The Royal Winter Fair sets the culinary stage for gender equity

In its 97th season, balancing celebrity chef appearances and pay is a priority for the event’s food programming

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This year, Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair will again achieve equal representation among the chefs who are leading classes at the Burnbrae Farms Culinary Academy. Jasmine Baker, president of For the Love of Food, and chef Trevor Lui oversee the hands-on cooking classes featuring top chefs and local ingredients. "When a landmark event in its 97th year is willing to adopt this mandate, it's hopeful," says Baker, "I want people to know it's not difficult."

When asked who's championing gender equity, Baker points straight to the top of the organization to the Royal Winter Fair's CEO, Charlie Johnstone. In his fifth year with the fair, he's what women call an ally, putting his values into practice and inspiring the community to succeed. According to the Harvard Business Review, ally leaders "work to end prejudice in their personal and professional lives, and relinquish social privileges conferred by their group status through their support of non-dominant groups."

Johnstone wants to work in a progressive organization. "We're evolving, and that includes our board of directors and the different disciplines at the fair," he says.


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The goal is partially data-driven. Each year, The Royal gets a picture of attendees and then commits to represent them. The ten-day event has 300,000 visitors, of which 60 per cent are women. Twenty thousand students come in from elementary and post-secondary schools across the province. "Young people can imagine a career path when they see themselves represented by the chefs and farmers," says Johnstone. "Part of our responsibility is to create awareness."

With women leading half of the 46 cooking classes, executive chefs like Renée Bellefeuille of the AGO and La-toya Fagon of Twist Catering will share their skills and talent with the public. The participating chefs have gone one step further, agreeing to a set fee. Celebrity chefs who normally receive $3,000 to lead a class are accepting $875.

"Together, we will shine a big bright light on pay equity as we work together to level the playing field," says Baker.

Achieving equity at a large and prestigious event can have a trickle-down effect. It’s a means to measure the diversity of chefs at the next big Canadian culinary event. Gender equity is a game changer when leaders make it their mission to achieve. Where to start is simple: "We want the Royal Winter Fair to reflect today's society," says Johnstone.