gracious and charming with perfect table manners (showing a particular ability to elegantly remove stones from olives) and professes an ignorance of TV programmes and certain celebrities. Well-groomed with dark polished nails, she is the perfect host, politely showing an interest in her guest. She has also travelled extensively and manages to fit in good works with those less fortunate in society. However, Jay is also a sharp, experienced businesswoman with a cosmopolitan career whose cv groans with the weight of top-level civil service experience. Postings include policy advisor to the head of the British Council in India, political director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and clerk to the House of Lords committee on European Union economic and financial affairs. As the first of her Lancastrian family to go to university she admits that her meteoric academic rise was unusual but is disarmingly modest about her achievements. She came joint top of the civil service exams for fast stream administrators in 1971 ­ "it wasn't a particularly distinctive year" ­ and was keen to find a worthwhile role. "I felt I wanted to do something helping society because society had helped me a great deal. In those days, if you were lucky enough to pass exams your education was free ­ I went from bottom to top without my parents paying anything." This compassion took her into the Overseas Development Agency (now Department for International Development) to work on the Falklands' recovery programme after the war, and to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development which lends money to Eastern European countries. By her own admission, marrying her diplomat husband Michael (who is the new permanent under secretary of state at the Foreign Office and head of diplomatic service) gave her a more varied life and she gave up her job to move to Paris when he became the British ambassador there in 1996. The task of entertaining up to 14,000 guests a year at the embassy fell to her and although Jay obviously didn't cook in the industrial kitchens, she used the opportunity to promote British food and drink. She is especially proud of introducing French diners to soft British cheeses. "Food opens so many conversations into economics, business, tourism and regions." When she has time, Jay finds cooking relaxing and still prefers to give guests British ingredients, or at least use British recipes. She also likes to stay in tune with the country and its climate and tries to buy seasonal produce. She admires the range of chilled, fresh and organic ranges found in British supermarkets and believes they do a good job of promoting British food. But Indian food is still her big love. "I came away from living in India thinking, I have encountered one of the world's greatest cuisines', and I still do. But I think our ethnic food market here is so exciting and varied too." Jay does cook Indian food, and admits to occasionally cheating. "The range of manufactured goods are so good that if you add a few fresh herbs you're there." Four years spent living on the other side of the Channel gave her "pretty fluent French" which she keeps polished as a non-executive director of French firm Saint Gobain and half a stone of excess weight that she still can't shift - surprising considering her slender frame. When her husband prepared to return home, Jay considered doing voluntary work rather than a full-time career. But an unsuccessful interview with a charitable group (which later employed her on a part-time basis) fired Jay's ambition again and she successfully applied to become head of the FDF in January 2001. During the past year, Jay has worked hard to keep the organisation's profile high at key events ­ although she has doubts that she is sufficiently well known. "I like the industry," she insists. "You meet a lot of nice people as well as extraordinarily competent people." Her praise extends to FDF president Peter Blackburn whom she labels "a remarkable man with a vision for the industry". She has also worked hard to make the organisation more coherent, has begun regular meetings with staff and encourages employees to make presentations about their work over lunch. She aims to have a "happy, motivated organisation where it's fun to work and do your best" and, as part of this, the Covent Garden offices are being refurbished. In spite of industry-wide mutterings of discontent, Jay is upbeat about the potential influence of a group such as the FDF. She believes the government listens to its views generally, and more specifically at the monthly meetings they hold with Defra officials. "This organisation is so important, and you need to help government understand some of the difficulties the manufacturers face. The message I'm getting is that they are listening." The new DEFRA Visits programme, which links Defra officials with food manufacturers, is another initiative for which she has high hopes. Her appointment coincided with growing demand for a caring, sharing food chain, a view of inclusivity which she is keen to cultivate through the FDF's Food Chain group, which includes the NFU, British Retail Consortium and IGD. It works to find views in common to all the food chain, which Jay believes will become more important in the future because, "if one bit of the food chain goes wrong, it tars the rest of us". Jay says supermarkets play a key role. "They are viewed by the consumer as doing a very good job for them, on the whole, which is why it's so important that we work with them on policies and on dealing with governmental issues." However, she's realistic about the pinch being felt in the manufacturing industry and aims to streamline the FDF and ensure it's doing what members want. "Times are quite tough.There has been concern about the structure of representation in the food manufacturing industry, with many groups paying into associations but asking if it was sensible at a time of belt-tightening. We're now putting options forward to the FDF council to be more transparent, so people know what they're buying. I hope there'll be an agreement in the spring so we can start marketing the FDF as good value for money." In this way, Jay hopes to attract more members and make the group more exciting and valuable. "I see it doing different things in the future, but we're not quite there yet." Plans for the future include the possibility of setting up vegetarian or ethnic food groups and to continue working hard with the FSA. Jay also has a personal mission: "I want to be open and inclusive. I don't think we've anything to hide, which is why we have a statement of principles that I'd like to develop further. It is also the reason we have regular meetings with consumer groups. If I thought there was something to hide, I don't think I could do this job." This ethical stance extends into the extra-curricular activities that Jay finds time to undertake. It would be cruel to liken her to some latter-day character in a Victorian novel with a penchant for doing good deeds, but she herself admits to having historical inspiration. "When I was a girl I read a book of heroines, one of which was Elizabeth Fry, a pioneering prison reformer of the 18th century, and she captured my imagination." As a consequence she has been a member of the Board of Visitors for Wandsworth Prison and a prison visitor in Britain and France. Jay's work has led her to believe that the line that separates those who live within the law and those who end up in prison is, in certain circumstances a thin one, and she finds the workings of justice in society fascinating. She admits to one scary moment as a prison visitor when the inmate's behaviour was "at the edge". Often their life stories are harrowing and consequently, so are the visits. But she's self-effacing about her voluntary work in the field. "I don't think I'm particularly tough ­ there's a lot of voluntary work people do that I just couldn't." Jay is also a lay member of the procedures and disciplinary committee of the Bar Council ­ a self-regulatory body for barristers; a trustee of the Pilgrim Trust, which supports deserving projects, and the Entente Cordiale Scholarships scheme, to promote higher education and exchanges between the UK and France. Jay has had little free time over the past year but hopes that when her husband Michael settles into his new job life will resume a regular pattern. At home in Chelsea it's obvious she doesn't spend much time watching the box­ for example she's unaware of the BBC favourite, Have I Got News For You, and its host Angus Deayton. Yet she is just a little disparaging of her chosen pastimes. "I sound like a woman's magazine, but I like cooking, reading, sewing, walking and opera." The Royal Opera House, within strolling distance of the office, obviously comes in handy. But the pressures of work rarely leave time for indolence and she doesn't suffer from boredom. "I envy people who can coast, but you are what you are. I've always set myself challenges." n {{PROFILE }}