Yes Shef! long-table dinner aims to empower women in Vancouver's world of food and wine

The evening at Chambar Restaurant features some of the city's leading female chefs and sommeliers

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      Joanna Jagger has taken on practically every role in the hospitality sector, starting as a cook at the White Rock Keg. She wore whites for six years, then worked as a bartender, server, host, and even oyster shucker before moving into HR. The mom of two also completed a master’s degree in leadership. During her studies, she couldn’t help but scrutinize her own industry, and a disheartening fact hit her: there’s a massive gap within it when it comes to women trying to move up into leadership positions.

      Now, Jagger is advocating for and empowering women in the field. One way she’s elevating women in food and wine is by spearheading an upcoming long-table fundraising dinner called Yes Shef!, which will feature some of Vancouver’s leading female chefs and sommeliers along with a handful of up-and-coming female culinary talents.

      “Four out of five companies in the S & P 500 are dedicated and devoted to moving gender equity to their top priority, yet my own personal experience and research showed that the hospitality industry is lagging way behind,” Jagger says in a phone interview. “I was kind of my own textbook case study of somebody who accelerated through the ranks, then having a family changed my perspective. I found it really tough to figure out a balance and continue on in a demanding industry with really crazy hours and antiquated expectations.”

      Joanna Jagger, who has worked as a cook, oyster shucker, host, and bartender, started WORTH Association to address the gender gap in the hospitality, tourism, and recreation sectors.
      WORTH Association.

      While on maternity leave with her second child last May, Jagger, who is an instructor in Capilano University’s school of tourism and outdoor recreation, came up with the idea to bring together women in the local hospitality sector—“the Beyoncés of our business”—to have a panel discussion about leadership. Response was overwhelming; she had 50 people on the wait list.

      “I recognized this hunger,” Jagger says. “We had never had this focus from an industry perspective. With all the conversations around getting more women into leadership roles and moving that dial, we didn’t have any outlet for women in our own industry.

      “If you ask any chef the origins of their love of food, a lot of them attribute it to their mothers,” she adds. “It’s often their mother, grandmother, or auntie. Yet we celebrate the Gordon Ramsays. We celebrate a lot of men. We’re not putting the spotlight as much on some of the women.”

      To connect women in the local industry and address the gender gap, Jagger founded the WORTH Association (women of recreation, tourism, and hospitality). Its goal is threefold: to “educate, elevate, and empower”.

      The need for the group is clear. According to research the association conducted in partnership with Tourism HR Canada using census data, women earn 12 percent less than men for equal jobs in restaurant management.

      Only 17 percent of culinary leadership roles in Vancouver are held by women. The percentage of women who own and operate their own restaurants is even lower.

      “It’s about listening to women who have reached the pinnacle of their careers and helping young women break into the industry,” Jagger says of WORTH. “Let’s light a fire, show women the opportunities and the leadership goals that they can meet in an aspirational way.”

      The Yes Shef! dinner came about following discussions Jagger had with Tia Kambas, director of operations and former executive chef at Chambar Restaurant.

      Kambas got into the restaurant industry because, as she puts it, she was not doing well in the traditional schooling system. She left in Grade 9. Her dad told her if she wasn’t going to go to school, she would have to work. She saw a sign in a window for a job as a dishwasher and took it. There, Kambas met Nico Schuermans, who went on to open Chambar Restaurant with his partner, Karri Green-Schuermans.

      When Kambas was 16, he asked if she wanted to be his apprentice. She worked her way up from dishwasher to pastry chef to junior sous-chef, sous-chef, then, ultimately, executive chef before taking on the role of director of ops.

      “I learn well with my hands,” Kambas says. “Once I get it, I get it forever. It felt like the right fit. Food is me.

      “As a chef, what I love most is having a team and having an exceptional service and being proud of everything you’re putting up,” she says. “It’s a sense of accomplishment.”

      Kambas approached Jagger with the idea of holding a long-table dinner to raise funds for culinary scholarships and mentorship for women in the field of food and wine.

      “My main goal is to build community,” Kambas says. “There isn’t really anything for females in the industry, a home base or a hub. When I went to culinary school, I was one of six [women] in a class of 30. Maybe it was a man’s world, but it definitely doesn’t need to be.”

      Yes Shef!, taking place at Chambar, will see a stellar lineup of women—five chefs, five sommeliers, and five culinary students from Vancouver Community College—who will join forces for one of the most significant Vancouver dining events of the year. Each student is teaming up with a chef and sommelier, and together they will create a dish with a wine pairing.

      La Mezcaleria executive chef Mariana Gabilondo, who oversees both locations as director of operations as well, will be among five female chefs cooking at the Yes Shef! long-table dinner at Chambar Restaurant.
      Gail Johnson.

      Joining Kambas in the kitchen are: Andrea Carlson, executive chef and owner of Burdock & Co. and Harvest Community Foods; Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner of Vij’s and Rangoli; Mariana Gabilondo, executive chef and director of operations of La Mezcaleria; and Eleanor Chow Waterfall, who owns Cadeaux Bakery.

      For sommeliers, there’s Jill Spoor of Fairmont Pacific Rim; Café Medina’s Jenna Briscoe; Wildebeest’s Christina Hartigan; Kelcie Jones of Chambar; and Maude Renaud-Brisson. Sommelier and bartender Lauren Mote, cofounder of Bittered Sling Bitters, will create a welcome cocktail.

      Yes Shef! is about more than delicious food and drink and raising funds for scholarship and mentorship programs. It’s also a sign of things to come.

      “This is a powerhouse group of women,” Jagger says. “There’s going to be a lot of talent in that room. This is advocacy. I really want women to see their career path in the industry. We’re trying our best to make noise.”

      Yes Shef!: Elevating Women in Food and Wine takes place on August 12 at Chambar Restaurant. Tickets ($180 per person) and information are at