They started their working careers outside of food service. Claire Van Vuuren studied a degree in painting, whereas Lisa Margan completed a teaching degree. But after travelling the world and experiencing the creativeness of taste and flavour, they decided the world of cooking was their calling.
After years of sweating, shedding tears and battling stereotypes, Claire and Lisa are now successful, well-respected female chefs and businesswomen. At the beginning of their careers, the industry was male-driven, it was rare to find females working away in the kitchen, even rarer to have a female as a head chef.
Fast forward a few years and both Claire and Lisa have headed numerous kitchens and now own venues that are thriving. After working in all aspects of the kitchen, Claire became co-owner of Bloodwood, Newtown and Popla, Bellingen.
Lisa has also fulfilled a similar path, opening Margan Restaurant and Winery, situated in the Hunter Valley region with her husband Andrew. To honour women working in hospitality for International Women’s Day, Claire and Lisa have shared their stories and dished some advice for those working in the industry, no matter their gender.
Many chefs within the industry have the same story; they started their apprenticeship at the age of 15 and have been slaving away in the kitchen ever since. But for Claire, life after school started very differently and involved a paintbrush instead of a knife.
Claire completed a degree in painting and worked as an artist while still waiting tables to help pay the bills. After spending time within the hospitality environment, her passion for food grew, resulting in her making a career change at 25.
Moving into the culinary world at a mature age helped Claire retain her confidence and focus during pressure but also presented her with endless opportunities. “Being mature age meant I didn’t fall for any of the b*****t or bullying or harassment, I just stayed focused and had my head down,” she said.
“By avoiding the drama, you quickly become a valuable staff member,” Claire explained, adding it made her resume more attractive to potential employees. Despite coming into the industry at an older age compared to her colleagues, Claire was surprised with the male to female ratio in the kitchen.
Despite the divide in the kitchen, she admitted it pushed her to continuously upskill herself to avoid being pushed aside. “Your skill set as a female is the same or sometimes even better to the men in the kitchen, so there is no reason why we can’t be equal,” Claire explained.
“Once you realise that [your skill set is comparable] in the first few months of being in the kitchen… you lift yourself, sidestep the drama and stay quiet; you don’t fall for any of the kitchen teasing and you get on with the job and become a standout,” she detailed. Now years on and honouring her own advice, Claire is the proud co-owner of two thriving venues: Bloodwood, Newtown and Popla, Bellingen and a member of the Women In Hospitality Group.
A successful chef in her own right, Claire believes “the secret to being a successful chef is to be open in continuing to grow and learn.” When reflecting on her own success, the restaurateur admitted her biggest accomplishment in her career is “having a restaurant that is nine-years-old in Sydney and has been full since day one.”
Claire also believes her ability to give back to the industry through the Women in Hospitality Group is another proud achievement. Within an industry that is known for its mental health challenges, she believes the community the group has created has paved the way for the change.
“The women are very open and supportive, if you ask a question, you know you are going to get help from the other women, it’s really nice,” she said. Despite the group helping females within hospitality, she believes it’s always going to be harder to break down the barriers with her male colleagues.
“There have been so many men who have taken their lives because of the pressures of business, but with females, we are more likely to talk,” she explained. “Whether it’s bursting into tears over coffee with someone or asking for advice, everyone bands together and helps,” she explained, while urging her male colleagues to put their pride aside and jump on board because “you don’t have to stand alone to be the best.”
And for those currently climbing the ranks and putting in the long days and nights in the kitchen, Claire advised to always watch, learn and be open about how you are feeling. “Find a chef you respect and admire, and try to work with them,” she said.
“Always refer to something that keeps you motivated. Follow that direction and make sure you always reflect on that when you make decisions. Never sell yourself short and always work hard and focus on your food,” she continued.
Lisa studied a teaching degree before moving into the world of hospitality in her early 20s. Now, she is one of Australia’s most successful chefs, businesswoman and restaurateurs.
Over the course of her career, she has gone from prepping food in the kitchen to starting and growing her own Hatted business, Margan Restaurant in the Hunter Valley, NSW. She has even been awarded the Leadership in Food Service at the Women in Food Service Awards.
But before all of the success, the early years were overwhelming for Lisa as she went from “a female-dominated teaching environment to a male-dominated kitchen.” Speaking to Goodman Fielder Food Service, she explained a move to France at the start of her cooking career helped her evolve her skills and standout in the kitchen, but was also confronting.
Lisa admitted the move was challenging at the beginning because “the kitchens were fast and unforgiving” and there were no females behind the pass. “There were no other females in the kitchen at the time, so it was intimidating for all those reasons,” Lisa said.
While reflecting on the past, she admitted that while it was hard, it was also a “formative time that shaped my philosophy on food. It helped build resilience.” Fast forward to now and kitchens across the globe are beginning to fill out with females who are creating inspiring dishes, making it the new norm.
Lisa explained kitchens are now experiencing a “great cultural shift that will be better for chefs regardless of gender,” with the hope it will encourage females and males to begin a career in hospitality. “There are so many amazing female chefs leading the charge right now and they are continuing to inspire the next generation of female chefs,” she said.
“Apart from sheer talent, they are also bringing a gentler work culture into the industry, which is less about the old school yelling at chefs and a more calm, supportive and mentoring environment.” When asked what advice she would give those climbing up the ranks, Lisa insisted “find a kitchen where you can get the best mentoring”.
“Apprenticeships are becoming shorter, so ensure you are learning great skills in the workplace by someone who is a great chef and has the patience to teach you,” Lisa explained. But while the industry is known for being tough and stressful, the successful businesswomen believes the positives outweigh the negatives.
“The positives are that you are surrounded by other creative, passionate people making it an exciting work environment. It can also be a great launching pad to other opportunities in the hospitality industry if you want to change it up,” she explained.
Believing in her own advice, Lisa branched out with her wine-maker husband in 2006 to open Margan Restaurant, situated in the Hunter Valley near the NSW Central Coast. The ‘estate grown, estate made’ venue has a unique agri-dining focus – meaning the produce used is grown from their garden, orchard, free-range chickens, beehives, olive groves and estate reared labs.