It’s no secret that most of Vancouver’s restaurant kitchens are diverse: local dining spots usually employ cooks from different backgrounds, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
But when you look higher up on the rosters of professional kitchens, they’re not always that inclusive. At most “western” fine-dining establishments, most of the executive chefs are male, and most of those men are white.
It’s not impossible to find ethnic minorities—some of whom are women—at the helm of such kitchens, but it’s still a rare sight. Some younger chefs who are members of visible minorities, though, believe that their background hasn’t hindered their climb to success in western kitchens.
Daniel Kim, 25, is the sous-chef at the upscale Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar. He never went to culinary school, but had a serious passion for cooking and worked his way up.
“Being a minority in Vancouver is very hard. There are a lot of Asians; there are a lot of multicultural people,” Kim told the Straight in a phone interview. “Funnily enough, in the restaurant industry, I never thought I was a minority. Being here and being born in Canada, I didn’t feel like I was different from everyone else, except for appearance, like skin colour.”
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a hard industry in which to stay, because of long hours and low wages for those on the lower tiers. But he’s never felt like he had to work harder than his white counterparts to get to where he is now.
“Of course, there’s [the] degrading part of cooking, where you get yelled at and shouted at, and then you get stuff thrown at you,” Kim said. “But it’s not because I was different or because I was Asian. No one was discriminated because of their skin colour.”
Qing Qing An is the pastry chef at Origo Club in Richmond, a high-end restaurant serving contemporary French cuisine. She studied pastry at the Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute before moving to Montreal to work at a four-star hotel. She acknowledged that she may not be as proficient in English as colleagues born and raised in Canada, but she never found it hard to secure a job at an upscale restaurant because of her roots.
“In my case, every time I send my résumé out, I always get a response, have an interview, and get a job offer,” An told the Straight by phone. “I understand not everyone has had the same experience, [so] that’s why I’m saying I’m lucky.”
Like Kim, she believes that nothing else matters in the kitchen other than a passion for cooking. “The first important thing to me is you have to have the patience for what you are doing, then you have to have the right attitude. That’s more important than other stuff,” An said.
Although some chefs may have found it easy to work in kitchens where one’s skin colour and gender don’t matter, it isn’t the same for everyone across the board.
Masa Mabuchi is the chef at the Five Sails Restaurant at the Pan Pacific Vancouver. An industry veteran, he’s worked at fine-dining establishments for decades. When he first moved to Canada from Japan after being trained in French cooking, he definitely felt like he needed to work harder than his Caucasian colleagues, especially because he spoke barely any English.
“Coming from Japan, it was not easy, and I still feel that way sometimes,” Mabuchi told the Straight. “It was challenging at first, but I am confident in my cooking and my skills.”
He acknowledges that the culinary scene for professional cooks has gotten better over the years. “As the time passed by, I opened myself to the Canadian culture,” he added. “Everyone was very welcoming, and it still is the case. I feel at home.”
His advice to culinary students who are also visible minorities who aspire to work in western kitchens is simple. “Be patient, be humble, and have a purpose. Work hard; never cease to learn,” Mabuchi said. “Always remember where you come from.”
Rebecca Chen is the executive pastry chef at Ancora Waterfront Dining and Patio. She was hired immediately after graduating from Granville Island’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. When asked about her experience working as a double minority—Asian and female—in a western kitchen, she said it hasn’t been easy.
“I have to say that it’s definitely an exercise in trying to overcome people’s first impressions and stereotypes,” Chen told the Straight by phone. “People are always assuming that you’re not from here. A lot of times, they’re like: ‘Oh, you’re actually Canadian and from here.’ ”
She noted that in addition to skin colour, female chefs with higher ranks in professional kitchens face challenges purely because of their gender.
“I’ve hired people that are supposed to be below me, and they’re white and male, and then I just kind of feel a little bit like, ‘Why do I have to fight so hard to earn [their] respect when they’re working for me?’ ” Chen said. “There are a lot of males I run into, sometimes they are just shocked when they discover I’m a female and I have my own opinions on how I want things run. Some people just don’t know how to deal with that.”
Chen promotes equality by investing in a wide range of people and allowing room for growth. She has hired many female pastry chefs, many of whom have gone on to even better opportunities in other cities around the world.
She believes that local restaurants are offering more recognition and opportunities to women—but that there’s still a way to go until both genders are viewed as equals.
Mexico-born Karla Contreras has a similar perspective. She started out bussing tables at Glowbal Restaurant before rapidly moving up the ranks to become sous-chef. That was four years ago.
“It has been a total challenge, because when I started working there I was the only woman in the kitchen and it was pretty much only guys in the kitchen,” Contreras told the Straight by phone. Like Chen, she’s had to deal with men in the kitchen who didn’t always appreciate that she had a voice.
“Most of the cooks are male. Sometimes, having the power and authority [as a female] is not something some people are used to,” Contreras explained. “To earn their respect, you have to show you can do the things [and] show them how you do things your way. So that’s why it has been a little bit challenging.”
But when it comes to ethnic backgrounds, she believes there is equality. “Obviously, it’s an environment that is not easy. It’s hard and you have to work long hours. Most of the people think it’s only for tough, rough guys,” Contreras said. “But part of the beauty of this thing is that we, women, can show them that we can do it as well. The mindset for hiring people in the kitchen now is as long as they have the skill, then anyone can join.”