Sandy Chen knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in cooking. In a field still dominated by men, the local chef found herself undaunted after a difficult first day on the job four years ago. Overwhelmed by the hotel kitchen’s intense heat, she faced a senior chef with some unsavoury choice words for her.
“On the station I was working on that first day, I got heat stroke,” Chen says in a phone call. “The chef said I couldn’t take it. He called me a muffin cup.” In other words, he considered her a lightweight, literally telling her that if she couldn’t take the heat, she should get out of the kitchen.
His reaction just made her more determined to prove herself. “After that, I said: ‘Chef, you’re wrong. I’m going to prove to you I can do it,’ ” she says.
Sure enough, she went back the next day and wowed him.
Chen has been wowing people ever since. After working at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel for three years, she joined the team at Clement Chan and Steve Kuan’s Le Tigre food truck, and now she’s junior sous-chef at the pair’s Torafuku restaurant. In 2014 she won the title of B.C. chef of the year and placed third in the National Chef of the Year competition. Last year, she won the B.C. Chefs’ Association’s Iron Chef competition.
All this from someone who just completed her culinary training four years ago. After moving to Vancouver from Taiwan at age 12 with her older sister, Chen took on most household cooking duties: her sibling couldn’t find her way in the kitchen, and her guardian’s culinary repertoire consisted of frozen entrées from Costco. She discovered a passion for all things food-related and was determined to pursue a career in cooking even though her parents frowned upon the idea and insisted she go to university.
Chen got her BA in psychology and, undaunted by her parents’ disapproval, went on to study in the culinary program at Vancouver Community College.
Chen, 30, regularly puts in 14- to 16-hour days. She wouldn’t have it any other way; she’s never been happier. She considers Chan her mentor and also looks up to Torafuku’s female sous-chef, Danvee Kwok. She says women who are considering chef training shouldn’t be dissuaded by the fact that even though women still do most of the cooking at home, they are vastly outnumbered by men in restaurant kitchens.
“If you have a goal, you should never give up,” Chen says. “I want to tell all the ladies: ‘You can do this. We’re equal.’
“It’s been a tough journey but I’ve learned so much,” she adds. “I try to make food better every single day. When a customer finishes a meal and says it was the best they’ve ever had, it makes me feel like I chose the right career. I love it.”
Chen is just one of dozens of women who are rocking Vancouver kitchens, bringing their skill and enthusiasm to a labour force that is gradually diversifying. The hours make it challenging for women who want to have kids, but the days of the local restaurant industry being an old-boys’ club are changing....
For the full story, see the original article in The Georgia Straight.
Can you take the heat? Tour our kitchens, meet our chefs and learn more about culinary arts programs at VCC Info Night on April 20. RSVP now and you could win an iPad mini!