Career Inspo: What It’s Really Like to Be a Television Chef

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco—who stars on Gusto’s One World Kitchen—gives us a glimpse into her delicious daily grind and gets real about sexism in professional cooking

Ishani Nath
Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco

(Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Gianfrancesco)

Age: 30

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in Italian languages from McGill University; diploma in professional cooking with a focus in Italian cuisine and training in French cooking and pastry from Montreal culinary institute Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ)

Length of time as a professional chef: 10 years

When did you first discover your passion for food?
I’ve been cooking since I was 18 months old alongside my grandmother and my mom, so it’s been part of me since I was young. It was very important for my family to spend meals together. When you gather around the table to eat, there’s something really special about getting to sit down and enjoy your time together; a lot of good was associated with that. For me, the most exciting part was being with my grandmother and preparing the meal in advance. We would go to the grocery store, the market or out to the garden to get fresh produce, then make dinner for a crowd of 14. That’s how I would spend my summers.

But you didn’t see cooking as a career path. What did you originally want to pursue?
I went to university to study political science and law and I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Just before I finished my bachelor’s degree, I shadowed a lawyer and I literally got the hot sweats when I stood there. Even though everything was falling into place for that career path, I realized there was something missing.

What made you decide to follow that gut feeling and go to cooking school?
I had applied to law school and ITHQ, which normally requires tons of restaurant experience and only accepts a small number of applicants each year. When I got accepted to cooking school with no previous professional experience, I decided to take that rope that was thrown at me.

What lessons did you learn in cooking school that you couldn’t learn in your grandmother’s kitchen?
I learned discipline, punctuality and how to be rigorous in the kitchen. Punctuality was the toughest for me. There were days that I had to be there at 4 a.m. I had never done that before. And when you get there, you can’t be sleepy or off your game, you need to be on. I gained a new and profound respect for chefs. A lot of people think you sit down [in a restaurant] and the chefs just prepare food for you, but it’s an art. By the time things are placed onto the table in front of you, there’s a beautiful transition that happens.

Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco

(Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Gianfrancesco)

Getting into this industry is tough, particularly since it’s so male-dominated. Did you face challenges because of that?
Yes. That whole Gordon Ramsay-style of kitchen is exactly what cooking school is about. Even in the workforce, I remember working in a kitchen and plates would be thrown at the wall if they exactly how the chef wanted to them to be. Being around that and it being a male-dominated profession made it even harder for me to prove myself. Often, the guys would get an advantage just because they were men. A lot of teachers told me that because I am a woman, I would be at the garde manger—which is the entry-level station where the cold dishes like salads are prepped—for a long time until I proved that I was capable. A lot of men don’t even go through that stage, and women get stuck there because of their sex, which is actually crazy.

On one hand, there is the antiquated idea that at home cooking is a woman’s job, but then in the culinary industry, it’s male-dominated. Why is that?
In the culinary world, a lot of women will be thrown into the pastry section because they think that’s what women are able to do; create fancy-looking sweets. It’s very stereotypical. The male character in the kitchen is very aggressive, forward and controlling and I feel like they think a woman can’t do that and can’t be in control of a kitchen. When I started my job, I promised myself that I would never be that way in my kitchen. I don’t exclusively have women working for me today, but I have a great mix and everyone is treated equally.

Chef Kate Burnham made major news in 2015 when she filed a human rights complaint against the high-profile Toronto restaurant where she worked, exposing the sexist culture in the industry. Did you experience that type of harassment as well?
Absolutely. When I actually got into the workforce following my degree, I remember one day at work when a guy took a kitchen towel and smacked my behind with it. He said, “This is the way the kitchen is, so get used to it.” I had come from a really professional background at university where there was no way that would be permitted, but here it was socially accepted behaviour. It’s such an issue, but not a lot of people talk about it.

How did you get over those hurdles and keep going?
I kept telling myself that I was going to make it, even though everyone around me told me I wouldn’t. When I finished culinary school, I emailed Food Network with the subject “Your next Food Network gem” and I tried to convince them that I needed my own show right out of school. If it wasn’t for that, and my mentor who taught me build my own brand, I wouldn’t have been picked up by Gusto.

Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco

(Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Gianfrancesco)

You’ve described yourself as “a chef who takes classic Italian recipes and adapts them to the modern-day palate.” What does that mean?
A lot of people think Italian cooking is heavy and limited to things like carbonara or rosé pasta, but it is not at all. Nowadays, many people have gone towards veganism, vegetarianism and just a healthier, greener way of living—and every Italian recipe can be made in a healthy way. It’s not about the heavy lasagnes, as delicious as they are, it’s about the everyday, modern Italian approach to cooking, and recipes that can come together in literally minutes.

As a professional chef, what kitchen gadgets are a must-have?
I need a good knife. It doesn’t have to be an expensive knife, it just has to be well sharpened. And when my husband and I built our kitchen, I made sure we put in a huge butcher block. It’s like 1 x 1.5 metres. You’ve got to have a nice working space and a good knife.

As a TV chef, what is your work schedule like?
From Monday to Friday, I work at Chef en Vous, which is where I first started offering cooking classes. I’m now the general director of the company and work on everything from cooking classes to creating fresh, healthy, and gourmet menus for local private school cafeterias. I’m also a resident chef on Montreal’s Breakfast Television so every second Wednesday you can catch me there. On top of that, there’s the show One World Kitchen on Gusto, which can take a couple weeks at a time to shoot.

Wow, that’s a lot of things. When you’re juggling so much, how do you get yourself in the zone in the morning?
I believe there is a God, so I thank God every morning that I wake up healthy and happy to go to work. To me there is nothing more that I could be gifted in my life.

What is your favourite ingredient to work with?
Extra virgin olive oil. It’s the start, and topper, of everything great.

Least favourite?
Allspice.

Chef Vanessa Gianfrancesco)

(Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Gianfrancesco)

Who is a chef that you admire and why?
Ina Garten. She’s the epitome of a chef for me. I remember watching her when I was young and wishing I could cook and entertain like her one day. To me, cooking is not just about the food, it’s about the plating, how you serve it to people, how you make people feel when you get into your home, and she is the perfect example of that.

What attributes does someone need to become a great chef?
Perseverance, because the first day of culinary school, you’ll probably want to give up. You also need to have an open mind because there’s going to be a lot of change from what you’re used to.

What food trends are you excited for in 2017?
I think this year is going to be a lot about turmeric. It’s one of those super spices that you can put in anything. There’s also going to be a new spin on beans. People used to look at them as a cheap ingredient, but I think now we’re really starting to appreciate them. Turmeric, beans, and anything green—because I think people are looking to be healthy and eat well—are going to be huge food trends in 2017.

At the end of a long day, what is your go-to meal to enjoy while winding down?
Give me a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine and I’m a happy camper.

Related:
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What It’s Really Like to be a Food Blogger

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