Sandy Chen knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in cooking. In a field still dominated by men, the local chef found herself undaunted after a difficult first day on the job four years ago. Overwhelmed by the hotel kitchen’s intense heat, she faced a senior chef with some unsavoury choice words for her.
“On the station I was working on that first day, I got heat stroke,” Chen says in a phone call. “The chef said I couldn’t take it. He called me a muffin cup.” In other words, he considered her a lightweight, literally telling her that if she couldn’t take the heat, she should get out of the kitchen.
His reaction just made her more determined to prove herself. “After that, I said: ‘Chef, you’re wrong. I’m going to prove to you I can do it,’ ” she says.
Sure enough, she went back the next day and wowed him.
Chen has been wowing people ever since. After working at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel for three years, she joined the team at Clement Chan and Steve Kuan’s Le Tigre food truck, and now she’s junior sous-chef at the pair’s Torafuku restaurant. In 2014 she won the title of B.C. chef of the year and placed third in the National Chef of the Year competition. Last year, she won the B.C. Chefs’ Association’s Iron Chef competition.
All this from someone who just completed her culinary training four years ago. After moving to Vancouver from Taiwan at age 12 with her older sister, Chen took on most household cooking duties: her sibling couldn’t find her way in the kitchen, and her guardian’s culinary repertoire consisted of frozen entrées from Costco. She discovered a passion for all things food-related and was determined to pursue a career in cooking even though her parents frowned upon the idea and insisted she go to university.
Chen got her BA in psychology and, undaunted by her parents’ disapproval, went on to study in the culinary program at Vancouver Community College.
Chen, 30, regularly puts in 14- to 16-hour days. She wouldn’t have it any other way; she’s never been happier. She considers Chan her mentor and also looks up to Torafuku’s female sous-chef, Danvee Kwok. She says women who are considering chef training shouldn’t be dissuaded by the fact that even though women still do most of the cooking at home, they are vastly outnumbered by men in restaurant kitchens.
“If you have a goal, you should never give up,” Chen says. “I want to tell all the ladies: ‘You can do this. We’re equal.’
“It’s been a tough journey but I’ve learned so much,” she adds. “I try to make food better every single day. When a customer finishes a meal and says it was the best they’ve ever had, it makes me feel like I chose the right career. I love it.”
Some women have been in the business for decades
Chen is just one of dozens of women who are rocking Vancouver kitchens, bringing their skill and enthusiasm to a labour force that is gradually diversifying. The hours make it challenging for women who want to have kids, but the days of the local restaurant industry being an old-boys’ club are changing.
The list of inspiring women in the city’s food scene is long. Dana Hauser, executive chef at ARC Restaurant in the Fairmont Waterfront, is the first female head chef in the history of the Fairmont chain. Bistro Sakana’s Etsuko Needham is the city’s first female executive sushi chef.
Some have been at it for decades. Maria Tadoglou established Maria’s Taverna on West 4th Avenue in 1987. Kaeta Vazquez opened Ponchos in the West End 28 years ago. Patti Lombardo launched Lombardo’s Pizzeria and Ristorante on Commercial Drive 30 years ago and runs the restaurant with her three daughters. Chef Caren McSherry’s Gourmet Warehouse has been in business since 1998.
Karen Barnaby, formerly of the Fish House in Stanley Park, Alessandra Quaglia of Provence Marinaside, Bao Bei’s Tannis Ling, the Acorn’s Shira Blustein, Burdock & Co’s chef-owner Andrea Carlson, and the late veteran chef Tina Fineza have all helped put Vancouver’s restaurant industry on the map. There are many more.
Sarah Stewart recently joined the ranks of notable local kitchen mavens. A native of Smiths Falls in Ontario’s Rideau Canal region, she’s executive chef of Juniper Restaurant, which showcases the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest, her dishes full of colour and flavour. Her kitchen staff of 12 is half men and half women. She credits the team she worked with at the Art Gallery of Ontario for providing outstanding leadership in supporting women in the field.
“The executive chef, chef de cuisine, sous-chef, and event sous-chef were all women,” says Stewart, formerly of Edible Canada. “The executive chef took it as a personal responsibility to mentor anyone, but especially women, to give them confidence and make it a level playing field.”
Aside from the gruelling hours that make it difficult for chefs to juggle motherhood and career, women in the dining scene face other challenges: as it does anywhere else, sexual harassment still happens. It’s far from a perfect world, but Stewart says things are getting better.
“Women thinking about having children have to think about keeping their place [in the industry],” she says. “How do you maintain that balance with a demanding hourly job and time commitment? Women shouldn’t have to choose between those things. I don’t have the answers, but I’m very curious and it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
“There’s also so much more awareness of hazards of different types of joking in the kitchen—what’s acceptable and what’s not,” she says. “More and more men [who lead kitchens] are saying, ‘These are the boundaries.’ You want to have good kitchen banter, and you need to have an open dialogue amongst your team about not crossing boundaries. It’s happening more and more. As I’ve grown up in this industry, I do see positive changes in equality in the kitchen and lots of open dialogue about it.”