Taking the Lead: Meet Six Successful and Inspiring Women Making their Marks on the Foodservice Industry

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Photography by Nick Wong

JUANITA DICKSON

First professional job
HR manager of a Mystery-Shopping Company called SQM. We did inspections on hotels and restaurants. They were in start-up mode at the time and I had to bring them from 10 shoppers countrywide to 1,000 and establish systems and procedures to get 2,000 mystery shops completed countrywide each month.

Definition of Success
Happiness, loving life and achieving goals that you have set for yourself.

Major Milestone
In my current role, a significant milestone has certainly been the launch and success of Felix Trattoria in the U.S. This was our first foray outside of the Toronto market and into one of the most competitive markets in the U.S. The accolades
and attention this restaurant has received have changed the game for us in terms of our global-expansion strategy.

Biggest Influence
Hmmm — tough one!  I would have to say my eight-year-old son Mason. In terms of changing behaviour and being responsible for shaping another human’s life — in the way that they think, behave, react, build relationships and focus their priorities — has redefined mentorship for me and has kept me accountable to being the best version of myself. Both challenging and rewarding, he has taught me the patience that I have always struggled with, reminds me of the importance of curiosity, demonstrates the value of treating people with respect and provides me with a broader perspective and meaning behind what is important in life.

What are some of the assumptions of women leadership you would like to challenge?
You don’t have to be a bitch to be powerful. Don’t misinterpret kindness for weakness.

Advice to women wanting to be in a leadership role
Don’t think about being a woman; think about being a great leader. And don’t strive to be a great leader despite being a woman; become a great leader because you are a woman.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
Taking the time to know what feeds your soul and makes you complete allows you to live a balanced life. For me it’s a combination of a challenging career in which I am always learning and making a difference, meaningful relationships with friends and family and an active, healthy lifestyle. If any of these are suffering, I know my focus has become skewed and requires course correction.  It’s a juggling act — but that’s part of the fun.

 

SAL HOWELL

First Professional Job
I worked on a couple of projects while travelling after graduating with a BFA from Mount Allison,” says Howell. “I had an opportunity to open my first restaurant as a partner with a group of seasoned restaurateurs when I was
about 24 years old — an amazing opportunity!”

Definition of Success
I’m still searching for this.

Typical Day
I always begin with a little self-care: “It could be a power walk or work-out, but I like to begin with some physical activity in the morning. Then I move on to reading reports and responding to emails before site visits at Deane House and the River Café.

Who was your mentor?
In terms of restaurateurs who used local and regional cuisine, I have to acknowledge Sinclair Philip at Sooke Harbour House as he was on the quest for ‘how local can we be?’ I also found inspiration in mountain resorts in Alberta — such as Buffalo Mountain Lodge, Deer Lodge, and Emerald Lake Lodge — where they pioneered the “taste-of-place” notion by using local game meats in their cuisine.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
Sometimes you just have to turn down a few opportunities. “I am a mother, wife, stepmother, daughter, godmother, grandmother. It’s all about choices and priorities. I always try to be there for my children and really value doing things with them.

 

JOSHNA MAHARAJ

First Professional Job
Baking muffins and scones for the café at Dish Cooking Studio.

Definition of Success
To me, success in life looks something like this: 1. Figure out who you are; 2. Build yourself a life that allows you to live your truth; 3. Help others along the way; 4. Be graceful when things don’t work out.

Major Milestone
Last year was a landmark in my career, marking 15 years of working as a chef. I also spoke at the Parabere Forum in Barcelona — a conference on improving gastronomy with women’s vision — about my activism within public institutions and the power of chefs to become meaningful agents of social change.

How would you describe your typical day?
I relish the freedom to set my own hours. So, the early hours of the day, I take for self-care rituals such as yoga and lazy coffee drinking. Next are meetings, followed by computer time to work through various projects. I’m more of a homebody in the comfort of my quiet apartment. I strike an even balance between work and personal life by ensuring my battery is recharged daily.

Who was your biggest influence?
One of my favourites is Julia Child. Julia was my kind of woman. She knew what she wanted to do and the fact that it hadn’t ever been done before was of absolutely no consequence to her. I have a quote from her on my wall that says “As long as you know what you want to do, there’s no reason to be scared of doing it.”

 

SUSAN SENECAL

First Professional Job
Restaurant manager trainee.

Definition of Success
Success is when multiple people feel good about what they’re accomplishing. I like to look at how many winners we can have in the winner’s circle. I’m very connected with our franchisors — so if I see their success, we’re thriving.

Major Milestone
When I began working in operations, I made a huge jump in my career. Another big milestone was moving into real estate and franchising. But, by being placed in different roles within A&W, I’ve been able to get a sense of what each person does; that makes me a better leader.

What are you most proud of?
As chief of Marketing Strategies at A&W, I experienced one of my greatest challenges and opportunities — redesigning A&W to meet the needs of millennials. This was probably the most inspirational time in my career because I got to lead a highly innovative, exciting and new development. I found myself plunged into an area of business that I wasn’t familiar with, so it was a steep learning curve, but really interesting.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
I was a young mother while working my way up the corporate ladder, but I didn’t find family and work life incompatible. I had a home office, so my kids saw what I was doing, they watched the calls I was making and I also included them in a lot of my travels. As a working mother, you’ve really got to get yourself organized as well and get supports. I had my parents close by to attend the hockey games that I wasn’t able to attend. You need a network of support.

How can the industry better encourage women?
When it comes to sexism, I would like to challenge the assumption that there are things people can or can’t do. It’s not because you are a man or a woman or born here or there that makes a person more or less likely to succeed. It’s the tensions between people — their differences and diversity — that create success.


ALEXANDRA FESWICK

Definition of success
When I was left in charge of a kitchen for an entire week (while the management team was away on a retreat), my confidence and competence were put to the test. That’s when I spotted a sign posted in the kitchen above the door to the dining room that read: “The road to success is paved by mistakes well-handled.” That quote got me through that week and has stayed with me to this day.

Major Milestone
Coordinating the Drake’s “The Dinner Party” last fall was a huge career milestone. It was incredible to look back at my career and to see that I had garnered a place in the culinary community where we were able to assemble such an accomplished group of chefs together. We gathered chefs and artists to make a statement about the beauty and importance of women’s work everywhere. For me, that was one of the most important nights of my career.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
Balance is overrated, so it’s unrealistic to always aim for something impossible. My day does not balance out into three eight-hour segments, so I do my best to keep my hand on the pulse of all the important areas of my life. I also have a husband who understands my career and my personal growth is just as important to me as my family is. I don’t think I could be happy in either facet without the ability to bounce back and forth between them.

What are some careers obstacles you’ve encountered?
As a woman, the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome in life, not only in my career, is people thinking that I’m not capable because I am a woman. It’s so frustrating when you’re not entering on a level playing field and you aren’t given a chance before you even start.

 

CONNIE DESOUSA

First professional job
The Owl’s Nest in the Westin Hotel,
as an apprentice chef.

Definition of Success
Success is reaching a balance between work life
and family life. That combo allows me to live my best life and feel full of happiness. It’s a joy to be able to feed the people I love — both in the restaurant and at home.

Major Milestone
Combining my passion for food and my personal life. I love to cook with my daughter. It brings so much pleasure to see her exploring food and we make great memories together. I also love setting the example of being a capable working mom. It’s important for all the female cooks I work with to see that it is possible — and fun.

Typical Day
The day begins by making breakfast for my daughter, responding to emails, doing a spin class or barre, then heading out to the restaurant to begin lunch prep. After that it’s more emails and business-related meetings before I start back at working on dinner service. Then I check with my team before leaving for the night. I might try to grab a yoga class after that, if I can. I have a rule that my days off are for family and I stay true to that.

Biggest Influence
My co-chef John Jackson is a major influence. He inspires and amazes me every day. And my mom, who showed me how sharing food around a table could truly bring a family together.

What is your business approach?
Whether guests are out for a quick bite, celebrating a milestone or having a romantic night out, we want to make it a memorable moment for them. Developing a relationship with local partners, farmers and food producers ensures that the quality of our food is top-notch.

Advice to women wanting to be in a leadership role
You can’t expect [success] to happen overnight — it takes a lot of years to get there. You have to work very hard, long hours, have goals and make a plan to achieve. Find a good mentor and be vocal about your goals. Patience is key.

 

Interviews by Jennifer Fabbraro

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