Toronto’s Biggest Female Chefs Tackle Inequality At The Drake’s Dinner Party
Written by Christina Gonzales
In 2012, when Alex Feswick, the Drake Hotel’s chef de cuisine, started Dinner Party, a dinner series inspired by The Dinner Party mixed-media artwork by Judy Chicago (widely regarded as an icon of 1970s feminist art), there were female chefs in Toronto – they just hadn’t been brought together yet.
Born out of frustration with a food industry dominated by men, and a general disdain for the overall “lack” of female chefs in the city, Feswick took it upon herself to bring her female contemporaries together to collaborate on a menu that they’d showcase at triangular tables, mimicking Chicago’s work. “[These are] 30 women that are running their own kitchens, [and] having a powerful voice in the food industry. We’re not as scarce as people think,” Feswick says. Therein, her mantra: together, female chefs have a voice, and they’re not as rare as people think.
Photos courtesy of Ksenija Hotic
“When [Alex] started working for Drake, a few years ago, one of the first conversations she and I ever had was about Dinner Party,” says Mia Nielsen, head curator at The Drake. “The whole experience started as an art installation, then Alex built upon that idea to create a dining experience. Now it’s in that wonderful gray area of dining, coming together, and artwork.”
Nielsen reached out to female artists whose work fit organically within the dinner-installation format: candle sticks and cloth napkins by Sandra Brewster, flower arrangements by Diane Borsato, and post-meal gifts from Jennifer Murphy.
The city’s top female chefs, (Paula Navarrete of Momofuku Daisho, Laura Maxwell of Le Select, and Miriam Echeverria of Los Colibris, to name a few), were split into teams. They collaborated on three distinct menus: dishes included quirky plates like “peaches and dreams” (sour cherry, chicken pate, and foie gras) and super-satisfying dishes like “the witch’s egg” (pheasant tortellini, brandy, sage, duck egg, and truffle). Meanwhile, some of Toronto’s best-known male chefs acted as servers to the diners.
For Feswick, Dinner Party was about bringing everyone – male or female – into a collective space to tackle inequality. And while she recognizes that the restaurant industry has its problems, there’s work to do that extends far beyond it. “I feel like what it boils down to, [is] our domestic responsibilities or motherhood, which really aren’t conducive to the [food] industry,” she says. “It makes it really hard for women to have both [a career and a family]. But it’s [about] women professionals everywhere. Men have been working longer than we have, so these notions that women are traditionally in the home kitchen preparing food [are out-dated].”
Luckily, Feswick works at an establishment where females are given equal opportunity. “There are so many women running all aspects of this company, I find it really unique in that regard,” says Feswick. “Our CEO is a woman, our PR, our marketing, our cultural programming, our curator, our HR. [There are] other female managers to work for, and so it’s always felt, for me, like a safe place to go and create.”
And ultimately that’s what we need more of: dinner parties, yes. But how about workplaces that prop up women, and give them a safe environment to flourish? Double yes.