This month, Toronto will host two awesome women-focused food events: The Dinner Party, hosted by The Drake, and Chatelaine’s The Big Dish, a day-long gathering featuring incredible female talent in the Canadian hospitality industry.
In recent years, women-focused groups and events for food- and drink-obsessives have been popping up across the country, including the Pink Boots Society (for lady beer lovers, with chapters in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto) and Women Who Whiskey (a women-only whiskey appreciation group with chapters in Toronto and Waterloo). And in 2015, Jen Agg, Toronto restaurateur and author of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, spearheaded an event called Kitchen Bitches: Smashing the Patriarchy One Plate at a Time in response to allegations of “rampant” and “unrelenting” sexual harassment and abuse at a trendy downtown Toronto restaurant.
While some of these initiatives address sexism and harassment head on, others are creating safe and inclusive places for women to celebrate passions that are traditionally male-dominated. But there’s still more work to be done.
FLARE spoke to 10 diverse women in hospitality to learn more about their experiences with sexism and racism in bars and kitchens across Canada—and what they’re doing to help fellow female colleagues thrive. Their stories range from blatant examples of sexism to less overt instances, but they have one thing in common: these are all women who love their work and won’t let industry misogyny stop them.
“I’ve been called a ‘female chef’ more than an actual chef” —Alexandra Feswick, chef de cuisine at The Drake Hotel in Toronto
When Alexandra Feswick was starting her career as a chef, she had no female mentors. There were women like California-based farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters and Canadian restaurateur Donna Dooher, but it was rare to find other women working the main line of a kitchen. Now the chef de cuisine at Toronto’s The Drake Hotel, Feswick is the force behind the The Dinner Party. On October 29, this year’s sold-out party will feature an all female line-up of chefs who will prepare a seven-course menu to be enjoyed in a space where female artists will have recreated Judy Chicago’s seminal feminist artwork by the same name.
“The first time I did The Dinner Party [in 2012], I was finding sous chefs that were women but their [male] chefs were the ones helping with ticket sales because people knew who they were,” Feswick says. “Now we have 21 women who are all standalone great chefs with their own reputations. Four years later, it has been so much easier to find prominent female chefs to participate.”
There have been improvements for women in the industry, but Feswick still experiences everyday sexism. At events where she’s accompanied by male chefs or cooks, people assume she’s a subordinate member of the team, not the boss. Although she’s organizing the event with female chefs, she dislikes being labeled as such.
“I’ve been called a ‘female chef’ more than an actual chef,” she says. “We don’t like the title ‘female chefs,’ we are just ‘chefs.’ In my mind, the only way to get ourselves out of being pigeonholed is to work with other chefs, male chefs, and include them.”
Prominent Toronto chefs like Patrick Kriss (Alo) and Grant Van Gameren (Bar Isabel, Bar Raval) will be acting as servers at this year’s Dinner Party.
“When I first started working in restaurants and told people where I worked, the first assumption was that I was a server. It was seen as more of a female thing,” she says. “I thought it was a cheeky way to turn it around and have men serve our food.”