Ahead of International Women's Day, executive chefs dish on careers in the kitchen

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      Female chefs may still be outnumbered by their male counterparts, but Vancouver is seeing more women take on leading roles in the restaurant industry. With International Women’s Day on March 8, we lift our glass to four who have recently risen to the top rank. Here’s to them.


      Eva Chin

      The executive chef of Royal Dinette moved to Vancouver from her native Hawaii in 2016 (after first visiting the West Coast in 2011) following her training in both Japanese and classical French cuisine in the United States, Japan, and parts of Europe. While living in Hong Kong, she opened a successful New American pop-up called the Lazy Hog. Locally, she worked at Hawksworth and Pidgin prior to joining Royal Dinette.

      A passion for food runs in her family. “My grandparents were farmers and fishermen, and I was blessed with the bounty of the Hawaiian Islands,” Chin says. “I greatly appreciated how food was sourced naturally, and I wanted to pursue the path of working with food at a very young age. I believed that food brought strangers together and that a single bite can change a whole perspective.”

      Although she admits that one of the most frustrating aspects of her industry is work-life balance (when she does have some downtime, she loves reading, being by the water, and “chasing the next great hot pot”), she thrives on the energy she finds herself surrounded by day in, day out.

      “It inspires me to be my best and do my best every second of the day,” she says. “I love the unpredictability of working with nature’s resources, and I love how much I grow and learn about myself and the food I work with every day. The constant evolution and progress of our industry is something I love.”

      Chin describes the food at Royal Dinette as New American farm-to-table fare, while also adding the term vulnerable: “By embracing what our local land has to offer and the limitations that nature brings upon us, we acknowledge that we must cook with vulnerability to push boundaries.”

      If there’s one dish on the current menu that’s especially close to her heart, it’s the Boston brown bread with blond apple butter, shaved apple, and a scoop of butter-tart ice cream, finished with aged balsamic vinegar.

      “This dessert combines all the memories I love about fall and winter, both in America and Canada,” she says. “I went to college in Boston, and for the life of me, I can never shake the vivid memory of my first bite of brown bread. Freshly steamed, the scent of molasses shaking up my every taste bud. Then the countless jars of blond apple butter I’d receive from my roommates and their families—the best apple butter I can ever remember.

      “When I first met my wife, I found out her favourite tart was butter tart. I had never tried one before. When I learned about it, I came to enjoy it more and more, and not only does it represent my love for my wife but also what she reminds me every day—the beauty of Canada and why I am living here right now.”


      DALINA executive chef Simona Bonelli quips that her cooking career began at the age of seven when she started making food with her mom.
      Jeremy Wong

      Simona Bonelli

      Hailing from Terracina, a seaside resort in the south of Italy’s Lazio region, Bonelli is the executive chef at DALINA.

      After working at several Italian restaurants in London, England, Bonelli moved to Canada in 2007, when she was hired to join the Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill in Blue Mountains, Ontario. She helped launch Jamie Oliver’s Toronto restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, before moving to Vancouver in 2016, having been hired by Glowbal Group as executive chef of Italian Kitchen.

      Her love of cooking goes back to childhood. “I grew up making fresh pasta, stocking shelves, and eating a lot of amazing food in my grandparents’ deli,” Bonelli says. “My cooking career started when I was seven years old with my mom, the most intuitive and spontaneous cook I have ever met. Guided by her teaching, I learned that food doesn’t have to be fussy to be satisfying. I found it incredibly satisfying to cook for the people I loved. It was my way to take care of my family.”

      Even having discovered the joy of cooking, Bonelli didn’t plan on being a chef. Languages were another passion; she went to school to become an English and German translator. After finishing university, she went travelling, ultimately ending up in Denver, where a chef friend needed someone with experience in Italian cuisine to help out in his kitchen. “It was a call I didn’t see coming,” she says. “From the moment I stepped into a professional kitchen in 1997, I learned from the people around me. In all honesty, I cannot remember a day spent in the kitchen when I failed to have an opportunity to learn something new. I’m still learning my craft.

      “I learned very quickly that in order to work in a kitchen, five things were a must: energy, work ethic, practice, emotional intelligence, and passion,” she says. “A love of food is not the only passion needed to succeed in the culinary arts. You must have a passion for discovery.”

      There are drawbacks to her career; for instance, few friends want to cook for her, given her kitchen skills. On the plus side, she says being at DALINA has made work-life balance a reality, allowing her time for hobbies like running, cycling, hiking, and yoga.

      “Being active and enjoying the outdoors is very important to me; they keep me balanced and energized,” she says. “Endurance sports give me the physical strength to cope with the physical requirements of my job.

      “As a chef and leader, I make sure I set the tone in the kitchen and make sure that whoever works in my kitchen has a positive and safe workplace,” she adds. “It is important to have a happy kitchen and a constructive environment around you when working long days and always under stress.”

      Among her current favourite creations on Dalina’s seasonally changing menu are the uovo affogato (“creamy, smoky, salty, spicy, crunchy”) and farinata, a traditional and flavourful chickpea pancake that also happens to be vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free.


      La Mezcaleria’s Mariana Gabilondo loves how food has an impact on emotions.

      Mariana Gabilondo

      Gabilondo was 11 when she left her hometown of Mexico City, eventually moving to Montreal, where she trained for four intense years. Wanting to be closer to friends, she came to Vancouver two years ago. Within weeks she started at La Mezcaleria—and never looked back, becoming executive chef in late 2016. She admits she fell into her cooking career inadvertently; her first job was in a kitchen. However, she quickly discovered an aptitude and passion for food and restaurants.

      “I love everything about this job: the late nights and early mornings, the products and combinations, the history and culture behind it all, the effect I can see that food has on people, both physically and mentally,” Gabilondo says. “Most of all, I love the effect that food has on memories and emotions. It’s very personal.”

      Gabilondo is drawn to creative expression both inside and out of the kitchen. Her time away from the restaurant often involves reading, writing, visiting art galleries, and doing her own art projects. Despite not having an abundance of spare time, she remains excited about coming up with new menu items and being part of an establishment where coworkers feel like family.

      “I am incredibly proud of the work that we have done over the last year for Mezcaleria in its essential quality and product,” Gabilondo says. “Being creative, being a good cook, being successful as a chef is amazing, but it all comes in as second fiddle to the real enjoyment of being with my staff and working as a team with them. They are the life and breath of what we do every day. They are the element of energy that never stops flowing around me. They are what I am really grateful for every day.”


      Di Beppe executive chef Letitia Wan mostly learned her skills on the job.

      Letitia Wan

      Wan, executive chef at Di Beppe, moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong when she was 12.

      “I’ve always liked working with my hands,” Wan says. “The most memorable part of travelling as a child were the food memories. Food is a strong part of Cantonese and Hong Kong culture. My mother encouraged me to enroll in a culinary course without thinking I would actually be committed to it long-term.” 
Formerly of Ask for Luigi, where she was chef de cuisine, she took a pastry course a few years ago but has otherwise learned on the job. Wan, who enjoys flipping through cookbooks and foraging for mushrooms and wild plants, says there is nothing she does not love about her job. “There are always hiccups and hurdles, but figuring out a solution is just part of the day.”

      She has created the entire menu at Di Beppe. It includes antipasti, such as bruschetta and beef carpaccio, and pizza “in pala/al metro”. “Pala means ‘shovel’,” Wan explains. “Supposedly, pizza was shaped on whatever was available, in this case a shovel, and then baked. In pizza terms, it’s a fluffier version that is twice-baked. Ours is not twice-baked but is fluffy, and the name refers to the oblong-rectangular shape rather than the traditional round pizzas. Al metro refers to metre; roughly, ours is three-quarters of a metre.” Then there are pasta dishes, including alici e burro (with Sicilian anchovies, butter, and bread crumbs) and oven-baked pizzoccheri (a flat ribbon pasta) with Brussels sprouts and fontina Val d’Aosta.

      “There’s a lot of thought that went into everything on the menu,” Wan says. “There isn’t an item that I wouldn’t be proud of.”