In the days following International Women’s Day, we had a chance to chat with Vanessa Percher, Chef & Owner of Chef Veganessa. Vanessa’s healthy eating philosophy and food-related advice hasn’t gone unnoticed in the hospitality industry. Vanessa talks about her position as a female chef in the hospitality industry, sustainable ingredients, and plant-based and vegan dining.

Plant-based food has become a movement that gains more and more attention, and the new Canadian Food Guide that came out in January 2019 confirms that this is not simply a fad. Yet, I can’t help but notice that restaurants often dismiss the importance of presenting vegetables in their natural state, and they are often relegated as side dishes.

What drew you to a career as a chef?

For as long as I can remember, I had a palate for food and always sought out new flavors. My mother did a lot of entertaining at the house and I loved to help her prepare the food! My maternal grandmother, who is of Italian descent, taught me how to make handmade pasta and to always use the freshest ingredients to prepare a dish. As a young adult, I was encouraged by friends and family to pursue a career in the food industry, and I eventually enrolled into culinary school.

I was devastated after being diagnosed with celiac disease. Therefore, I decided to study Ayurvedic nutrition and healing in India. It completely changed the way I perceived and prepared food, and I eventually merged my knowledge of Ayurvedic cooking with my professional cooking background, which also led me to specialize in vegan foods that are gluten-free.

What obstacles have you faced as a woman in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?

I am petite and look younger than I am, so people always had a hard time gauging and appreciating my level of experience and expertise until they saw me in action. Like many other women, I worked harder than my male counterparts in order to earn the professional respect of my peers. This prepared me and motivated me to open my own business and let my food speak for itself!

In your opinion, does the glass ceiling exist for women in your sector?

Unfortunately, it does, and it’s probably a tough nut to crack. The nature of the restaurant business, with its evening and weekend shifts, poses special challenges for women who would like to pursue restauration as a career. It can be particularly challenging for chefs or aspiring chef mothers to manage this work-life balance. Rather than leave this sector altogether, women can be entrepreneurial and create their own opportunities, such as providing food delivery services. This has allowed me to strike a work-life balance that allows me to thrive both as a mother and a chef.

What advice would you give to a woman thinking of starting a career in the hospitality industry?

If you truly have a passion for what you do, persevere and follow your dream! Do not expect to graduate from culinary school and become a chef overnight. The food service industry is a physically demanding job with long hours, and it’s a lot of hard work that often comes from trial and error. I love what I do, and nothing beats the look of satisfaction and joy on a customer’s face when they are enjoying your creation! Instant gratification is priceless! There is room to innovate in food but also in the food business. Beyond working as a chef in a restaurant, I offer private chef services, catering services, cooking classes, consulting services, and recipe development to restaurants and food distributors, all of which can be gratifying and professionally enriching. As a woman, I now find that being a successful chef and having a family are not mutually exclusive.

“The main focus of my business at Chef Veganessa is to offer a delicious plant-based and gluten-free meal service. The food is prepared and packaged for delivery in such a way where presentation of the food comes second to freshness and taste.”

How do you think your industry will change in the next 5 or 10 years? In particular, how will it change for women?

I think there will continue to be pressure on women enrolling in culinary school and becoming chefs. However, I believe the food industry, culinary schools, business owners, and even governments can support [and] encourage talented women to become chefs as well as innovators and entrepreneurs in my industry.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It’s a day to celebrate how far women have come, where they are going, and to recognize the obstacles they have overcome and still face. Now that I have a daughter, I’m uncompromising in my desire to be the best mom I can be and also a chef and an entrepreneur. I’m aware of my role as role model for her, and I also hope to inspire other young women to see themselves thriving in the food industry. I’ve been lucky enough to travel worldwide and see how fortunate I am to be living in a part of the world where I can follow my dreams and passions as a woman, and that I have basic freedoms that so many women around the world still struggle for. This is something that we often take for granted.

Colette Grand Café as part of Chef Vanessa’s International Women’s Day partnership