Culinary News

London Women in Food

Bryan Lavery
Written by Bryan Lavery

Culinary, Hospitality and Agricultural Industry Drivers

The restaurant industry has been notorious for keeping the artistry of women chefs on the back burner, so to speak. London’s culinary scene has never had a lack of hard working, dedicated women in class rooms, kitchens, on farms, in fields, at markets and in retail, and that remains true today. While there are too many women to mention in this space, I am pleased to highlight a few of the remarkable leaders in our culinary, hospitality and agricultural industries. Though far from comprehensive, this alphabetical list represents some of the amazing women who are currently driving the London food scene.

Entrepreneur Val Andrews

Val Andrews, owner/operator of The Harvest Pantry at the Market at Western Fair, is a culinary professional bringing over 30 years of experience to her craft. Passionate about food, she has been cooking and preserving since she was old enough to stand on a stool and stir the contents of a pot. Since graduating from George Brown College Culinary Arts Program in 1984 she has worked as a food service manager, cooking and preserving instructor, caterer, farmers’ market stall operator, and occasional food writer. While living in Alberta she owned and operated a local meal delivery service and farmers’ market stall. She also worked as a culinary instructor at two Calgary-based cooking schools. Since returning to Ontario she has been exploring her ancestral roots as a third generation fermenter, preserver and grower of food. Andrews is dedicated to the use of local and organic ingredients and to creating an eating experience that is not only delicious but also health giving and memorable. For Andrews, good food, whether you are growing it, preparing it, or eating it has been a foundation for forging strong joyful relationships, building community and making meaningful connections.

Restaurateur/Chef T.G. Haile

Chef/restaurateur T.G. Haile embodies the art of hospitality and entrepreneurism. She is dedicated to supporting meaningful cultural and charitable initiatives and events, despite the fact that she is a busy hands-on restaurateur who does all of the cooking at her restaurant T.G.’s Addis Ababa. A few years ago, T.G. was selected as one of I am London’s successfully settled immigrants from various countries that have chosen London, Ontario as their home. T.G. is a skilled chef (her mother and her grandmother both operated restaurants) and her signature dishes from the repertoire of Ethiopian cookery comprise permutations of sweet, bitter, sour, salty, hot and fragrant. Refinement and flavour contrasts are the hallmark of T.G.’s cooking.

Entrepreneur Nicole Haney

Nicole Haney, founder and president of Boho Bake Shop and Boho Bars, is a self-taught baker. An avid runner and health enthusiast with a passion for food, Nicole was always on the lookout for treats that were healthy but also tasted delicious, and could never find what she was looking for. She graduated from Western University in 2007 with a degree in Psychology, and after years in corporate environments Nicole’s passion for healthy food and her entrepreneurial spirit led her to create Boho Bake Shop. With no prior experience in the food industry and no formal business training, Nicole taught herself how to bake and how to successfully scale a food business. What began as an in-home order-only bakery has in two years grown to be a successful wholesale bakery, supplying almost 50 retail partners with doughnuts, cookies, brownies, and energy bars. With two farmers’ market locations in London, Nicole is able to see in person the impact she is making in the community and loves that she is able to share gluten-free, plant-based baked goods with her clients.

Chef Alicia Hartley 

Alicia Hartley is a native of Guyana, the home of classic fusion cuisine, and although she immigrated to Canada at age thirteen, her background influences her cooking. Hartley’s culinary approach is both instinctual and thoughtful. She is a proponent of combining ingredients from various cuisines and regions with contemporary ideas. Hartley is known to ramp up the spice quotient, which she does to great effect. She credits her mother, who is part Chinese, for the Asian influence in her cooking repertoire. Hartley has left her mark on such restaurants as The Tasting Room, Blu Duby, and The River Room, and is now chef at Blackfriars. I queried Chef Hartley about her thoughts on the traditional patriarchal kitchen. “We are still kind of struggling,” she explained. “We still have the boys that try to put us women in our place. I call them boys because men don’t do that kind of thing. At Blackfriars we have a matriarchal system. I feel empowered by it. I am not afraid to be myself, I am not afraid to be ridiculed or judged, not only by Betty but by my colleagues and our clients. I don’t have to be good at everything anymore.”

Restaurateur Marika Hayek

Restaurateur Marika Hayek is celebrating 61 years at the landmark Budapest Restaurant in downtown London. A few years ago Hungarian Consul-General Dr. Stefania Szabo celebrated Hayek’s landmark achievements as a successful business owner and pillar of the London community. Hayek arrived in Canada in March of 1957, then 25. She and her husband were part of a wave of immigration that occurred after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Trained in Budapest as a cook, Hayek was drawn to the hospitality business when she arrived in London. While employed by Moskie Delicatessen on Dundas Street, Hayek bought the building and then the delicatessen from its owners. It included the ice cream shop next door. In 1968 she and her husband merged the two storefronts into a single operation. Out of the refurbished buildings they created the present-day restaurant. A formidable restaurateur with a keen aptitude for the business, she has embodied the height of Mittel European elegance and sophistication for decades. Hayek greets her guests with a gracious “please come in, my lovely peoples” or “my lovely ladies and gentlemen.” Those food enthusiasts who are inclined to dismiss the restaurant as an anachronism might want to take a closer look at the Budapest’s unique charms, before it becomes a thing of the past.

Restaurateur Betty Heydon

A long commitment to supporting women permeates the fabric of Betty Heydon’s Blackfriars Bistro & Catering. Heydon, who long ago perfected the art of hospitality, celebrated Blackfriars’ twenty-second anniversary in February 2018. She comes from a matriarchal family of 10 daughters. Previously Heydon spent 11 years working at the Marienbad. Her deliciously arty bistro, knowledgeable servers and top notch kitchen staff have been the embodiment of the matriarchy. Heydon says, “Blackfriars is the type of environment where women feel cared for and valued. We provide a level of comfort, and it’s the kind of space to which women gravitate.” Betty may be the Queen Bee but culinary luminaries and chefs Jacqui Shantz, Alicia Hartley, Julianna Guy, and Zakia Haskouri have all been part of a stalwart kitchen brigade in recent years. Creative and eclectic seasonal menus are personally handwritten by Heydon, who is also a well-regarded artist. This casual bistro located just west of the Blackfriars Bridge also features innovative, seasonal blackboard specials daily.

Restaurateur Jess Jazey-Spoelstra

Craft Farmacy is the latest venture from restaurateur/caterer Jess Jazey-Spoelstra, who operates North Moore Catering, The River Room, and Rhino Lounge in Museum London. Like any successful restaurateur/caterer, Jazey-Spoelstra has a particular je ne sais quoi and an innate talent for picking and mentoring professional staff who communicate her vision and deliver it with aplomb and finesse. Her culinary philosophy is to create exceptional food at reasonable prices. Jazey-Spoelstra says, “The rest is more theory— taste the ingredients, don’t muddle too many flavours, use excellent quality ingredients, and let the food speak for itself.” Hers are impressive achievements.

Chef Angela Murphy

Executive chef Angela Murphy of Restaurant Ninety One at Windermere Manor pursued academics out of high school and has a double major degree in Humanities and English Literature. Murphy has ambitions to be a food writer. It is why she went to the Stratford Chefs School. I asked Chef Murphy about her thoughts on the patriarchal kitchen hierarchy. She replied, “It is a question that zeroes in on the heart of ideal feminism and the issues we are all confronting in today’s new #metoo and #timesup world.”

“We need to change the perception around what a chef looks like. I’ve had so many staff members that are tall men with beards and tattoos thatautomatically garner a deep respect for their craft. There is an ingrained stereotype that I am constantly battling against as a young female chef. Whenever I go to events or even converse with guests at my own restaurant I am frequently asked if I am a student. As a woman a decade past her university graduation date with a wealth of knowledge and skill running a kitchen staff of 18, it’s a little patronizing. People mean well, they don’t intend any offense; it’s just tough when the public is genuinely shocked to discover that you are the woman in charge,” states Murphy.

“The traditional hospitality industry is inhospitable to women, especially in the back of house,” continues Murphy. “We have known this for years. The long hours, the macho aggression, the harassment present in so many kitchens. The thing is though, that it’s not just women that suffer from these common issues. Men don’t thrive in this environment either. I have worked with so many men that have had issues balancing work and life because of the late nights, the stress, and the physical labour. It only allows for a very narrow range of personalities to succeed.”

“In the ideal kitchen,” says Murphy, “and I like to think I model my own kitchen after that ideal, everyone feels supported, listened to, respected. Each staff member is allowed to explore their strengths, their interests, and to develop their weaknesses with the help of their peers without shame. Personal accountability is idealized. Mistakes are owned. Learning and growth is expected and encouraged. I would even go so far as to declare, utterly rebellious to the traditional chef mentality, that restaurants should be more accommodating to the personal lives of their staff. The kitchen is not a cult; you shouldn’t have to forsake your family, your friends and your relationships to be successful.”

Educator/Chef Josie Pontarelli

Chef Josie Pontarelli, a Stratford Chef School alumna, has a long and interesting resume that includes working at On the Fork and at the original iteration of Abruzzi Restaurant. Prior to that, Pontarelli managed the Green Room at Stratford’s Festival Theatre. There she was mentored by chef/cheesemaker Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy, who became an important influence in her early career. With 25 years of experience in the food industry, Pontarelli has had the opportunity to supervise many professional kitchens, develop restaurant concepts and recipes, provide food styling and recipe testing, and contribute to the local food movement in Southwestern Ontario. Currently, she teaches both aspiring and professional cooks at Jill’s Table and Fanshawe College. More recently, she co-founded the food and beverage pairing blog site Cork + Board with friend and sommelier Christie Pollard. Pontarelli is the Coordinator of the Artisanal Culinary Arts program at Fanshawe College and is a senior advisor of restaurant services at First Key Consulting.

Photographer Alieska Robles

This creative director and photographer extraordinaire brings something truly groundbreaking to the table by collaborating with culinary enthusiasts, chefs, farmers, and regional producers and craft brewers to create a one-time craft edition of The Forest City Cookbook. Robles has had a transformative impact on the local culinary scene with this initiative. More than 60 local chefs, sous-chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs and 40 area food producers are on board.

Robles envisioned the project as a community-driven and community building effort to help advance the culinary scene. The book includes contributions from such notable women as Jill Wilcox of Jill’s Table, Alaura Jones from Growing Chefs Ontario, chef Angela Murphy of Restaurant Ninety One at Windermere Manor, Barbara Czyz of Unique Food Attitudes, Carla Cooper of Garlic’s of London, Chandany Chen of Abruzzi Ristorante, Julianna Guy (Eatdrink magazine’s recipe contest winner), Katherine Jones of Growing Chefs Ontario, Meaghan Biddle of Locomotive Espresso, Michele Lenhardt of V Food Spot, Shannon Kamins of Booch Organic Kombucha, Shauna Versloot of The Live Well Community, Tabitha Switzer of La Noisette Bakery, Jocelyn de Groot of zen’Za Pizzeria and Yoda Olinyk of Yoda’s Kitchen.

Farmer/Activist Christine Scheer

Christine Scheer has been an important and inspiring voice in the local culinary scene as a chef, caterer, educator, cookbook author, local food movement advocate, writer and influential community food advisor for over three decades. In 1991 Scheer married, and she and her husband John Wilson quit their jobs and bicycled around the world. When they got home a year later they moved to Dolway Farm and began the process of converting the acreage into an organic farm. Until last fall, Covent Garden Farmers’ Market was managed by Scheer. It remains London’s only 100% producer-based market, which means that every vendor at the market sells what they themselves grow, raise, bake, or preserve. As a director of Farmers’ Market of Ontario for six years and at the Covent Garden Market for seven years Scheer has had a transformative impact on what we eat and drink. In 2017, two years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Scheer retired from these positions. She is an engaged member of the Middlesex London Food Policy Council.

Chef Jacqueline “Jacqui” Shantz

Jacqui Shantz trained at George Brown College and apprenticed at The Millcroft Inn before heading to Switzerland for two years, where she developed a love for skiing along with her own culinary style. Her culinary approach is described by restaurateur Betty Heydon as “cutting-edge with a respect for tradition.” Shantz build a solid reputation for culinary excellence at such restaurants as the former Castens, Crabapples and 99 King. She spent a decade as executive chef at J. P. Baillargeon’s Custom Cuisine Catering, one of the region’s most highly regarded special event and catering companies. Shantz is a crucial part of Blackfriars Bistro & Catering where she has been executive chef for the last 12 years. I recall an interviewer asking Shantz nearly three decades ago how she saw herself in the culinary hierarchy. Her tongue-in-cheek answer was “above [Paul] Bocuse.” We recently talked about the famed misogynist French chef who recently passed away at 91, and Shantz confirmed that when she went to see him there was a sign on the gate that stated “No Women Allowed.” Shantz has long been considered one of London’s top chefs.

Restaurateur Hiedi Vamvalis

Restaurateur and community leader Hiedi Vamvalis is a pillar of hospitality, and has been serving Greek/Mediterranean cuisine and traditional English fish and chips for over 40 years at the beloved Mykonos Restaurant on ­Adelaide St. ­Vamvalis previously sat on the board of the Grand Theatre and is a long-time supporter of the arts. She is currently a board member for the Family Advisory Committee for Mental Health. As has often been said, Vamvalis has likely given enough hugs in her career to embrace every resident of the city.



Entrepreneur Jill Wilcox

Jill’s Table is London’s paramount purveyor of fine foods and an award-winning specialty food and kitchen store in downtown London. Owner Jill Wilcox is an amazing culinary resource — supportive, knowledgeable, and a leader in promoting the local food community. For more than 22 years Wilcox has been leading cooking classes, most recently at Jill’s Table, and for more than 37 years has worked as a food columnist for the London Free Press and Post Media. Wilcox leads culinary

tours to France and Italy and has been the subject of numerous national magazine and newspaper articles. She has been awarded the London Chamber of Commerce Business Achievement Award and The London Y Women of ­Excellence award. In 2012 she started The Jill Wilcox Foundation to grant funding to food-related and educational projects that support women and children in need. She is an active member in the local food movement and volunteers on a number of food-related projects. Currently she sits on the board of the London Chamber of Commerce. Wilcox has published six cookbooks, including her latest, Jill’s Soups Stews & Breads.

I salute these talented and inspirational women who have made unique contributions to the local culinary scene. Their worthy peers are too many to mention in one article, but I would feel remiss not to name some other women. Stalwarts include the formidable Pat Spigos of High Lunch; Vanessa Willis of The Church Key Bistro-Pub; Michelle Pierce Hamilton of beTeas and The Tea Lounge; Joelle Lees of Michael’s On The Thames; Anna Turkiewicz of Klieber’s Deli; Barbara Czyz of Unique Food Attitudes; Michelle Lenhardt of the V Food Spot; Mies Bervoets, formerly of Miestro; Dagmar Wendt, formerly of Under the Volcano, Zakia Haskouri formerly of Casbah; Hilary Alderson Moon of the former landmark Say Cheese; Mary Ann Wrona of the former Café Bourgeois; and Ann McColl Lindsay of the former Ann McColl’s Kitchen Shop. Relative newcomers such as Julie Kortekaas and Chef Shayna Patterson of Rebel Remedy; Margaret Coons of Nuts for Cheese; Laura Owen of The Springs; Elaine Sawyer from Wich Is Wich; Liliana Hernandez-Oliva of North Moore Catering and Craft Farmacy; and The River Room’s sous chef Sarah Martins also make my list of formidable women in London’s culinary world. They are all making a difference.


About the author

Bryan Lavery

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.