Behind the line: Calgary chef Nicole Gomes

How the chef has evolved over the years and what she's planning next

Nicole Gomes chef

Just before the beginning of the month, Avenue released its 12th annual Restaurant Awards issue. Aside from the buzzworthy accolades of restaurant(s) that ended up on the Top 10 list, the magazine honed in on the commendable presence of female restaurateurs, chefs and management in the city's food scene. In Calgary, it's easy to see the hard work of women in the industry with nationally recognized restaurants, like River Cafe and Charcut, to lesser known (but still locally highly regarded) places, like Blink or Vin Room.

Other cities certainly don't seem to place the same urgency on the topic, with Edmonton writer Omar Mouallem recently writing a story noting the lack of female executive chefs in their city. Saskatoon has one at the moment (Christie Peters of The Hollows), only a handful in Vancouver, and Toronto's number is certainly disproportionate to the number of restaurants, considering its juggernaught-sized food scene. 

There are many reasons why I'm happy to be an active member of Calgary's food scene, but this is certainly a big one.

One of Calgary's most familiar culinary faces in recent years is, without a doubt, Nicole Gomes, chef/owner of boutique catering company, Nicole Gourmet. Her time on Top Chef Canada season three propelled her into the national spotlight, making her a household Canadian name even without having a restaurant where people could visit her (although, as you'll see below, she might just have one soon).

Prior to starting her catering company in 2006, Gomes spent years working in Vancouver under notable chefs lke David Hawksworth at West, where she was the first woman on staff in the kitchen in 2000, before eventually making the trek to Calgary to work at Catch under Michael Noble, and later opened up Mercato in her first executive chef role. Now, still with a booming catering business, she's working on opening a new eatery by the end of this year. Fingers crossed anyway, she says!

After working in the industry for years, the chef has seen her fair share of trials and tribulations to get to where she is today. Truly an inspiration to all female cooks, aspiring or otherwise, across the country, Gomes opens up about her road to success and how she's evolved as a chef.

How long have you been cooking now?

It’s been 20 years. That is crazy. I can’t even believe it. Thinking about it, I’m like, “What?”

Do you feel the wear and tear from being in the food industry for that long?

Well, I am definitely getting older, but now that I run my own business, it’s a lot different. I miss cooking on the line and I’m sure if I had been doing it day-in, day-out [for the past 20 years], I would be really tired. But, interestingly enough, I’m going to cook on line at a restaurant tonight!

Very cool. Where?

Notable, jJust for fun with my friend (Notable’s executive chef, Justin Labosserie). That is one thing about this career that I’ve never stopped loving, just the fact that I have never stopped learning. I always feel like I don’t know enough. After all these years, I still feel like I don’t know enough.

You worked with Justin at Catch in the early 2000s, along with other well-known Canadian chefs like Nick Nutting and Duncan Ly. What’s it like spending time with them now that you guys are all older and running your own businesses?

Oh, God! There are a lot of stories there, but most importantly, we have a lot of memories of teamwork, like real teamwork. I don’t think a lot of people have had that sort of opportunity to work with a team of chefs like that [during the first few years of Catch]. We say it every time that we’re all together.

How would you define “real teamwork” then?

Healthy competition, driven by bettering each other, driven by complete collaboration while working and I think that’s something that is lacking with younger chefs now. That, and also a lot of that free work (staging) that a cook should do; that’s your education and you need to embrace it. I’m still volunteering these days and [young cooks] need to realize that it’s not about the money; it’s about getting better. I would definitely not be as developed as a technical chef as I am now. I’d be very limited in my spectrum of culinary education.

Before you lived in Calgary, you worked with David Hawksworth at West in Vancouver almost 15 years ago. What was that like?

Well, at the time, it was actually called “Ouest”. I just found my old chef jacket from there in my closet recently and thought, "Oh man. There were no women in the kitchen there."

I was the first woman that he hired.

That sounds pretty intimidating. How did you handle it?

It was great, but it was scary. I’m not going to lie, when you’re younger, you’re usually a lot cockier, so I would just tell myself, “I got this!” But, I was absolutely scared. I learnt a lot about myself and what direction I wanted to go with my cooking.

So, how did you end up in Calgary?

I moved here with my ex. I had been traveling all over the world and he was waiting for me, so it was my turn to settle down. We came here with nothing. I don’t even think we came with a mattress! Just our suitcases, no money, no car and I told myself that I would give Calgary one year. Then, I found Catch. I ended up staying for almost three years at Catch and now it’s been 13 years in Calgary.

Being a female chef, do you prefer female workers when you’re hiring for Nicole Gourmet?

That's not how I approach things, although I do commonly have more females working for me. Oddly enough, I have more males on the administration side, the coordinating and all the office duties. I do think it’s all based on skill level, though. Women definitely have a different touch in the kitchen and any chef will admit that, but as far as ability, the male/female thing is insignificant to me.

Are there any women chefs out there that you really admire?

Suzanne Goin. She’s in Los Angeles and owns a restaurant called Lucques. She is one of my favourites. She has a cookbook called Sunday Suppers and it’s amazing. Her style is great and, of course, there’s Julia Child, just a given as an overall, approachable home chef. Those are the two.

Inequality, sadly, still happens all over the world, in and out of the kitchen. How do you deal with it?

We’re not always treated equally, which is unfortunate, but it’s your own integrity and your drive to push harder. For me, personally, the more a guy ever told me I couldn’t do something, the more I would prove to someone that I could do it. I’m really determined and persistent and proud of that, too.

Would you give the same advice to a young female cook that you would give to a male one?

Absolutely. I would give them the same advice: this career is not about money. Every opportunity you get, you need to absorb people’s outlook on the culinary world. Be open-minded and be prepared to not have a life for a little while if you want to make things work and that’s just the way it is. That and it’s fricking hard!

What were you like 20 years ago?

Timid, meek and shy.

15 years ago?

At that point I was questioning if I would actually continue with cooking. I had more confidence and I loved cooking, but as far as the industry was concerned, I was questioning what direction I was going into and whether or not I could do it. I was second-guessing myself.

10 years?

Oh, definitely confident! I was really cocky then, too!

5 years?

Much more calm, even though Top Chef didn’t really show that I seemed calm in the kitchen, ha, ha. It was the fourth year into my business and I was a lot calmer.

At this moment?

Completely relaxed. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, I find. You just let things roll off your back a little bit more and I value life a lot differently. Life is too short.