Women in Food — & Drink! (2020): Talented Women Making a Difference

Written by The Editors

It was once a truism that there is a woman standing behind every great man. That may still be the reality today but the women profiled in the following pages stand here on their own merits. In many cases there is a man standing proudly beside them, but their contributions are no secret.

In compiling this list, the only rigid criteria is that a candidate has not been celebrated previously in this annual Eatdrink tradition. Our goal is to present a diversity of candidate, from veteran contributors to our region’s culinary life, to relative newcomers who are making a mark. Once again, the list of worthy candidates is far longer than the final honour roll, but we’ve resisted the tempation to shorten the length of the profiles to fit more women into the limited space we have available. We assigned a group of writers to the difficult job of keeping these summaries brief —an agonizing process — but their creative snapshots and different approaches to the job offer insightful introductions that we believe do justice to some of the most influential women in our region’s food and drink culture.

An effort to divide this list according to roles — chefs, entrepreneurs, and such — proved futile, as so many of these women wear multiple hats. On any given day, one job might define their role, only to change moments later. These are creative women, and problem solvers, and that is the common ground that unites them. One list of names, and the arbitrary nature of alphabetical order, follows. Prepare to be impressed. 

Nicole Arroyas
Chef/Owner of Petit Paris & The Coop Rotisserie, London /
By Sue Sutherland Wood

Chef Nicole Arroyas always knew that her career would be centered around food. From her early years (she was working in the kitchen at her parent’s restaurant, Archie’s Fish and Chips, at age 13) to moving to France to attend the prestigious culinary school, Institut Paul Bocuse, to running the Auberge du Petit Prince restaurant for five years, she has already lived many lives. More recently, Nicole has been able to create a vehicle for her long-held love of all things pastry in the highly-regarded retail/supply patisserie Petit Paris, located in Covent Garden Market.

“I take each day as it comes and am thankful for family and for being able to do what I love, working with an amazing passionate team every day,” Nicole shares. She adds that “as a woman, sometimes, you are not taken seriously and respected; however, this only drives my passion more and pushes me to be the best I can be. I am proud to be a woman raised in Canada where we have equal rights and opportunities.” 

Nicole’s newest venture, The Coop Rotisserie Express — online delivery from The Coop Rotisserie, another of Nicole’s success stories and also located within Covent Garden — provides convenient wholesome foods (including brined slow-roasted chicken), all made from scratch. A full catering menu has recently been added with delicious options for breakfast, lunch and dinner and (of course!) desserts. The Coop Express — at the Commissioners Road location — will also feature Archie’s Famous Fish and Chips. Good to know, The Coop boasts eco-friendly packaging.

Jennifer Boyar
Co-owner of sixthirtynine, Woodstock
As told to Nancy McSloy

Celebrating 15 years as an independent, family-owned business, we are Oxford County’s only farm-to-table restaurant where menus are seasonal, based on local products with everything prepared in house.

I am the co-owner with my husband and business partner, Chef Eric Boyar. We took over from Eric’s mother last year. Eric has always been chef and I have always been involved in some capacity. I manage the front house, which includes training, scheduling, serving and assisting our Wine Director to curate wine, beer and cocktail lists.

As a Registered Nurse, I felt that caring for people was my true calling. I left nursing to stay home with my children but felt a void, wondering what my future would bring. Serving customers has been a wonderful way to communicate the care and attention I practiced as a nurse. Ensuring that customers have incredible, artisanal meals combined with the best in genuine, warm, attentive and professional service makes me happy.

To be hands-on in your business while balancing home and family life takes effort and perseverance. This industry is not for the weak at heart. I love the challenge because of the feeling you get when you hear a buzz in your dining room, see guests happy and relaxed, treating themselves to a nice meal. You feel a sense of purpose being fulfilled in front of your eyes. 

I love supporting women in our communities as I can identify with their struggles. I am a member of Oxford Women in Networking and sit as a chair on the International Women’s Day committee. I love connecting with other businesses to bring unique events to Oxford County. 

Natalie Chapman
Manager, David’s Bistro, London
As told to Kym Wolfe

I started working at the Bistro as a server in high school, almost 20 years ago. Once I started working busy weekends and getting to know the customers and found a wee bit of confidence I knew it would be for life!

Growing up my Dad was not home too much — he worked six days week until at least midnight. Once I got to know the business and the customers, I understood why he put in that effort and time, and I wanted to do it with him. Now that I have my own children, I’m very lucky that Dad tries to help me find a better balance of work and family time.

There have been challenges — like “the night from hell” as it is referred to, when the cash register died. Getting through those with a team of people all in it together is like no other satisfaction!

On the flip side you have nights when things go perfectly with seating and orders, the kitchen is on fire — in a good way! — and customers tell you how much they enjoyed their evening. And then, when it’s all cleaned up, you get to sit down for dinner with your work family, which for me is extra special because that includes my Dad. 

What makes David’s Bistro special for me is our customers. We are serving some third generation! I work front of the house, and we try to have unique and interesting wines. To ensure I have the knowledge to recommend and pair wines, I have taken the first level sommelier course. 

Eventually I will take over the restaurant, but right now Dad is still “king of the castle.” Even when he retires it will always be David’s Bistro.

Erin Circelli-Russell
Head Chef/Instructor at The Chef’s Table, Fanshawe College, London
By Bryan Lavery

London native Chef Erin Circelli-Russell is one of the city’s most influential chefs and culinary educators, inspiring hundreds of young chefs. Chef’s deep appreciation for cuisine developed when she was exposed to a variety of foods and traditions at an early age. This would fuel her lifelong passion for cooking. Working in a pasta and sandwich shop at the age of 15 was the beginning of her culinary career.

Enrolling in the Culinary Management program at Fanshawe College, she became an award-winning graduate focusing on and excelling in culinary competitions. It was at this point that she embraced her career with passion. She completed her culinary apprenticeship in Scotland and continued to travel the world, diving deep into local cultures and cuisines.

Upon returning home in 2003, she secured a position at Fanshawe College as a Seal Chef. Currently Circelli-Russell is the head chef instructor guiding hospitality students at The Chef’s Table, the teaching restaurant at Fanshawe College. With a passion for food and education, she guides students towards gaining practical hands-on experience and an understanding of what it really means to work in and be committed to the hospitality industry. The Chef’s Table honours the procurement of local and sustainable foods and is focused on serving quality and seasonal Ontario grown ingredients and Ocean Wise approved seafood. 

Circelli-Russell encourages the students to try new and exciting mashups with food and drink. In her eyes, everything can be paired with everything, and there are no rules about food and cooking. Outside the restaurant, you’ll find her baking up a storm and producing some fantastic cakes and sweet creations, as well as teaching her three children about the world of food and the local culinary community. “Start them young, and with any luck, they too will develop a lifelong love of the kitchen,” says Circelli-Russell. 

Ellie Rachel Cook 
Co-owner, The Root Cellar, LOLA Bees & On The Move Organics, London
By Bryan Lavery

As a long-time sustainable food advocate, Ellie Cook is co-founder and co-owner of Old East Village’s farm-to-table organic restaurant The Root Cellar, and the natural urban beekeeping project LOLA Bees. She is also a co-owner of On The Move Organics. 

As an avid beginner beekeeper, unconventional special events coordinator, and ­environmentalist, Ellie strives to create opportunities for people to engage with the local food system. The Root Cellar is the only genuinely farm-to-table restaurant in London. 

“Since we opened our doors in 2012, our ethos at The Root Cellar has been to support and grow our local, sustainable food system, says Cook. “My partners and I aren’t as much restaurateurs as environmentalists who approach our work through the lens of local food. Our menus are simple, familiar and seasonal, and we’re pretty fanatical about our sourcing practices. Because of the incredibly hard work of our sister company, On The Move Organics, we’re able to purchase directly from dozens of small organic farms surrounding London.” 

“As business owners, we’re also interested in how far we can push the envelope of sustainability. In 2019 we joined Green Economy London, and that’s been an invaluable resource for us. We’ve been avid composters since day one and go to great lengths to divert all our organic waste from the landfill. These days we’re increasingly interested in reducing food waste and packaging, tracking/reducing/offsetting our carbon emissions, and learning more about regenerative and urban agriculture and supporting pollinators.”

“My food philosophy continues to evolve as I learn more about sustainable agriculture. These days I’m particularly interested in the intersections between food, place, and sustainability. Also relevant is whether my picky kids eat the food I prepare!” 

Roula Dereza
Owner, Merla-Mae, London
By Sue Sutherland Wood 

Roula Dereza (left) & Julie Stavrou
Roula Dereza (left) & Julie Stavrou

Roula Dereza, charming owner and business­woman at Merla-Mae Ice Cream, has been making customers happy for many years with a simple yet effective set of values. “My parents were always entrepreneurs and taught me the value of hard work and dedication,” Roula shares. “Even now, my mother [Julie Stavrou], who is retired, still comes in on a daily basis to make sure everything is up to par. That alone makes me very passionate to strive to be successful, to continue my parents’ legacy.” 

Many of Merla-Mae’s faithful customers are now bringing their own children (or even grandchildren!) to taste their first “half and half” soft serve cone or place an order for one of the famous ice cream cakes for birthdays and special occasions. It seems fitting that such a family-fueled institution would create family traditions for others, and Roula says many customers report having Merla-Mae cakes every year since they were born. This old fashioned, vintage vibe is completely intentional and Roula notes that she takes pride in offering “fast friendly service” and this is reflected again in the Merla-Mae motto: Through these windows we serve the finest people in the world … our customers. That’s how we felt in 1957 and we STILL feel the same today!”

Manuela Frongia
Manager, Blackfriars Bistro & Catering and Lavery Culinary Group, London
By Bryan Lavery
Photo: Phong Tran

Manuela Frongia was born in London, Ontario and moved back to her father’s hometown of San Mugheo in Sardinia when she was 10 years old. Returning to Canada in 1997, she worked with Bryan Lavery and Chef Barbara Toomer at the former Murano Restaurant. Frongia is a founding member of London’s former Slow Food Convivium and advocate of the Slow Food Movement. She has worked closely with Lavery producing events over the past 20 years. Frongia has been, and is still, instrumental in various fundraising and charitable initiatives. 

As catering manager at Blackfriars Bistro & Catering, Frongia works alongside culinary luminaries Betty Heydon and Chef Jacqueline Shantz. Her milieu and focus are in the dining room at Blackfriars Bistro, an environment where have women felt cared for and valued for 24 years. 

Frongia is also a long-time associate of the Lavery Culinary Group and helps manage and customize culinary experiences, special events, pop-ups and cooking classes. This involves planning, coordinating, delivering and evaluating a variety of innovative fundraising, culinary and special events. 

Frongia has worked as a cooking instructor with an expertise in regional Italian cuisines, particularly Sardinian, and has a strong background in regional types of pasta making, taught to her by her Calabrian mother. More recently she has worked as a food stylist for Gotham Studio boutique photography and videography studio located in downtown London. Frongia has two daughters, Isabela and Sophia, and a spirited puppy named Luna.

Nancy Hotson
Owner, Buzz Stop, Stratford
By Melissa Graham

You can tell the moment you walk in that Nancy Hotson’s Buzz Stop was the first gourmet coffee shop in Stratford. It smells fantastic. Nancy has been on York Street for 30 years. She has fresh roasted coffee beans delivered weekly. Organic and fair trade, including Ethiopian, Viennese and Turkish. She sells a lot of beans. There is tea, too. 

Nancy says she feels “blessed to have such loyal customers from far and wide.” There are lots of locals and downtown business-people that come in for a cup to go, or a pound for home. In the summer there are regulars that come every year when they visit the Festival. Many have been coming since the coffee shop opened. And not just for the fabulous coffee. Nancy has a vast selection of well-stocked humidors holding some of the best cigars in the world. Cuban, of course, but also Nicaraguan, Dominican, and Honduran. She also has pipe tobacco and pipes. 

There are jams, marmalades (bought one!) and preserves from Scotland. And biscuits and crackers from Holland to serve with local Stonetown cheeses, and jars of preserved lemons and chestnuts. 

Nancy volunteers with Feline Friends, and all tips go to animal-related causes. There is a quaint courtyard patio in the shaded front of The Buzz Stop where you can relax and enjoy a river view with your coffee. 

Deborah Hunter
Co-owner/Chef de Cuisine/CFO, The King Edward Restaurant & Pub, Ilderton
By Sue Sutherland Wood

After well over a decade of success at The King Edward Restaurant & Pub in Ilderton, co-owner Deborah Hunter is still refreshingly upbeat about the many hats she wears in her busy life. “There is nothing more feminine than a strong woman who is confident in the role of Co-owner, Chef de Cuisine and CFO, while also being a mother, wife and grandmother,” Deborah says.

The King Edward prides itself on authenticity as a pub (Deborah’s husband and co-owner, Rich Hunter, is a genuine Englishman himself) and as you might expect, there is a stellar selection of both locally crafted beers, British imports and cider. (The King Edward also boasts one of the few hand-pulled cask beer systems in Southwestern Ontario). The menu is also extensive (over 50 different kinds of chicken wings) but traditional pub-fare such as Steak and Murphy’s Pie and a selection of hand-made burgers are also available, as well as Daily Specials and take-out options. (Deborah points out that everything is “scratch-made, utilizing local ingredients.”) Noteworthy is a particularly thoughtful Kids’ Menu, with realistic but wholesome, keeping-it-real choices such as buttered penne pasta with parmesan and a salad. 

Running a business while balancing family commitments is gritty, hard work but Deborah’s sincere passion and energy have helped make the King Edward a sought-after destination.

Kimberly Hurley
Co-owner, Keystone Alley, Braai House and The Little Green Grocery, Stratford
By Melissa Graham

Kimberly Hurley is the co-owner of Keystone Alley, Braai House and The Little Green Grocery. Keystone Alley has been a part of Stratford’s casual fine dining scene for over three decades. Kimberly and her husband/business partner Anthony Jordaan have owned Keystone for four years and continue to offer the quality hospitality that people have come to expect. 

Braai House is a new adventure that began with great success last year. It focuses on South African open-fire cooking (Braai is Afrikaans and rhymes with dry) — fire bringing together people, food and nature in a comfortable atmosphere. 

The Little Green Grocery offers local produce in low-waste and reusable containers. The store offers many new products with a seriously environmental attitude, taking little steps towards changing the way we shop. “No positive change comes with guilt,” Kimberly says. 

Kimberly is a Doctor of Audiology, a career she continues. She also does the marketing, front of house, customer relations, and inspired social media for all three businesses. Anthony is a chef who’s been in the industry for 20 years. They are equal partners in their adventures. And they have three young children. 

Kimberly and Anthony have a close relationship with their staff. Kimberly says, “We’ve created a family of people with the same common goal.” There is no “us or them,” she adds. Many staff are graduates from chef schools and share Kimberly and Anthony’s love of seeing people enjoy what they have created. Kimberly stresses love of food, health and wellness. The couple are also involved in volunteer work, including Soup’s On and Heartburn Day. 

Keystone and Braai House have two of the nicest patios in town where, thanks to fireplaces, fire table and torches, you can sit well into the fall. They also offer in-house craft beer brewed in the basement. You may find Kimberly on the patio enjoying a well deserved glass at the end of day — whenever that is!

Katherine Jones 
Chef, Growing Chefs! Ontario, London
By Bryan Lavery

Executive Chef Katherine Jones is a Stratford Chef School graduate and for eight years has been with Growing Chefs! Ontario, working to challenge the perceived limitations of children and youth in the kitchen. Her interest lies in using hyper-local ingredients and foraged finds. A day in the work-life of Jones can include anything from leading a family-activity cooking class for 150 people in a school, to helping the Beet lunch team produce up to 300 healthy lunches daily for their school and camp lunch program. It might also include harvesting vegetables in the learning garden or hosting a fundraising dinner for Growing Chefs! programming initiatives. 

Jones’ interest in foraging took root after her daughter was born. She stated, “We lived next to a beautiful green space and throughout the seasons we would take baskets to collect, taste, and learn together, as a family, about what was growing in our backyard.” As a chef, this opened her eyes to the bounty of ingredients available and allowed her food to become more individual, idiosyncratic and exciting. What she did not anticipate was that, once she gained a firmer knowledge and understanding of the culinary and medicinal uses of plants, her perception of Canadian cuisine would change. “I am proud to be able to incorporate these truly Canadian ingredients into menus, and to share this knowledge about invasive plant species and native plants, as a way to get people excited about going outdoors and walking through the forests with their friends and families,” she says. 

Food education centres can teach children and families to develop healthy relationships with food. “Food literacy means building excitement around food, and a willingness to learn about what we eat. Reading recipes and cooking meals from scratch will significantly increase food literacy. If kids have a hand in what they are making, they are much more likely to try it,” says Jones. “What we try to do at Growing Chefs! is to let people have fun with food. It is not about your technical skillset, or the nutritional breakdown of recipes, just cooking with your children and playing in the kitchen will increase everyone’s food literacy.

Dianne Krampien & Annette Gerber
Distinctly Tea, Stratford
By Melissa Graham

Dianne Krampien has been selling tea on York Street for over a decade. She started as an employee and became the owner nine years ago. Her right hand is her daughter Annette Gerber. “We work well together,” says Dianne. “I love working with my mother,” Annette adds. 

Both Dianne and Annette studied at the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada and are certified tea sommeliers. 

Annette continues, “I love finding the right tea for the right person.” 

They enjoy loyal customers from near and far. More recently they have noticed a younger audience popping in for a cup. 

The tea selection is vast, lining the walls up to the ceiling. All kinds of tea: Earl Grey, Oolong, all the greens, fruit, and even chocolate teas. All naturally flavoured. The teas come in multiple sizes, from a 10-gram taster up to a kilogram. Most of the tea is blended in Germany. 

A selection of beautiful Polish pottery and Japanese teapots, traditional and modern, decorate the store. Dianne and Annette host tea tastings in the winter, but in the summer they are too busy. 

Hot tea to go is available all year, and iced tea in the summer to enjoy while you walk along the river. “Tea is so good for your health. I have been known to be called a tea pusher!” Dianne tells me. And indeed — I did buy some excellent tea.

Deb Kussmann
Owner, Pepper Tree Spice Co., Port Stanley & Western Fair Market, London
As told to Nancy McSloy

Launched as Hyde Park Spice in 2010, the company was rebranded as Pepper Tree Spice in 2012. We are now Canada’s leading artisan spice crafter with over 300 organic and natural spices, best known for our 90-plus proprietary artisan hand-crafted blends made on-site in Port Stanley. Our blends are made with little to no salt, wheat, dairy or additives. We also carry gourmet foods, gluten-free and vegan options, local artisan cheese and bread, as well as quality kitchenware. 

We offer a fresh alternative to mainstream spice solutions as well as private blending services for clients nationwide. It is a spice wonderland! Our cooking classes and workshops are a great platform to learn about local and international cooking and more about spices.

Our business is for everyone regardless of culinary experience. By offering the highest quality products available, exceptional customer service and a welcoming space our customers can be creative and inquisitive. For me the creativity is endless!

This business has been a natural fusion of three significant influences in my life: a farm upbringing, an art degree and a 20-plus-year career in manufacturing management. At 30 I returned to school and obtained a master’s degree in business. It is never too late to put yourself out there! I did at 45 and love it!

My advice to other women would be: don’t cut corners, do your research, find a niche and be prepared to work long hours. Surround your self with great, supporting people and go for it!

Lori Lupton 
Sales Representative, Pelee Island Winery, Kingsville
As told to Kym Wolfe

I started in this business 35 years ago in Stratford and learned from wine expert Bill Munnelly, the founder of Billy’s Best Bottles. He’s still my mentor. Bill brought wine culture to everyone from the novice wine drinker to the wine collector. I’ve adopted his philosophy — you can enjoy a good bottle of wine without having to spend a fortune.

I’ve been with Pelee Island Winery for 20 years. My job is all about creating relationships, and they’ve allowed me be as creative as possible with our clients. Many have been long term clients in the hospitality industry, who I work with to create wine lists. I have the pleasure of working with brides and grooms to help them choose wines for their special day, with the LCBO to promote our wines, and with the general public at trade shows. 

Pelee offers Southwestern hospitality at the winery in Kingsville and the pavilion on the island. I love bringing customers to both. As the southernmost inhabited point in Canada, Pelee Island is still a well-kept secret. There are always lots of laughs and a bit of education or the sharing of something new about our wines. 

One of my favourite memories goes back to when I was working with the LCBO. I was at Vinexpo in Bordeaux and the Canadian flag was raised after an Ontario winery was awarded the top prize. I’m very proud of how Ontario has grown its world class wineries, and to have been a small part of that success by promoting not just Pelee Island but all Ontario wines.

Meredith Maywood
Product Development & Marketing Tourism Specialist, Tourism Oxford, Woodstock
As told to Nancy McSloy

We support and work with over 300 businesses and organizations in growing and celebrating tourism in Oxford County. 

Facilitating and celebrating the food and drink scene in Oxford County, we provide opportunities for businesses to meet and collaborate. A great example of this was the development of the Oxford County Cheese Trail and Oxford Fresh. The Cheese Trail is a self-guided culinary tour involving over 25 food producers, restaurants, cultural attractions and accommodation providers. Oxford Fresh celebrates local food producers and restaurants that feature their ingredients.

It has been an honour to work so closely with businesses as they craft new experiences for visitors, welcoming them and hearing stories of how Oxford inspires them. Visitors can now picnic in a blueberry patch, learn about aging cheese, make truffles or roast coffee. Seeing business people opening their doors and sharing their passions makes me proud of where I am. 

My advice to other women: get out and network and meet the people who inspire you. Work with new people in innovative ways and celebrate each others’ accomplishments. 

Growing up in rural PEI gave me a passion for local food, the environment and the art of story telling. Through my work I can do just that! 

Bhan Mudliar 
Chef/Owner, New Delhi Deli, Covent Garden Market, London
By Bryan Lavery
Photo: Phong Tran

Bhan Mudliar was born in Nadi, Fiji Islands, and later moved to Sigatoka, an urban centre on the island of Viti Levu. Mudliar developed a strong work ethic early, alongside her sugarcane farmer father. Sugar cane is indigenous to the islands of the South Pacific, and farming is a difficult way to make a living. She immigrated to Canada to assist her brother almost two decades ago. In return her brother put her through the Fanshawe Culinary Management program, where she completed five semesters. 

Mudliar worked at Fanshawe Pioneer Village for a few years, producing large quantities of “Canadian” food for large events. She worked in the kitchen at Black Trumpet Restaurant for a year and with respected culinary instructor and educator, Maya (Clarke) Love, at Real Canadian Superstore. She also worked at the Covent Garden Market part-time, eventually purchasing the New Delhi Deli, becoming the fourth owner of the business. 

Mudliar works seven days a week, making everything from scratch, on-site. She started cooking with her mother at the age of four. Both parents cooked at home. Mudliar serves a distinct Indian-South Asian/Caribbean fusion cuisine. In many Fijians’ homes, cuisines from other cultures are prepared on a regular basis, such as Indian masalas (Mudliar roasts and grinds her own Indian and Caribbean spice blends) and specialties from South Asia and the West Indies. This cuisine is rooted in and reflects the diaspora of hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers taken to the sugar cane fields of the Fiji Islands, Caribbean, South Africa and Mauritius to replace freed African slaves. 

Mudliar’s repertoire includes items such as jerk chicken (it takes three months to ferment a batch of fiery scotch bonnet peppers to make her jerk seasoning), oxtail, curry goat, roti wraps, onion bhajias, samosas and seafood, curry chicken and Jamaican patties that only skill and expertise can produce properly. The New Delhi Deli offers a selection of gluten-free, plant-based and vegan options. 

Mudliar’s niece Seema Narayan recently arrived from Fiji via the United States to give her a helping hand at the Deli. Mudliar has enrolled her in the Fanshawe College Culinary program, to bring things full circle.

Ann Neydon Wilson
Owner, Oxley Estate Winery, Harrow
As told to Kym Wolfe

My husband Murray Wilson and I both grew up on farms. When I retired from practicing law I was ready for another adventure; I think Murray just wanted to drive a tractor again!

We started the winery in 2010 when we planted our first five acres of vines on a farm near our home. We named the winery after the historic hamlet of Oxley where it is located. We have a rich sandy soil that grapevines love, and in year two we had a hellishly hot summer — perfect conditions for growing grapes! We opened the winery and restaurant in a renovated 1920 barn, built the big patio and outdoor fireplace, and planted the large gardens that grace our site. When we had the basics, we set out to hire a great staff and succeeded by hiring young people from our rural neighbourhood and small town. We now have two farms across the road from each other, 20 acres of vines and a distinctive fruit-forward wine making style.

We’ve been involved in the annual Explore the Shore weekend along our road since it started in 2010. We have great neighbours, and the 22-kilometer stretch of road along Lake Erie is full of agri-based entrepreneurs.

My favourite part of each day is working with the young people we work with here — managers, tasting bar staff, chefs, servers, dishwashers, including our son and four grandsons. They are full of fun, smarts and fresh ideas, so every day is a good day at Oxley. 

Kimberly Nunez
Owner, Cream Beanery Cafe, London & Mt. Brydges
As told to Nancy McSloy

We offer delicious food and beverages in a delightful atmosphere suitable for all. We are one of the few pour-over coffee bars in London. The coffee is ground fresh, we use filtered water and manually pour the coffee on the spot. Our fair-trade coffee beans are organically sourced from Columbia and other countries and roasted in Mt. Brydges. We also have over 30 varieties of organic loose-leaf tea. 

My role is quite simply everything! A typical day/week includes serving, cooking, baking, making gelato, staff scheduling, payroll, shopping and more. Owning your business, you do it all.

Seeing our customers on a regular basis, conversing with them is so special. Having them understand and appreciate how hard we work (for them) is so rewarding. Seeing a child — or adult — excited about our ice cream flavours is fun!

If you are looking for a rewarding career and enjoy food and drink, I would say, “go for it”. Understand that it is not always easy, requiring a huge commitment. The hours are long, and you will have struggles as you grow. 

I didn’t plan to be a café owner. I was an elementary school teacher for 14 years. When my husband was transferred to London, I didn’t go back to teaching. When an ice cream business came up for sale, we decided to leave our past and try something new. The business was seasonal, so in December 2017 we expanded and opened the London location, and in 2019 we opened in Mt. Brydges with plans to further expand.

Liz Payne
Owner, The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop, Stratford
By Melissa Graham

The sign is from Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Liz Payne’s Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop in Stratford is the quote on the back wall: ‘Cheese — milk’s leap toward immortality.’ (Clifton Fadiman.)

“I had been thinking about a cheese shop for a long time. The opportunity presented itself and I made it happen,” says Liz.

Liz has chosen local artisanal and small batch cheeses as well as a varied selection of products from Quebec, the Maritimes, Manitoba and BC, and cheeses from around the world. Seasonally related blues, cheddars, and goat cheeses share the shelves.

The Milky Whey offers not only a well-curated cheese cooler but also many dry goods. Liz offers charcuterie, local honey and honeycomb. She has cheese boards, knives and fabulous olives, as well as olive oils from Spain, Provence and Greece. The dry goods started as an afterthought — she had to have crackers! — and now offers a variety of products you can’t get elsewhere in the city.

Liz studied at the Cheese Education Guild with founder Kathy Guidi — a Canadian cheese industry leader. She chose Stratford to set up home after the company she was working for in marketing went bankrupt.

Liz is involved in the Hunters Banquet, a fundraiser held every year by the Local Community Food Centre, where wild game and fish are donated, prepared, and served by a team of volunteers from the culinary community. 

The Milky Whey also has a warm and cozy back room where Liz offers private Saturday afternoon tastings and pairings with wines and local beers. Liz is a wonderful host for an afternoon nosh and conversation.

Kate St. Laurent 
Baker/Owner, Bake Shop Studio, London
By Bryan Lavery

Cake designer and baker Kate St. Laurent was born and raised in London, Ontario. Possessing an artistic nature, St. Laurent grew up playing piano, drawing, painting and singing in the choir throughout public and high school. St. Laurent began her career not in the pastry arts but Fine Arts, attending Fanshawe College and then completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts at NSCAD in Halifax. 

St. Laurent began the search for work in a creative field and landed in the up-and-coming world of custom cakes and sugar flowers, using her artistic skills in the medium of buttercream. She began working in bakeries back in her hometown, gaining a wealth of experience and knowledge before deciding to open a shop in 2016. 

St. Laurent’s focus for Bake Shop Studio is to specialize in artistic cake designs while maintaining the integrity of traditional scratch baking methods. Her Fine Arts background provides inspiration, and she creates beautiful and delicious works of edible art. Everything is made in-house including French macarons, cupcakes, brownies, and cheesecake as well as a selection of gluten-free and vegan options. 

Bake Shop Studio found a perfect home in the heart of Wortley Village in November 2018, upstairs above what has become the new Wolfe Pack Company Bar. Former co-worker Vanessa Fields joined St. Laurent and is now head baker. St. Laurent lives in London with her son Miles — who enjoys leftovers and is the official taste tester for Bake Shop Studio — and her partner, Tim. 

Suzy Schlotzhauer 
Pastry Chef/Owner, AO Pasta, Stratford
By Melissa Graham

Suzy Schlotzhauer is making a big move this year. She and her husband and business partner, Kris, and their new partner, Tom Van Oosterhout, are moving their successful restaurant AO Pasta to a great new location in downtown Stratford. They have been in business since June 2018. 

AO Pasta, taken from the initials of the couple’s two children, has created a comfortable, informal dining experience that welcomes families, date nights and take out. They are filling a gap between fine dining and fast food. 

Suzy says they weren’t really thinking about moving but this great opportunity came up. Now they will be closer to the theatre and have more dining and kitchen space. Suzy is also looking forward to being more involved this year. “I am excited to get back in the kitchen after having kids,” she says. 

Suzy is originally from Calgary and trained as a pastry chef at the International Culinary Centre in New York City. She and Kris worked for many years at a variety of fine dining restaurants in Toronto before moving back to Kris’s hometown of Stratford to open their own place. Suzy says she will be “focusing on Italian desserts using fresh and simple ingredients.” She will be making the pasta every day to go with AO’s made to order sauces, as well as baking most of the bread in house. 

AO Pasta has been in Stratford for a short time, but is already a local favourite. For the last two years Suzy and Kris have participated in the fund raiser Empty Bowls for the House of Blessing. AO Pasta opens on Wellington Street this April.

Jean Vedova
Innkeeper/Owner, Kettle Creek Inn, Port Stanley
As told to Nancy McSloy

The original structure dates to 1849. After extensive renovations we opened the inn in 1983 offering dining and accommodations. We renovated again in 1990. For over 35 years we have provided everything from fine dining to great pub fair. Our latest project has been the creation of a “people-watching patio” along the front sidewalk.

The bottom line stops with me. I have done everything from waitressing to marketing to being the CFO. Just don’t put me in the kitchen. I am the planner and worry wart. 

It gives me incredible pleasure when guests tell me how much they enjoy our amazing cuisine and genuine hospitality, or when they say how much they enjoyed their luxury suite. I love it when newcomers are pleasantly surprised that we are much more than what is apparent from the street, and greeting repeat guests who are now bringing their grandchildren.

The food/drink industry is becoming more complicated. It is difficult to get trained staff with the same passion as you. If you have a culinary talent you are in an ideal position. But you need to keep a sense of humour and love what you do! 

I left Cape Breton, headed to Alberta, ended up in Ontario, opening the inn. That started an incredible adventure in the tourism industry from local organizations in Elgin County to helping establish the Ontario Finest Inns organization. I have travelled the world by bike and kayak, but having the inn is what has given me that zest for life.

Cindy Walker
Chocolatier/Owner, Chocolatea, Ingersoll
As told to Nancy McSloy

Chocolatea is a retail shop that sells ethically-traded tea and makes in-house handcrafted chocolates. Our chocolates are made from scratch in small batches using fresh ingredients. The chocolate flavours change by season, or, just because!

We educate people with their tea choices as all teas are not the same. We are passionate about the region and telling the local food story through our chocolates. Quality, freshness and authentic ingredients make our chocolates unique. This paired with sustainable, high quality Belgian chocolate allows us to offer a truly unique product. 

Customer satisfaction is key! We enjoy chatting with travellers and locals alike. Behind the scenes I love to experiment with new flavour combinations in the chocolate. Sometimes people are skeptical until they try it! Lime and basil are a combination that puzzles many. 

Chocolatea just celebrated our 5th anniversary. I recently started Truffle Camp which has become a hit. We have been nominated and I am a finalist with Ontario’s Southwest for an Innovation Award. Without trying I have created a following that has people driving from other areas strictly for my chocolate. 

I would say, you love what you do and have a personal support system, take the leap of faith. Translate the love into your business and your customers will love it too.

Maryam Yaro Wright
Chef/Owner of YaYa’s Kitchen, London
By Bryan Lavery
Photo: Phong Tran

Co-founder and chef/owner Maryam Yaro Wright of YaYa’s Kitchen arrived in Canada in 2014. After three weeks in Toronto, she and her husband were off to Baker Lake in Nunavut for five years, where she worked as a Lands Administrator. It was a culture shock coming from Tula, Gombe State, Nigeria, where daytime temperatures can exceed 45 °C degrees, to Nunavut, where winter temperatures can drop to -50°C. 

It was in Nunavut that Maryam learned how to fish. With her husband, she started hosting community-building dinners highlighting local fish and also game hunted by her husband, which she prepared with authentic Nigerian/Sahel spices for community dinners. 

After five years in Nunavut and with Maryam pregnant with her third child, the family relocated to London and purchased a house, sight unseen. They decided to continue hosting their traditional dinner and posted the event on Facebook. The response was surprisingly positive and 20 people attended their first dinner. This was the beginning of YaYa’s Kitchen, which has since evolved into a chef-driven, community-building pop-up featuring a multi-course meal for 40 people. 

The experience is unique because it features a family-style communal table and storytelling, with an elevated dining atmosphere where patrons dress semi-formally. The focus of the evening is on food and conviviality. You’ll be introduced to each course by the host of the pop-up. Maryam and a team of volunteers cook and serve the meal based on the authentic Black experience. The bi-monthly cultural experience takes place at the London Food Incubator in Old East Village. 

Wright is the eldest of four siblings and now has four children of her own. YaYa’s Kitchen means “older sister’s kitchen” in Hausa, one of over 300 Nigerian languages. Wright has been cooking since she was eight years old and grew up surrounded by the diverse flavours of Nigerian/Sahel cuisine. The dishes find inspiration in the diversity of cuisines and specialties from the hundreds of ethnic groups that comprise Nigeria. Maryam explains, “You can go from one village to another, or just down the road, and the food is entirely different.”

Sylvia Zietek 
Owner, Pierogi Queen, London
By Bryan Lavery

Sylvia Zietek was born and raised in London, Ontario and went to Catholic Central High School before heading to Ottawa to study linguistics, which led her to explore her love of language and culture. She backpacked through Europe and Central and South America, learning about different cultures and cooking. Zietek worked in various restaurants for a decade, mainly in London and Port Stanley. She worked in front-of- house and back-of-house positions as well as management for Casey’s, Kelseys, and GT’s On the Beach. 

Last year, equipped with a reliable business and marketing plan, Zietek launched Pierogi Queen, her chef-driven indie food truck, offering an innovative from-scratch local menu. Food trucks are incubators for culinary innovation and Zietek, a natural entrepreneur, completed a year-long certificate program for startups at Fanshawe College. Later she immersed herself in the College’s Leap IN Incubator, a nine-week summer program that focuses on mentorship and business growth and supports startups with seed funding and one-on-one in-depth business analysis. 

Pierogi Queen is part of the London Food Truck Association, a talented group of dedicated food truck owners who work together to support each other and grow the local food truck scene. 

 Zietek was taught how to make pierogi from her Babcia (Grandma) at five years old and learned other traditional Polish dishes from her mother. Zietek offers an always-evolving menu with a selection of flavourful pierogis such as her grandmother’s classic potato and cheddar, jalapeño cheddar, buffalo chicken and apple pie. She has the flexibility of being able to create new flavours based on the seasonality and local ingredients. At Heeman’s Food Trucks on the Farm last September, Zietek also served schnitzel and cabbage rolls. Those will be regular menu items this year when she is back on the road in mid-April.   

Profile Contributors

Bryan Lavery, Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large, brings years of professional experience in the restaurant and hospitality business, as a chef, restaurant owner ,and partner in the culinary experience and consulting business, Lavery Culinary Group. Always on the lookout for stories Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine under his byline and behind the scenes.

Nancy Loucks-McSloy is a freelance writer who loves cooking and entertaining. Her work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Fur-Bearing Trout and Other True Tales of Canadian Life, McLean’s, Vitality, Eatdrink, and many other publications. 

Sue Sutherland Wood is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Eatdrink. Read more of Sue’s work on her blog. 

Melissa Graham has waitressed, bartended, managed, dishwashed, food prepped, and catered while also working as an actor. She taught ESL for many years, worked in new play development, and currently teaches Writing and Communications at Stratford Chefs School. 

Kym Wolfe is a freelance writer and speaker based in London. Whether people read her articles or books, attend a presentation or take a walking tour, she hopes that they will learn something interesting, entertaining or useful, and will consider it time well spent.


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