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 top­toque-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 cedar­cured 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 kneepedal 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.”




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