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Tina Fineza was also a a popular culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Vancouver and Dirty Apron Cooking School, and a sought-after consultant. (David Strongman/Handout)
Tina Fineza was also a a popular culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Vancouver and Dirty Apron Cooking School, and a sought-after consultant. (David Strongman/Handout)

Trailblazing Vancouver chef Tina Fineza ‘pushed the limits’ Add to ...

Although she never had her own restaurant, Tina Fineza played a major role in shaping Vancouver’s modern dining scene.

In addition to being a trailblazing female chef in a male-dominated industry, Ms. Fineza was a popular culinary instructor (at the Art Institute of Vancouver and Dirty Apron Cooking School) and sought-after consultant who helped nourish an appetite for boldly flavoured Asian and pan-Latin street foods. She died of cancer last month at the age of 51.

“She always pushed the limits and strived to do something different,” said Jesse Grasso, her former student and later sous chef at The Flying Tiger, the city’s first modern Asian street-food restaurant. “Coming from a Filipino background, Tina grew up eating all the weird stuff. She was always telling stories about pig’s feet, beef tongues and tripe.”

Although common today, offal and off-cuts weren’t offered in many Western restaurants in 2008, when Ms. Fineza began branching out into consultancy. One of her first gigs was a French bistro called Les Faux Bourgeois. As a startup consultant, she helped the owners define their business concept, organized the kitchen operations and designed the opening menu. It featured a scrumptious snack called the Sweetbread Sub: pan-fried sweetbreads – calf pancreas and thymus glands – on a big hunk of French baguette slathered with caper mayonnaise and stuffed with pickled onions.

“The Sweetbread sub was all she could talk about for weeks,” Mr. Grasso recalled. “The steak frites, the terrine – she knew she could crush that stuff, easy. But she had bigger dreams. At the time, no one in Vancouver had sweetbreads on the menu, and there she was putting them on a damn sandwich, in a French bistro.”

Ms. Fineza’s sharp palate and knife skills sliced through many genres, from Mexican (La Taqueria, La Mezcaleria) and Latin American (Boca) to Middle Eastern (Commune Café), vegan Mediterranean (East of Main) and pan-Asian (Roaming Dragon, Vancouver’s first food truck).

“She influenced so many menus and food trends in this city, yet she was a very humble chef,” Cate Simpson, communications manager for Earls Restaurants (yet another client) told the Georgia Straight. “She often gave the credit for her wonderful menus to the owners of the restaurants she was consulting for.”

Given her wide reach in the past decade, she likely touched more diners’ plates than any other chef in the city. “Even if you didn’t know her name, there is a very good chance that you’ve eaten her food,” CBC Radio’s Margaret Gallagher said.

Maria Cristina Adriano Fineza was born on June 14, 1964, in Manila, capital of the Philippines. Both her parents worked for the San Miguel Corporation, South Asia’s first brewery. Her father, Pedro, was director of logistics; her mother, Germelina, was a corporate nurse who became executive assistant to the vice president of administration. Tina often thanked her parents for the early morning congee breakfasts in Chinatown, fish market excursions and elaborate Sunday night family dinners that inspired her passion for food.

Ms. Fineza studied film at the University of the Philippines from 1985 to 1988. She moved to Vancouver in 1992 to complete her studies and be closer to her sister, Angelina Fineza Rose, and brother, Jose Antonio Fineza, who lived in the United States. (Her parents moved to the United States a few years later.) Instead of finishing her film studies, she went to Vancouver’s Dubrulle Culinary Institute. It was an instantaneous decision made on the spot while walking past the school one day. “She saw the students enthralled in their work,” her bio says. “She walked in and enrolled right then and there, realizing that her passion for food outweighed her love for the cinema.”

The life of a chef is generally a young man’s game and she worked tirelessly to catch up and establish herself. “She never wanted anyone to know how old she was,” said her life partner, Annette Rawlinson, with whom she later ran Service Excellence Hospitality Consultants.

After graduating, Ms. Fineza spent two years working evenings at the highly regarded Lumière restaurant, lunches at Star Anise and doing stages in Seattle on her days off. In 1997, she moved on to Diva at the Met, in Vancouver’s Metropolitan Hotel. In 1999, she opened Bin 942 as chef de cuisine and spent five years making a name for herself with cutting-edge tapas, before moving briefly to New Jersey in 2004 to join the Ryland Inn, an acclaimed Relais & Châteaux property.

In a 2005 CBC Radio interview she was asked what it was like to be the only woman on the line in top kitchens. “You just put your head down,” she replied. “Everybody is a human being. You are born with a capability to do your best, no matter creed, religion, sex, orientation. If you love food, it will show and they’ll know.”

She was known for her sunbeam of a smile, teasing nature, love of music (she played guitar and adored Broadway musicals) and foot-kicking laughter. “She made sure everyone, from a new host to a shy cook felt motivated,” said Laura Hall, the former general manager at Flying Tiger. “She dined with her dishwashers and asked them their life stories. The customers adored her.”

She also upheld the highest standards. “She actually made me cry a lot,” said Shelome Bouvette, who worked as her sous-chef at Bin 942. “But she apologized after and, you know, it’s made me a better chef and tougher person. I think that’s what Tina has done for many female chefs, given us confidence.”

In June 2014, she was diagnosed with stage-three bilateral breast cancer. She fought hard to beat it, adopting a vegetarian diet and pursuing both conventional and alternative therapies. Last fall, Ms. Fineza decided to stop chemotherapy. Within a month, the cancer spread to her brain and spinal fluid. She died in Vancouver on Jan. 7. Ms. Fineza leaves her life partner, mother, siblings, nieces and nephews. A scholarship has been set up in her name through the B.C. Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a culinary organization for women.

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