While commercial kitchens have traditionally seen more men working behind the stoves in their chef whites, we’re seeing more and more women make their mark as high profile chefs in recent years.
But women aren’t just winning accolades in the kitchen — an increasing number of women are running the business end of successful restaurants in Calgary and beyond.
In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we caught up with some of Calgary’s most prominent women restaurateurs, and asked for their thoughts on their experiences in the industry, and the business of running a restaurant.
How did you get involved in the restaurant industry?
Vanessa Salopek, Market, owner: Ever since I was young, I always knew I wanted to open a restaurant. There is something quite magical about getting a group of people together and socializing over delicious food. A lot is shared around a dinner table: stories, laughter, and just enjoying the dining experience with great company. There is a reason why people will justify paying more to eat out at a restaurant, and it’s because food brings people together in a way that nothing else really can compare to. I really wanted to build a restaurant that would allow me to bring that magical experience to many people.
Phoebe Fung, Vin Room and VR Wine, proprietor: I’m an accidental restaurateur. While on sabbatical from my oil and gas job, I discovered a little wine bar in Texas and thought it would be fun to create a wine bar in Calgary. So, one day as I was walking down 4th Street and saw that the old Mission Cycle building was closed, I jumped at the opportunity and five months of construction later, I had a wine bar.
What other women in the industry inspire you?
Patricia Koyich, former owner of Il Sogno, current instructor at the School of Hospitality and Tourism at SAIT: I have always been, and will continue to be, inspired by my mother and grandmother (in memory). Both are from rural Alberta — hardworking woman who emphasized the importance of “the table.” I also have an extremely amazing and inspiring group of friends in the industry: Liana Robberecht (executive chef at Winsport), Nicole Gomes (Nicole Gourmet Catering), and the two who inspired me in my career the most locally, Sal Howell from the River Café and Carol Buchanan of Buchanan’s. They are both amazing and passionate woman whose hard work, commitment and drive have inspired me to follow my dreams, never compromise my standards, and continue to learn and grow as an industry professional.
Jenny Chan, Vero Bistro Moderne, chef/owner: One of my teachers when I was taking the professional cooking programs at SAIT was Chef Margaret Turner. She was also my coach in all the cooking competitions I competed in. She taught me to strive to be the best and to learn how to be 100 per cent dedicated in whatever I do. I really see how dedicated she is to her profession and to her students – she really wants her students to succeed. To this day, chef Turner encourages and supports me, which I really appreciate.
Chefs tend to get a lot of the glory when it comes to restaurants. What attracted you to the business side of restaurants?
Alanna Martineau, Wine-Ohs, proprietor and director of wine: There can be a lot of ego in kitchens, and some really unhealthy behaviours that go along with that. I love to cook, but it was never my goal to be the one doing that in the restaurant. (Wine-Ohs executive chef and GM) Kristin Synnott and I work very collaboratively on menu planning and all aspects of restaurant management. I have a Master’s Degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, so I still do consulting in that field. My consulting experience certainly helps me look at the business and people side of the restaurant holistically, and I’ve learned a lot about the industry in the last few years.
Jayme MacFayden, BMeX Restaurant group (UNA Pizza and Wine, Ox and Angela, and Native Tongues), owner and operator: Being a chef is way sexier than being a restaurateur! Guests always want to see and talk to the chef, but really I am happy with that. I love service and being able to provide an experience for a guest overall, and although it seems like I should be super-outgoing being in this industry, I’m actually incredibly shy and really don’t like being the centre of attention. So for me being the restaurateur is ideal. I can curate an experience from start to finish for a guest, small details they probably don’t even notice, to add up to the big picture, and get so much satisfaction from a great review, a repeat guest, or a word of mouth recommendation.
What are some of the biggest challenges of restaurant ownership/management?
Jackie Cooke, Avec Bistro, proprietor/ sommelier: Owning a restaurant is 24/7, so taking time off is always difficult. We are very hands on, so between my partner and I, one of us is always in the restaurant. But, financial challenges are always the most difficult. Restaurant margins are lower than in any other industry, and right now the cost of food alone has increased substantially, by five per cent to 25 per cent.
Connie DeSousa, CHARCUT Roast House and charbar, co-chef/owner: Managing a restaurant can be very demanding and it can be difficult to achieve a good work-life balance. Often times I go from running the line at CHARCUT to checking in on our guests at Charbar, and then back to CHARCUT for dinner service. Before my day is done, I respond to a full inbox of emails, manage my social media pages and tie up any loose ends. My days can be very long. I have learned how important it is to take time for yourself, spend it with the people you love, get some exercise, eat healthy and maintain balance.
What are the biggest rewards?
Carol Buchanan, Buchanan’s, owner: It’s the friends we have made in the 27 years. We are in our 28th year of operations, and I love that those people who “get” us come back time and time again. I know couples that have met, fallen in love, married, brought their kids here, and then celebrated sending them off to university. Then they came in to celebrate their kids’ marriages and now grandkids. It is so wonderful, and creates a great sense of community.
What’s some advice that you’d give to a young person entering the industry?
Nicole Gomes, Nicole Gourmet and Cluck ‘N’ Cleaver, chef/owner: This is a hard career, be prepared to work long hours for little pay, but remember it is your education. All the crappy jobs and challenging situations make you a stronger player in the game of food. Always follow your passion and dreams!
Leslie Echino, Blink, owner/restaurant director: This industry is exciting because you are always doing something different. No day is ever the same and it keeps you on your toes. You have to be passionate about this industry because it is hard to make money — I probably would have been better off being a psychologist! Find a mentor or an incredible manager to work under, and remember that we do this for the love of the business.