Melissa is a chef at Midfield Wine Bar & Tavern in Toronto.
What is your morning routine?
After a cup of coffee, the first thing I do every morning is take my dog Finn for a walk. I love and hate getting dressed and leaving the house as soon as I wake up. I hate it because I would much rather stay in my pyjamas and binge watch whatever series I’m hooked on while scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. I love it because getting out of the house means I don’t do those other things…at least not for the entire morning.
Tell us about your career path.
I’ve always loved cooking, but my culinary career didn’t start until after I graduated from University of Toronto and worked in the corporate world for a few years. I woke up one day, put on my business casual ensemble and got on the subway to head to my job as a financial service representative for a major bank, but before I walked into the building – and after crying the entire trip out of sheer frustration and regret – I called HR and told them I would be taking a leave of absence.
I applied to George Brown’s culinary arts program that night. Thankfully I got in, so my leave from the bank became a resignation. I started school a couple of weeks later and immediately knew I made the right decision. I worked as a barista, then a prep cook, then line cook, then manager, then sous chef, then chef and restaurant owner, and now as chef again.
What challenges do you or women face in your industry?
My first few cooking jobs were in very welcoming restaurants with encouraging owners who treated everyone equally. The first time I really experienced gender discrimination in this industry was when I opened my own restaurant. It was a real test of my confidence. As part owner, I felt like I constantly had to defend my capability to make decisions. Sales representatives at supply shops would routinely ask me where my partner was when I tried to buy equipment. They would call me “sweetheart” or “kiddo” and condescend or sometimes even ignore me.
Any time I was in a meeting, the men would direct all their attention to my male business partner and completely ignore me even when I answered most of the questions. They’d ask him something, he’d look at me, I’d answer, and then they’d respond back to him. This went on for entire meetings. It was so crazy, all I could do was laugh. It was hard to believe people still acted that way, and it was a real test for me to assert myself while maintaining composure and confidence in those situations.
What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your talent. If you don’t get that support from your environment, your chef, your supervisor or your coworkers, try to find somewhere else to work. There are so many great chefs and restauranteurs (both female and male) who appreciate hard and passionate workers. If you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, you’re doing the wrong thing.
How do you separate work life from your personal life?
This is something I’ve been trying to work on over the last year. When I owned my restaurant it was pretty much impossible; my whole life revolved around the business. If I wasn’t at work in the kitchen, I was at home doing accounting, scheduling, hiring, looking for new suppliers or finding someone to fix something.
Sometimes it felt like the only time I saw my husband was when he came and ate at the restaurant, or when I would call him in a panic to bring some eggs from the market because we ran out during a crazy brunch service. I’m so thankful for his support. He never made me feel guilty for my insane schedule. We just make sure to spend quality time together whenever we can. We really cherish the odd Sunday we have off together.
I’m also thankful for my new position and for the owner and staff at Midfield because I feel like we’re all encouraged and given the opportunity to have a life outside of work. It’s crazy how much more I enjoy going in and creating because of it.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired when I manage to make something someone may not normally like or try. Whenever I can change somebody’s view of an ingredient or a dish, the moment when that person’s mind changes is amazing.
I’m also inspired by teaching people about food and learning from them. The process of collaborating in the kitchen makes me realize how interesting this job will always be, because there’s always something I can teach somebody or something new I can learn from someone.