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Three wiser women: Toronto's OG female chefs

 We talk to three iconic, female chefs who have spent decades blazing a trail through the male-dominated world of Toronto kitchens.

We talk to iconic, female chefs in Toronto.

Eons ago, before we had a favourite chef, a favourite restaurant or even a favourite cuisine, our earliest food memories were probably delivered to us by the females in our lives. From mom’s school lunches to seconds and thirds foisted on us at Grandma’s house, household meals were dominated by women.

Fast-forward to today and females in professional kitchens are still, bizarrely, the exception and not the rule. Statistics Canada reports that although 60 per cent of kitchen staff are male, 70 per cent of the lower paying jobs in the industry are held by women.

While those far-apart numbers may seem disappointing in 2020, Toronto’s OG female chefs remind us that we’ve come a very, very long way in the past few years.

“They said ‘we don’t hire women to work in our kitchens’”

“A lot of places told me: ‘We don’t hire women to work in our kitchens,’ ” says Donna Dooher, chef and owner of Liberty Village brunch favourite, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, which celebrated its 30th birthday last year. “They were perfectly polite about it, but it was just their policy.”

Chef Donna Dooher, Mildred's Temple Kitchen

Though finding work in Ottawa had been “like shooting fish in a barrel,” Dooher struggled to find gainful employment in kitchens when she and her husband moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s. That was despite already having a chef de cuisine position at the Ritz on her resume.

“Back then, going into food service was not a noble career – and certainly there wasn’t the rock star status that’s [now] attached to becoming a chef,” says Dooher.

Like all good entrepreneurs, she realized that if she wanted something done a certain way, she would have to do it herself.

“I thought, okay, let’s take the bull by the horns,” says Dooher. “Open your own damn restaurant.”

She did exactly that in 1989, opening Mildred Pierce on Sudbury Street and bringing blueberry buttermilk pancakes forever into the lives of Torontonians. Even a move to the as-yet-unpopulated Liberty Village in the late 2000s couldn’t dampen the city’s appetite for brunch, with its legions of fans still making weekend reservations hard to come by all these years later.

Chef Alida Solomon, Tutti Matti

Over on Adelaide, I watch another veteran at work. Though it seems completely inconceivable to imagine Alida Solomon in any other setting – prepping in her kitchen at Tutti Matti, the Tuscan restaurant she has owned for the last 17 years – that didn’t stop her parents from trying.

“My father is a lawyer and my mother is a teacher, so they were very serious about education,” she explains.

So serious that despite culinary aspirations dating back to age 16, Solomon would briefly study history and geography at university before trading in her books for pots and pans. Hoping to visit her cousins, and instead winding up cooking for the Israeli military on a kibbutz at the behest of her mother, Solomon had her a-ha moment.

“I fell in love with the culture of the kitchen,” says Solomon. “All of a sudden you become part of a family and I loved cooking for people and breaking bread with them. It’s really the most important thing.”

Chef Alida Solomon, Tutti Matti

Tutti Matti has been going strong for nearly two decades thanks to Alida Solomon

But it wasn’t until her years spent in Tuscany, when she went from cooking breakfast for 400 to creating exquisite meals at Osteria di Porta al Cassero in the hilltown of Montalcino, that she would find her niche.

In Tuscany, she would acquire many skills – like how to single-handedly butcher a whole wild boar – while also learning about the never-in-the-spotlight role of women that pervades through Italian kitchens.

“In Italy, there are no female pizzaiolas,” she says. “Men stretch the dough and women man the ovens: there’s a very definite role.”

The inequality struck such a chord with Solomon that she decided to make a documentary on the subject.

“I wanted to talk about all the amazing things about being a female chef or a female winemaker, and Italy is the place to do it because it’s the motherland,” she says. “You never go home at night and find a man making dinner for his family. It’s always a woman. Why is that acceptable [at home] and not acceptable in restaurants?”

Food activist Joshna Maharaj is one chef who quickly recognized that the male-dominated kitchens of Toronto were not the place for her. After a career epiphany in an ashram in remote India, she applied to culinary school over a spotty internet connection – only to get a rude awakening when she returned home.

"I was drawn to kitchens because of the generosity"

“The real reason I was drawn to kitchens was because of the spiritual connection to people and its generosity” she says. “I thought to myself, I just want to cook food and if I have to deal with this nonsense every day, I am going to hate it.”

This ‘nonsense’ started way back in cooking school, where she recalls her work being critiqued by not only instructors but also her male classmates.

“Clearly,” she says, “the implication was ‘how will my delicate little female head be able to manage all of the different cook times for the different types of meat?’”

While teaching at Dish Cooking Studio, Maharaj was presented with a golden opportunity to transition into work at the Stop Community Food Centre, where she would create meals out of donations before carving out a space for herself by flipping the script on institutional food systems at Sick Kids and Ryerson University.

Chef Joshna Maharaj

Maharaj feels lucky she left the frontline when she did. But what are the alternatives for women who won’t stand the heat but refuse to get out of the kitchen?

“In Toronto, I always had to fight for my position, so I had to make myself verbally present because I couldn’t physically,” says Solomon. “I had to always open my mouth and out came this truck driver.”

All three women confess to swearing like a sailor when necessary – just one of the many ways they’ve had to assimilate in order to keep up with their male compatriots.

While working at the ROM, Maharaj remembers being forced to take a hard-ass attitude to keep her mostly male staff in line.

“I insisted that my leadership was not, and should not, be all Gordon Ramsay,” she says. “But then they pushed me.”

"I yelled and I swore and I threatened their jobs"

So what did she do? “On my day off I made everybody go to the line and I yelled and I swore and I threatened everybody’s job. They all fell in line and I was simultaneously relieved and disgusted that it had come to that,” she says.

Chef Joshna Maharaj

Joshna Maharaj's new book Take Back the Tram aims to revolutionize food in hospitals, schools and other institutions

In a landscape where the ‘bad boys’ of food are constantly championed, it’s no wonder nurturing females at the helm seem like a pair of slippers and a cup of cocoa by contrast. From heroes like Anthony Bourdain to enfant terrible Marco Pierre White – a man so rock ’n’ roll, he famously rescinded his three Michelin stars – we tend to like our chefs more Rolling Stones than rolling pins. Women are routinely reported as matronly, apron-wearing cooks who keep the home fires burning, while men are tortured artists, throwing whisks at anyone who fails to understand their vision.

Maharaj believes that having one spot at the top and no room for anyone else is inherently masculine.

“This is not about women not being good enough for the kitchen,” she says. “The issue is, where is the space for women in the kitchen?”

Dooher agrees that this male-gazing view of female accomplishment is at the heart of the problem. “We really put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed in what we perceive as success, and that’s doing what the boys do, how the boys do it,” says Dooher.

While there are certainly no shortcuts to decades-long success, Solomon has a theory.

“Donna and I both only have one restaurant, and we have had them for an eternity, because it’s not about ego.”

We often measure our celebrity chefs’ success by the size of their empire, but we don’t give nearly enough credit to those who stayed the course. Solomon has made sacrifices for Tutti Matti that a man may not have had to make – but in return, Tutti Matti and the regulars she greets every Saturday night, are her family and her legacy.

“I don’t want to be just a restaurant owner, I don’t want to be the creator of Toronto’s hottest five new restaurants, because it doesn’t matter to me – I just want to cook.”

Perhaps the thing that impresses me the most is the way these women raise each other up. When I mention the other chefs I’m speaking to for this feature, their faces immediately light up. Though Dooher is modest about her impact, her proteges tell a different story. Maharaj describes her as “a very dear mentor and wonderful anchor,” while Solomon simply calls her “a legend.” That commitment to mentorship will be so crucial in ensuring that the next generation of female chefs have similar role models to follow as their careers develop.

When I ask Solomon about her style of cooking, I can’t help but notice the parallels between the role of females in the industry.

“Some chefs take something fabulous and put it on a pedestal,” she says. “Other chefs take the ingredients and make something fabulous.”

It’s obvious that Solomon falls firmly into the latter camp, and this practice of taking something and making it bigger than the sum of its parts seems to me a thoroughly feminine trait. Somehow, in 2020, cooking is still a feminist issue, but I hope that in 15 years’ time we’ll be talking about the best chefs – no female caveat – with the next generation of Donnas, Alidas and Joshnas filling out the list.

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