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Chef Francine Gomes cooks in her restaurant the Cluck N Cleaver in Calgary on March 4, 2021.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

A year ago, I was talking to chefs across the country about elaborate International Women’s Day events in Western Canada in an industry that had been making gains to increase the prominence of women in its ranks.

As we mark the anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic transforming life in Canada, and upending the restaurant industry, many of those events have gone virtual (such as Winnipeg’s Women, Wine & Food put on by chef Kelly Cattani) or postponed (chef Aman Dosanj’s collaborative dinner in the Okanagan with four contributing female chefs) but the work continues.

Ms. Dosanj has long been a passionate advocate for women’s rights and diversity. Her annual International Women’s Day event was born of her desire to uplift fellow food and drink entrepreneurs while touching on the importance of mental health and raising funds for charity.

Another benefit to come out of the annual dinner was a countrywide network of female industry professionals.

“We should be celebrating the successes of women and a collective gathering of minds,” Ms. Dosanj says. “I don’t agree with separate lists of female chefs or restaurateurs versus male ones. There are no physical capability differences here. … There is no need for separatism.”

The chef says she still sees imbalance when it comes to event organizers curating culinary talent for major events across the country. In addition to that, diversity also lacks.

“People need to be way more mindful when they’re putting together lineups for events. Not just including women [or non-binary people], but racial diversity as well.”

Next week would have marked the fifth anniversary of the chef’s event. Ms. Dosanj is eager to reboot it next year.

“I was the first British-Asian footballer to play at a professional level in the U.K. [regardless of gender]. What’s the point in doing these things if people aren’t going to follow you? The thing with me and what I do in food is that I’m not necessarily looking to collaborate with the [trendy] executive chefs. I’ve always loved the story of the underdog. There’s a lot of empowerment in that,” Ms. Dosanj says.

Francine Gomes opened the popular fried chicken restaurant Cluck N Cleaver with her sister Nicole in 2016. Over the past five years, the sisters’ business has garnered a reputation as one of the best spots for fried chicken in Western Canada. It’s also led by two women.

“We do get approached because we are two female entrepreneurs quite often. I don’t dislike that, but it’s obviously not why we went into business,” Francine Gomes says. “I want us to be approached because we have something to say, something that might be inspiring to someone.”

Growing up in Richmond, B.C., the sisters were raised by a single mother who ran her own travel agency. Ms. Gomes explains that their mother both served as an idyllic role model for them, but also created a foundation of values to help them excel.

“Our mother raised us to believe to not worry about your sex, [and to go] fearlessly hard ahead in business,” she says. “Being a female entrepreneur and a single mother in the 1970s was pretty unheard of and it was inspiring to us. We, women, have the same potential for growth as long as you want it, but you need to set goals, too.”

She also notes that there seems to be more women in leading roles within the Alberta food-service industry.

Winnipeg’s Talia Syrie has long been an avid supporter of a wide range of marginalized groups in the Manitoba capital. Her eatery, The Tallest Poppy, is known for supporting women both in and out of the restaurant industry.

“When opportunities present themselves to promote other women in the industry, we take them,” Ms. Syrie says. “We also try to call out things that seem imbalanced. I am wary of virtue signalling, obviously, but this community is really important to us, we support them when we can, and if that happens to be on a daily basis then great!”

As an active member in the city’s restaurant scene for years, Ms. Syrie has seen the sector’s evolution. Looking back 10 or 15 years, which is not that long ago, she knows that moving up the ranks in a white-male-dominated industry has had its challenges.

She has mixed feelings about being singled out as a female chef.

“It always makes me cringe a bit, but it’s sort of both things. I don’t want there to be that differentiation because the food isn’t affected by it, but at the same time because [we’ve succeeded in the industry], I do feel like we are entitled to some extra credit,” Ms. Syrie says. “We made our way in an industry that wasn’t particularly open or fair to us and, often, was really unkind.”

Ms. Syrie has seen many forms of discrimination over the years, such as a charity chefs’ calendar that pleaded with her to take part – ”You’re the only girl!” – and watching many collaborative chef events in the city, which would have been able to shine a light on female chefs, almost seemingly try to ignore them.

“I find the young women chefs in our industry today very inspiring, like Emily Butcher, who will be on Top Chef Canada this season. Any opportunity to pump her tires that I am given, I am going to do so because it is so important and also so exciting.”

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