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Making the Cut
Kimberly Nicoletti Blog Dining June 5, 2015
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Four Vail Valley female executive chefs reveal their challenges and passions

It’s hard enough to make the cut as an executive chef at a high-end Vail restaurant. But try breaking into a predominantly male career as a woman in the 1980s, like Larkspur’s, Paula Turner. Imagine navigating cultural and language barriers, like Veronica Morales, executive chef at dive {fish house} and Tacorico or Rosa Provoste at Sebastian’s, Leonora. Or having the courage to open a restaurant as Kelly Liken did in her early twenties.

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These four female executive chefs aren’t just tough – they’re passionate. Contrary to old-school-chef style, where pots and pans flew nearly as often as searing words, they are carving out a more gentle, nurturing way to run professional kitchens, as they pave the way for a future generation of top women chefs.

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How did your life in restaurants begin?

My thought was that I was  going to own a luncheonette/diner. That was it. I told my mom, “I’m gonna own a restaurant.” My first job was in a fine dining New Jersey kitchen when I was 15. It was very intense. I went from being responsible for a station when I hadn’t even been responsible for making my bed … (but) I just fit right in there. I was the little kid in the kitchen, and I never left. I was there all through high school, so I had no social life; Friday and Saturday nights were spent working. It was a whole new life; I went out with kitchen people. It was a quick learning curve, and I grew up fast. It is definitely a wild world … very Anthony Bourdain, especially 10 minutes out of New York City. It was a party scene and a fast-paced environment – old school – a lot of yelling and throwing things. People were mean and nasty.

What’s a typical workday look like now?

Yelling and screaming still happens. It’s a crazy environment. You put your line together, make sure you have all the ingredients … you have to prep, and you’re usually prepping into the service period, when the ticket machine starts screaming at you. You’re sweating, and you’re hot, and you’re uncomfortable, but it’s an adrenaline rush, too. It’s definitely a speed-freak career with 15-hour shifts where you never stop working.

What do you love about it?

I love the hospitality end of it. I love pleasing people – seeing people’s faces because they enjoyed my creations.

You and Kelly Liken are both married to chefs who understand the demands of your job. What about “non-chefs” spouses?

I know a lot of chefs who are married to spouses who aren’t chefs, and the biggest struggle is that their spouses do not get what we do and the hours we put in.

How difficult is it for a woman to become an executive chef?

It’s not as tough as it used to be, but it’s definitely tough. It used to be totally a man’s world, but it’s not as much anymore. There was no such thing as female chefs 20 years ago – or very few. It was looked at as a man’s career; so like any career, it was hard to get respect and hard to break in. Not only did you have to prove your skills, you had to be a part of the nasty screaming and yelling that used to happen. You had to do a little of that to have people notice you. As you get older, you don’t have to do that as much – you’ve proven your skills and have to be more nurturing. When I was younger, I had to prove I had balls. As I get older, I have to act like an adult, not a spoiled little brat.

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What gave you enough confidence to open your own restaurant at age 27?

Honestly, naivety gave me the confidence. I had no idea what I was getting myself into! I’m really glad, because had I known, I might have been too scared to do it.

What “epiphany” did you have when you first stepped foot into a professional kitchen?

My first restaurant job was in college; I just took it to earn some beer money, and I was a terrible waitress! But, from the moment I stepped into that first kitchen, it was like my hands just knew what they were doing. I can remember thinking, “This is what I’m meant to do.” I haven’t stopped cooking since. I dove right in.

What was it like being a female in a traditionally male-dominated career? 

At times it was challenging. Honestly, the time I felt it the most was in culinary school. I realized that I would have to be ten times better to get the same opportunities. I committed to being the best.

How do you envision the next generation of women chefs?

Rock stars. We bring certain gentility to the profession, and it’s been one of the best shifts the industry has had.

How did you break into celebrity television shows? 

It was a fluke, not something that I went after or had on my radar. The executive producer for Iron Chef called me one day. I thought I was getting punked! Turns out he was serious. I flew to New York City the next month, and everything snowballed from there.

What was the most challenging part of being on Iron Chef or Top Chef D.C.?

Top Chef is really challenging from a psychological standpoint. It’s exhausting, and that really gets to you after a while. It messes with your thinking; and that turns everything on its head. It’s very competitive, and there’s a lot on the line. On the other hand, Iron Chef is just plain fun. It’s all about the food and the cooking. We had a blast!

How would you introduce “yummy veggies” to people who aren’t big fans of vegetables?

Steamed, plain veggies can be so boring. I love to do new and different things. Purée, shaved, pickled. Just mix it up – you’ll love it.

What local charities do you support, and why?

Rick and I have a greenhouse and gardening program in our local elementary schools called Sowing Seeds. We teach kids about horticulture, life science and nutrition, as well as providing a sense of place in relationship to where their food comes from. We’re reaching over 1,000 students per week; we’re changing these kids’ lives.

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Where did you grow up and learn to cook?

I grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, in my younger years and moved to Vail when I was 13 because my mom put faith in the American dream. I have been living in the valley ever since. I learned to cook from my parents. Coming from a Mexican family, we would share meals together daily; and help was always needed around the kitchen.

How did you teach yourself to become a chef, and why did you decide against a culinary school?

Yes, I taught myself to be a chef, but you know that as a chef we never stop learning, we’re open to new challenges and new ideas every time. (As for) culinary school, I would like to go if I could, because I can always learn more.

What barriers did you face in making it as an executive chef?

The biggest challenge has been inside my head. I started at Dish as a dishwasher two weeks after they opened in 2006 – then a prep cook, then a grill cook, then sauté station, then sous chef; and then [owners] Pollyanna and Chris promoted me to executive chef in 2011. This involved trust from them, as owners, to elevate someone to these roles. The biggest barrier wasn’t a roadblock; it was a hurdle; and I got over it (by) knowing and trusting myself, my instincts, and keeping focused.

Have you had other challenges?

Sometimes it is a little bit difficult being both Latina and female in the kitchen, not from my co-workers or restaurant family, but from the stereotypes about my race and gender. We have open kitchens in both restaurants, and everyone sees what happens every step of the way. Sometimes there is disbelief or questions that I am the executive chef; but once I connect with our guests and they understand my joy and passion about food, all of that goes away.

What’s your cooking philosophy?

Always cook with your heart, your passion, your love for the food; and never allow yourself to get bored.

What would you say to kids, especially girls, who want to become executive chefs?

Simply chase your dreams and never give up, no matter how difficult sometimes this is. At the end of the day, it is worth it.

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Who and what inspired you to become a chef? 

My mother would get up in the morning and start cooking breakfast and lunch and thinking about what she was going to make for dinner. She was very creative, and every day would make something different with very simple ingredients. Also, I was an avid reader, and that made me dream about traveling to see the world; and I realized that cooking was a great way to do it. Everyone in any part of the world needs to eat – and enjoys it. I traveled and worked in Mexico, England, Cook Islands and Vanuatu Islands, the U.S., and Chile, of course.

How did you choose to live in Vail?

I came here for the first time in 1999 with a training visa for almost two years. I love the valley, the lifestyle and the fact it’s so similar on the views and landscape to the south part of Chile, where I come from. In 2000, I met my husband, who was born in Maryland but was living here for more than 10 years already. We moved to Chile and then traveled around the world a little, but always wanted to come back to live in Vail and raise our two kids.

 

Did you face discrimination, either due to race or sex, and how did you overcome it?

Not at as a supervisor or manager level, (but) yes, in the beginning when I was young and old-school chefs would like to work only with boys because they thought they were better. But if they got me in their kitchen, after a couple of weeks, they realized that I was the same or a better worker; and they wanted to keep me on their teams. I was not less than any of those boys!

 

How do you inspire your staff?

By leading by example, by doing everything the best I can, by being there when they need it, by communicating clearly on my expectations, and by letting them participate in the creation of new dishes or ideas. I tell them they can get anywhere they want to, but it’s up to them.

How do you remain so passionate at your job?

It’s all about doing the best you can every single time. Don’t take anything for granted, and learn something new every day. Be humble, and observe what’s going on around you.

What was your worst, or funniest, “screw up” in the kitchen?

When I was working in London in a café, I did mislabel some shaved leeks for SHAVED LEGS. Everyone made fun of me for a long time.

What warnings would you give young chefs?

Kitchens are not glamorous; you must love, love, love what you do to succeed. Don’t do it because you want to be a head chef; enjoy what you do, share and teach what you learn. Also be clean and organized.

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