Women in culinary: 7 Canadian professionals on mentorship and individuals who've inspired them

Chefs, restaurateurs, business owners and executives on inspirational figures in their younger years

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Elysia and Natasha Vandenhurk (left) of Saskatchewan-based camelina oil company, Three Farmers.

Inspiration takes all forms. For a chef, it can be something as simple as a pile of Okanagan-grown apples at a roadside fruit stand on the highway between Penticton and Osoyoos. A musician might find it in heart-wrenching break-ups endured. The sun setting behind the Toronto skyline could turn into a painter's newest portrait.

Yes, inspiration is indeed all around us.

Any seasoned professional will tell you that in addition to inspiration, mentorship is essential to your success. Clearly, there is no shortage of people to be inspired by in Canada's food and drink community, so here's a few empassioned women who opened up to us about people who have inspired them and how finding inspiration is a little different than being mentored on your career path.

Megan Buckley, Chief operating officer of Hy's Steakhouse and Gotham Steakhouse

As an industry veteran, Megan Buckley has seen the Canadian food scene evolve dramatically since she accidentally fell into it years ago while attending UBC when she was in need of a part-time job. Last year, the COO for Hy's Steakhouse was awarded the 2017 Trailblazer Award, by the BC Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an award which celebrates women in the food industry who strike a balance between long term career success and inspiring younger talent along the way.

On who inspires her

"Lesli Ellis was my first female boss in the restaurant industry and she inspired me early on. Smart, typically hardworking, pragmatic and a great sense of humour. [Now in my latter years], I find the same with Dr. Dana Sinclair. She is a good friend, highly successful in her field of sports psychology and performance management, working with elite teams in NHL, NBA and MLB. She is incredibly smart and equally pragmatic. The common characteristics in both women are brains, a natural self-confidence, and great professional success while not taking themselves too seriously."

On investing in mentorship

"I think mentorship implies an active investment on both sides. The 'mentee' is seeking an example of behaviour, or feedback, coaching. Presumably, the mentor is invested in fostering development and 'paying it forward' by setting that example, and providing feedback and encouragement, or simply just listening."

Isabel Chung, executive chef of Fairmont Chateau Whistler

photo courtesy of Julie Zoney.

Being one of the only female executive chefs in the history of Fairmont Hotels, Isabel Chung is an inspiration on her very own to women cooks everywhere. Being stationed at the picturesque Fairmont Chateau Whistler as head chef since 2015, Chung is an active member of the mountain town's small, yet vibrant, food scene and is known for her collaboration efforts and thoughtful menus at the hotel's multiple concepts, which include The Wildflower Restaurant, The Mallard Lounge and the recently revamped Portobello.

"My parents are the foundation of my love for the culinary arts," explains Chung. "From a very early age, I would cook together [with them] on weekends and I was probably the only student in my class to have a working knowledge of 'en papillote' before going to culinary school!"

On who inspires her

"My parents have certainly been an inspiration to me over the course of my career. I grew up in a fairly traditional Chinese household, and both of my parents were successful accountants. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my mother left her job, went back to school for floral design and opened a floral shop. She inspired me to believe that it can happen, that we can make change happen.

As a young cook in a foreign country, I had the great privilege of working with Dana Crane, who was the banquet chef at a hotel I was at. She certainly encouraged me to continue to chase the things I was most passionate about without regard for gender stereotype. She was also an incredible role model and as I have followed her career and kept her in my life. She was also the first female executive chef with Fairmont Hotels."

On the personal connection found in a mentor relationship

"For me, a mentor is a much more personal relationship. It's someone who holds a special place in your life, who has a vested interest in your happiness and success. I say happiness because, really, that is what matters most and you can't enjoy success without it! The people who are my mentors are all very dear friends and we keep up in each other's lives because the relationship doesn't have an expiry, it's choosing those who will be part of your personal team. I think that there is also an expectation from mentors of what your contribution will be, this relationship is dynamic!"

Jennie Dobbs, owner of Morris East

With two Morris East pizzeria locations and one more on the way this year--currently in-progress on Quinpool Road in Halifax-- it's evident that Jennie Dobbs is one hardworking business owner. Her original location will celebrate its 11th birthday this coming summer and most Haligonians will agree that it is just as hard to get a table on a Friday night in 2018 as it was when it opened its doors back in 2007.  Now a Halifax institution, the success of Morris East in the past decade is a true testament to Dobbs' hard work and earnest hospitable nature.

On who inspires her

"When I opened Morris East, I was very fortunate to be mentored by Halifax restaurateur Jane Wright. Jane owned a great restaurant in Halifax called Jane’s on The Common. I worked in her restaurant until I opened my own spot and I attribute a lot of the success we have had to the advice and help she gave me starting on day one all those years ago. Jane has been along for the ride of Morris East since I started. She has been absolutely amazing. She really understands what’s important in a restaurant and has opened my eyes and philosophies on what customer service is about, how to run a great place and the power of great food."

On a quality that makes a great mentor

"A mentor is there for you fully, completely. You can phone them when you don’t have the answers, need guidance or those times when you just need to hear a friendly voice. They are your support network." 

Andrea Harling, vice president and executive chef of Made Foods

Calgary's Andrea Harling doesn''t run a traditional restaurant, but that doesn't mean she's not clocking long hours as the vice president of Western Canada's fastest growing prepared meal company, Made Foods. The health-focused business currently sits at six locations and Harling also doubles as the executive chef of the entire operation, creating recipes for all types of dishes for all hours of the day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks; you name it, the chef and her team are in the development kitchen aiming to perfect it.

"When I was younger, I was surrounded by so many positive female role models. My mom, grandmother, coaches, friend’s moms... I didn’t even realize that I was living in a world that had so many restraints for females until I grew up and stepped into the working world," says the chef. "Family dinners, hunting, fishing, sausage making, camping, growing vegetables under lights in the winter, summers in Georgian Bay on our sailboat--food has always been at the forefront of my life, and I had no idea that all of the experiences in my life were what was shaping my career."

On who inspires her

"I have had the luck of being able to work beside one of my mentor for the last five years. What I have realized is that your mentor doesn’t need to be someone who has all of the answers, or even someone who works in the same profession as you. They are someone who makes you realize that if you change your perception, you can change your life. They challenge you, they make you focus on what matters at the time. Nichole is always there, she doesn’t expect anything in return, she sees my strengths and helps me to focus on them. She believes in abundance and the more you share, the more likely you are to receive."

On mentorship in the long run

"Mentors are critical parts of our network. They remind us that it is okay to rely on others, that as a team, we are stronger. Mentors help us think strategically in our careers; they help us to keep focused on the big picture. Mentors are people we look up to. They are the people we need. We are also mentors and mentorees our whole life. What we learn from the people who come before us is what helps to shape the world we live in. What we learn, we pass on."


Kristen Needham, co-owner of Sea Cider

On the outskirts of Victoria, B.C., Needham runs the charming, award-winning Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse, which could perhaps be considered Canada's premier cidery. With a compelling lineup of ciders, ranging from the dry and crisp Flagship to the barrel-aged Rumrunner, there's a lot to choose from for your next toast.

"When we conceived of the ciderhouse, we drew from my experience as a child spending summers and weekends at the Deer Creek Ranch in southeast Alberta. It had been in my family for five generations, and was the inspiration for starting my own agricultural business," explains Needham on how Sea Cider came to be. "But it was my aunt, Lois Gilchrist, who lived at the Deer Creek most of her life and whom I visited as a child who inspired me with her gracious hospitality. She fed everyone,from our extended family to ranch hands to politicians, all with the same hospitality that made all her guests feel truly welcome."

On who inspires her

"Even now, Aunt Lois inspires me with how she lives. She has retired from the Deer Creek and now lives in Lethbridge, but she stays connected to family and still spends lots of time outdoors. She'll be visiting our farm next Christmas, and I hope to make her feel as welcome as she has always made me feel."

On how mentors help a person find success

"I have several business mentors who have helped me over the years. I share ideas with them, they hold me to account, they guide me and help shape my decisions, and some of them also inspire me. A mentor provides deliberate guidance; whereas someone who truly inspires others doesn't necessarily set out to inspire; they simply go about their lives according to values they follow for themselves and not because others are paying attention. I find the most inspiration from people who are authentic, honest and don't set out to be something for somebody else; they follow their values and lead by example without necessarily ever intending to lead and inspire."

Elysia Vandenhurk, chef and co-owner of Three Farmers

A proud Prairie woman through-and-through, chef Elysia Vandenhurk has made a name for herself in the Canadian food scene with her entrepreneurial spirit and camelina oil company, Three Farmers. The oil-only venture has now grown into a larger-scale food company that offer people a range of camelina-related products, from roasted chickpea and roasted pea snack packs to flavour-infused camelina oil and, including of course, the original golden, grassy product that helped them get their start.

"To be honest, I didn't even really discover that I wanted to be a chef until I graduated high school," says Vandenhurk. "I grew up on a farm and my parents did a great job instilling work ethic, integrity and self-confidence in me around the fact that I really could do anything I put my mind too. If you are willing to do the work, [I think] you can do anything. We had a very large family and a very large cattle and grain farm. The hard work that goes into making food is where I [draw inspiration from] and as I pursue my career in food further and further, my appreciation for my parents and my upbringing grows more and more."

On who inspires her

"To date, my sister and business partner, Natasha, is a big inspiration. She believes in me like no other and pushes our business forward with such confidence. She is driven, passionate and always working to better herself and her company. On top of all of that, she is also a fantastic mother. To name a few chefs specifically, I would say Peter Phillips of Boffins in Saskatoon and Toronto chef Susur Lee. When I worked under these chefs I learned more and more about my skill set, my mind and creativity. I grew not only as a chef, but within myself."

On inspiration versus mentorship

"I think the biggest difference is that inspiration is found all around us: in people, moments, experiences, books, quotes, nature... A mentor is an adviser. It's someone you trust to help you make decisions within your business and your life. They are focused on your growth and development and, typically, you will have a long-lasting relationship with them."

Lesley Chesterman, food writer and restaurant critic for The Montreal Gazette

As Montreal's long-standing restaurant critic and regular columnist on CBC Radio's French program, Médium Large, Lesley Chesterman has established herself as one of the top authorities on food in Quebec. A trained pastry chef and cookbook author as well, this writer's resume is nothing short of impressive. While forging her own career path in a male-dominated industry, Chesterman admits she never had a mentor throughout her career, but as she points out, there are plenty of places to look for inspiration to propel you forward even if you're going at it alone.

On who inspires her

"My mother. My parents are both intellectuals and when I said I wanted to go to cooking school, my mom gave me the green light because she saw how much it meant to me. She is a fierce cook herself and a great lover of M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David and Julia Child. There were always Gourmet magazines all over my house [growing up]. Also, Nancy Silverton. I read her Desserts book before I entered pastry school. Loved everything about it. She was one of the only role models for women chefs at the time. In pastry, possible the only one."

On not having a mentor

"I've never had a mentor, someone who helps you along the way, gives you guidance, advice; but inspirations, people who encourage you from afar without even knowing it, there have been many. In the chef profession, you need an inspiration because mentors can be hard to find, especially for women."