Woman in Charge - Executive Chef Isabel Chung
Female executive chefs are a lot like award-winning hotel restaurants — rarities in an industry where both still face bias. So, in some respects, Isabel Chung is practically a unicorn. Executive chef of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, she is currently the only top-toque-wearing boss lady in the entire group of 76 Fairmont hotels and resorts worldwide.
Last spring, the fine-dining Grill Room (one of six restaurants she oversees, in addition to room service, banquets and catering) was named best Whistler restaurant in the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards, a decision that stunned everyone — her and Executive Sous Chef Derek Bendig most of all. “We promptly almost fell out of our chairs,” she says, thinking back to the awards ceremony. “I was not prepared to make a speech of any sort. There might have been some rambling.”
For the record, Chung is not the rambling type. She speaks clearly, concisely and looks you straight in the eye with a disarming grin when she tells you just how competitive she is. “I want to win — all the time,” she says, with a long, serious pause followed by a ripple of laughter. Even her laugh, a high-octave trill, has the ping of silvery coins falling neatly into narrow slots. One can only imagine how clean and organized her kitchens must be. “There is no such thing as clean enough,” she says — not jokingly.
Still, Chung was rendered momentarily speechless when the Grill Room won gold for “wowing the judges” with its “brilliant forest-, farm-, field- and fish-to-fork menu that includes the likes of cedar-cured ivory salmon with apple cream.” The Grill Room’s deeply funky dry-aged steaks from nearby Pemberton Meadows, luscious milk-fed pork belly from Quebec and plump Berezen shrimp (land-raised locally and sustainably) are indeed divine. So why was the win for this elegant room with its roaring fireplace and impeccable tableside service such a surprise?
To begin, the Grill Room was a first-time nominee. And in the previous 28-year history of the awards, Araxi, a standalone restaurant, had only lost once (to the Bearfoot Bistro in 2009). The Grill Room is also a hotel restaurant in a large luxury hotel (539 guest rooms and suites), where a million spinning plates must always be kept aloft. And unfair as it might be, hotel restaurants — unless run by a big-name celebrity chef — rarely get any recognition. They’re seen as afterthoughts or amenities on par with fitness rooms, perhaps necessary for in-house guests, but rarely destinations in their own right.
“We fight that mentality all the time, which is why it was an incredible honour just to be nominated,” Chung explains. “Derek and I have been working hard, developing great new suppliers, dreaming the dream and trying to bring a true love-of-food culture back into a kitchen that had suffered from several years of turnover and uncertainty; because I really don’t think you should cook if you don’t love food. Cooking is not an easy job, it’s a terrible 9 to 5. There are better ways to make money.”
Chung developed her own love of food — and competitive streak — while growing up in Calgary. Being part of a traditional Chinese family, she says pork was an “essential food group.” Sundays were reserved for baking Singaporean specialties with her mom, and holidays were spent fishing for salmon on Haida Gwaii or travelling all over Asia with side trips to Australia, Bali and Hawaii.
“I grew up in a household where, if you brought home 95 per cent on a test, someone would say, ‘What happened to the other 5 per cent?’”
A melancholy shadow falls across Chung’s face as she talks about her mother, who was diagnosed with brain cancer when Chung was 10. After multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, she passed away five years later. (Last year, Chung spearheaded the ELLEvate TogetHER fundraising dinner with many of Canada’s female culinary leaders in her mother’s honour.)
“I think I was more balanced than some of the other Tiger Mom families. My dad was just busy trying to figure out how to be a single father. But I learned from a very young age that while marks are important, you also had to be a good person.”
Her father, however, did not think that the chef’s life was a good fit for his bright young daughter, who had studied commerce before transferring to culinary arts.
“My poor dad,” she says. “He worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Montreal to pay his way through school to become an accountant and then a CFO. He 100 per cent did not want me to become a cook. He said, ‘It’s a phase. She’ll get over it.’ And he made me pay for my own schooling — so I got a job. But now he’s OK with it. He and my stepmom are proud. She gets very upset if I don’t tell her when I’m appearing on TV or doing something important.”
That first job was as an apprentice at Calgary’s Delta Bow Valley Hotel (formerly owned by the Fairmont). “I’ve been with the company since 2001 — I like to tell people I started when I was 12,” she jokes. She rose rapidly through the ranks and was quickly promoted to sous chef after moving to Bermuda’s Fairmont Southhampton in 2005. Three years later, she joined the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for the first time as sous chef in charge of banquets and later restaurants. She then went to the Fairmont Olympic Seattle as executive sous chef before returning to Whistler, at the top of her career, in 2015.
She is reluctant to talk about whether she faced obstacles as an ambitious woman in a male-dominated industry. “I’m going to say yes, because I think most women have, but not in the way that most women talk about it. I’ve been incredibly privileged to work with some great mentors, both men and women. And my leaders have never questioned my abilities as a woman. But I have faced some adversity from colleagues. They probably didn't look at it as sexism.
They were trying to be nice guys by picking up a 50-pound bag of potatoes instead of letting me put away the grocery order, which is part of my job. But by doing so, they were not letting me validate my position. Believe me, I always stood my ground firmly. And no one here accuses me of being a girl. They wouldn’t get away with it.”
Chung is obviously comfortable in her own skin and confident in her abilities. She is humble and rightly proud of the many multifaceted (not always glamorous) duties her position entails. There aren’t many chefs who would check their ego while touring a journalist around their newly renovated Portobello sandwich bar and retail market to point out the more mundane, less glamorous aspects of the job: the fancy candy (“We were the first Sugarfina retailer in Whistler.”); the Warm Buddy plush toys (“Our top-selling item.”); the custom hand sink with a knee-pedal push (“Yes, kitchen design is part of my job.”); and the take-out fridge (“We were loading this long after midnight the day we opened … with only two hours sleep, I came back to help serve what felt like 800 breakfasts.”).
Being an executive chef, she explains, is a bit like being a chameleon and ensuring that everyone else gets what is needed. “Derek doesn’t need me for culinary inspiration in his day-to-day job because he’s an accomplished culinarian and a great artist. But I’ve also worked with chefs who are weaker in their foundation skills and sometimes you need to micromanage the dishes until they’re perfect. If I’m walking through the kitchen and someone’s slicing prosciutto with the skin on, I’m also the person who stops and says, ‘Hey, you need to take that off.’ I’m the person who puts the grocery order away on Sunday if everyone else is away. At the same time, I’m the person who sits in the strategic meetings and plans what the kitchen is going to look like in the future or how we’re going to spend our money on capital five years from now.”
In her mind, the best way to help women is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed — assuming they’re willing to put in the hard work. The Fairmont’s apprentice program, she says, is dear to her heart, noting that she has seven apprentices, more than any other Fairmont hotel in the region. “School is important, but it has to be balanced with practical application,” Chung explains. “Many schools only give you one shot to debone a chicken and then send you out into the world. You’ll never make chef if you can’t debone a chicken, cook 100 steaks and run the line. If you come work for us, you’ll get a ton of experience with butchery and pastry and all the things you need to master to get to the top.”
When interviewing people for jobs, Chung is often asked (especially by young women) if there is room in the Fairmont for upward mobility. “Absolutely,” she replies. “And I’m a prime example.”