A woman’s place at the head of a kitchen

I guess you could say that my journey as a chef began much like many others: with a profound love of food. My parents were both in the Royal Airforce, they explored the world and had very cultured food tastes; which filtered down to me. My mom would often come home with a strange fruit from the market to expose us to new flavors and teach us to be curious about cuisine.

So, like many chefs, I love food ౼ it’s an extension of me. But there is so much more to being a chef ౼ especially a female chef.

Ironically, the kitchen is a very male-dominated space, professionally speaking. Throughout much of my career, I was the only woman in the kitchen. My culinary journey began in a Cambridge pub where I got my first shot at cooking. Without any professional training, I cooked my way through fine dining restaurants in the UK, Alaska, and finally Ohio. In every country, every city, every restaurant, one thing that was always true is that it can be very difficult to be a woman in this industry. 

Standing my ground

When I was in Alaska in the early 2000s, women were typically labeled as “salad girls” or “dessert girls” ౼ but I wanted to try my hand at sautee. After being refused several times, I quit. And I’ll always remember what the restaurant owner told me the very next day. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of people quit for a lot of reasons, but never have I lost somebody because they wanted to grow ౼ you’re starting on sautee tomorrow.” That experience taught me that women have got to be tough in this industry. And I am.

From fine dining to healthcare

My personal life brought me to Toledo, Ohio; chance brought me to Sodexo. As an experienced fine-dining chef, I never thought about working in a hospital ౼ but it’s been such an interesting journey. Since I started in healthcare (first at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, then with Promedica) I’ve learned a lot of ౼ not just about food but about diets, allergies, mechanical meals, how people eat and absorb food. Today, I absolutely love the fact that I work in healthcare. I love that I can make a difference through food.

Paying it forward

o also gave me the gift of time. When I was working in fine dining, I would put in upwards of 80-90 hours a week. Today, I have three children ౼ and I don’t think that would have happened without this gift of time. And in the spirit of giving back, I started a bunch of community outreach programs ౼ from Kids in the Kitchen to Cooking Matters to Covid markets and urban gardens. It’s been so rewarding. I never realized how much I love training and working with kids until now.

One of the most recent projects, Cooking with a Chef, has really taken off during the pandemic. At the hospital, we put together grocery boxes for members of the community and host online cooking shows. It makes cooking fun, teaches people how to make simple, healthy meals ౼ all for under $10 per meal for a family of four, which is more critical than ever during these uncertain times. Through these online shows, we’re able to reach out to the community in a way that is safe and meaningful. Our recipes focus on a different theme each month ౼ for example diabetes-friendly meals.

I’ve had a very exciting culinary journey, filled with challenges and successes. Whether it’s Covid, being a female chef, moving across the country, or across the world ౼ my biggest takeaway is that you have to genuinely love cooking in order to overcome obstacles and make it in this industry. For me, my love of cooking has pushed me to be determined, creative, and strong.

Written By: Hannah Alvarez, Executive Chef at Sodexo