International Women's Day: Vancouver’s female chefs and bartenders in their own words
On International Women’s Day, we can celebrate so many fierce, talented women who work in Metro Vancouver’s dining scene. Here, some of the region’s leading female chefs and bartenders share, in their own words, thoughts on working in male-dominated industries and what fuels their professional passion.
Bar manager, the Keefer Bar
I was originally drawn to the restaurant/bar industry as a way to make some money through university. I approached bartending with the same spirit to learn and intensity to do well as I did with school. I enjoyed the social aspect, the novelty of each day, and the culture within the community. From my experience, it is a very supportive industry.
There are the usual challenges, like people asking: “Can you have that guy make my drink?”, pointing at my male counterpart, or “What’s your real job?”, although I think that happens to both genders.
What’s needed is the abolishment of tolerance of sexual harassment or assault. I’ve witnessed many talented, up-and-coming women leave the industry after having been harassed. It’s so tragic and limits the future growth of our industry. We have a strict zero-tolerance policy for harassment at my bar, whether it be from staff or guests. Staff deserve to feel at ease and comfortable at work; it should never be something that they have to fear or anticipate.
Bar manager, Elisa Wood-Fired Grill
As a child, there was always something magical about going to restaurants. I loved the experience, from watching the servers floating through the room to the bartenders dancing behind the bar. Coming from a large family that took time to celebrate all things together, I try to extend the same hospitality that I grew up with at the bar.
Cocktails gave me a creative outlet. I began to tell stories with cocktails; every ingredient meant something special to the drink.
We all still get the “I’ll wait for the bartender” comment once in a while. However, when I started out in the industry, it took a lot of perseverance before I was actually allowed to bartend. Common remarks included being told I would not be good enough, I would just get in the way, or that it’s just too hard. Partly due to my competitive spirit, I think this lit a fire in me to keep pushing and to continue doing what I wanted to do for myself, and I’m so thankful that I did.
The industry still needs to establish the right to work in an environment that is free from any form of harassment and discrimination. There’s no grey area: it’s black-and-white. People, not just women, should all be treated with respect, always.
Bartender and assistant general manager, Joseph Richard Group
I was naturally drawn to the bar-and-restaurant industry because of its ability to constantly change and grow and give you endless opportunity to do the same. I love meeting new people every day and building relationships with staff and guests.
Despite continued progress toward gender equality in the industry, we continue to face challenges as women. A specific example is the issue of dress code. The more businesses that allow women to wear pants and flat shoes, the more they will flourish.
Challenging the status quo and shifting towards a workplace based on equality for both genders will help drive positive change.
The biggest way we can continue to make progress is to encourage an ongoing dialogue around gender equality. It’s important that we never forget the importance of our most valued asset: our people. Ensuring both men and women are given equal opportunity will help them feel valued and motivated to continue in the industry.
Chef and co-owner, DownLow Chicken Shack
I had been around food my whole life, with my mom being a trained Red Seal chef and my husband and partner, Doug Stephen, being executive chef and owner of Merchant’s Workshop. I worked as the general manager there when I made the move to back-of-house.
It’s insanely tough to own and work in a restaurant, but there is something so pure and prideful in preparing food. The thrill is still there: to give the experience and the food that will make people want to come back, remember, and recommend you.
I do feel like the back of house challenged me more than I’ve ever been. Every dish you prepare and send out to the guest is on you, as chef de cuisine, and that’s a ton of pressure, whether man or woman.
In general, women are still having to rise so far above the bar in so many industries, but in the kitchen you have to clear way above that bar, have a thick skin, and be ready to work 10- to 16-hour days. It’s the hardest career I’ve ever had, and I worked in film before.…I guess I have an attraction to male-dominated industries.
Like any male-dominated industry, there are roots in gender norms, and there needs to be a cultural shift. The irony of a woman traditionally being seen as a homemaker in the kitchen but isn’t seen with the same respect or clout as a male in a professional-kitchen setting is silly.
I do think that shift is already being seen; you have a lot of badass women chefs, restaurant owners, and so on killing the game, winning top accolades around the world. That’s a massive step in the right direction, with many steps to go.
Chef and co-owner, Cacao
I grew up in a beautiful and loving Mexican family, full of values, culture, and love for cooking. My childhood was spent between my grandmother, mom, and aunts in the kitchen. Every aroma, every flavour, every sauce reminds me of some beautiful moment of my life. Cacao is the extension of my own family and home.
One of the biggest challenges I faced when I came to Vancouver three years ago was being recently widowed with my four children. It was all new to me, so different, and I didn’t speak good English.
It was a very difficult time, and I had to face my biggest fears. But I lived through it and I’m still smiling, cooking, and dancing salsa in the kitchen. Slowly, I got to meet the right people here, people who support me, who have big hearts and are wonderful human beings. doesn't
Even though I had a cooking show in Mexico for 15 years and a radio show about cooking and I wrote two cookbooks, I actually had little experience as a restaurant owner until I moved to Vancouver. I’m still learning. What I have seen is that it is a medium dominated by men, both in culinary art and business.
I believe that we, who dedicate ourselves to this industry, do it for the love and passion that we have in our soul; it’s something that comes from our heart. If competition makes us better at what we do, it’s “blessed competition”, but if it divides us, it can make us forget our love and passion for cooking. It’s much better if we embrace each other.
Chef de cuisine, Tableau Bar Bistro
I always loved to cook as a child and have always loved to eat well. My mother was an amazing cook and taught me when I was very young.
I love everything about my job: having the privilege of working with beautiful product; the ambiance of the kitchen; and being creative.
I was just coming into the industry when things started to change. Kitchens have always had the reputation of being very macho and hard, brutal places to work, but now things are very equal. Some kitchen brigades I have worked in have actually had more women than men.
I try to run a positive, supportive kitchen team. I have had friends who have left the industry reluctantly to start a family. I don’t think that we can ever change the hours and the nature of working in the restaurant business. The times we are needed the most are evenings and weekends.
Pastry chef, Minami Restaurant
My parents love cooking, baking, and eating, so I grew up in an environment with delicious home-cooked and dine-out meals. I love that I’m able to be creative with my desserts by combining my knowledge of Asian and western flavours and expressing them on a blank canvas.
I am about to go on maternity leave, and being pregnant has to be one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a woman in the restaurant industry. It is not easy to grow a human and work in the kitchen for long hours, and it is also definitely not easy to take a break from something that I love so dearly.
I believe the culinary industry evaluates men and women equally in their culinary careers. More often the question of advancement is a choice between prioritizing one’s personal or professional life, as long hours and working throughout weekends dominate our careers.More