Food and flavors from various different cultures have been circumnavigating the globe since the fifteenth century. Luckily enough for Fayetteville, three unique women from Malaysia, Quebec and one of Puerto Rican heritage, have all found their way to this diverse southern city. Although these three individuals come from very different backgrounds and areas of discipline, they share many things in common, most importantly being some of the top chefs in Fayetteville.
The Flavors of Ethnicity
Head chef and master caterer, Jelisa Montalvo of Dorothy’s Catering 2, is of Puerto Rican descent. Her catering business has been around for 30 years and was first started by her grandmother who taught a young Jelisa all of her secret recipes. Originally pursuing education and a career in criminal justice, Chef Jelisa took over the family business in 2012. At the ripe age of 26, she runs her business with five employees and independent contractors for functions. When asked if southern-style cooking influences her style, Jelisa explained, “We are more of southern gourmet with an international twist, I’m half Puerto Rican, so there are many cultures mixed into our food.” For example, she takes the traditional deviled eggs and puts caviar or caramelized bacon on top. Jelisa sees the fact that she never went to formal cooking school as an advantage, “My grandmother went to school and had professional chef experience, and I was her sous chef for a long time.” This allowed Jelisa to be a sponge, absorbing techniques perfected by her grandmother. Chef Jelisa quenches her thirst for knowledge of the cooking industry by attending multiple different food conferences, where she learns tips that she brings straight back to her kitchen.
Mei Parker is not your typical chef in the sense that you won’t find her leading the kitchen in a restaurant. Instead, she is a personal chef, making comfort in the kitchens of her clients. She offers dinners for an intimate party of two, or for an entire family’s holiday celebration. Born in Malaysia, Chef Parker started cooking at a young age. “I come from a big family of matriarchy, so I was big into cooking and I always had to help in the kitchen. I enjoy the aspect of big gatherings and big groups, cooking and family sitting together – the unity of it all,” said Parker. Her ethnic flare of cooking is drawn from multiple different cultures and cuisines. She explained, “Cooking relates to people, history, geography and how the people from where the ingredient is from cook it. My interest is a lot of cuisines from everywhere, understanding the flavor, textures, herbs and spices – that way I create a lot.” Parker has a classic way of cooking, yet she incorporates the latest trends into what’s “new and hot” around Fayetteville. Although she loves entertaining, cooking and caring for her clients, she also does catering on the side.
So there’s a caterer, a personal chef and then there’s Melanie Mitchell on the other side of the cheffing spectrum: baking. Melanie is the pastry chef at the Hilltop House Restaurant where she specializes in European desserts and pastries. Coming from the rich French-Canadian culture of Quebec, Melanie found her love for baked goods as a teenager. She explained, “I started working at the age of 13. My dad had stores with a lot of bakeries in them, so I learned how to make croissants and the basics of baking. Later I worked at an Italian restaurant. From there an interest grew and I went to culinary school.” During the week, Melanie has a rigorous schedule. “I have my routine, on Tuesday I do desserts for the whole week. When it starts to get close to Friday sometimes I get up at 4 or 5 in the morning to make fresh scones and cookies.” Traveling around the world and throughout many countries in Europe, Melanie has mastered the art of pastries – both the process and decor. From cakes to strudels and French macarons galore, Melanie’s craft is sure to settle your sweet tooth. “I always have different things on the menus every week. It’s always the chef’s choice. This week is carrot cake with chocolate. I don’t use shortening… I keep it the old way, the good European style,” she said with a grin.
Feminism in the Kitchen
In one way or another, Jelisa, Mei and Melanie all said that their biggest influences in their life and career have been their mothers and grandmothers. Although women are seen to be the primary caretakers of their families and households, this image of strong matriarchal women does not withhold in the domain of professional chefs. Chef Jelisa conveyed, “Women period are overlooked especially in corporate America so we have to put a little extra into everything we do.” Seeing as two women have won the title of the TV show Top Chef on Bravo, these Fayetteville chefs explained how that number is truly a reflection of the cooking industry, which is dominated by males. Chef Parker believes women have to work harder to get to the top spot, but “it is changing, although I believe women still have to work harder. Once a chef reaches the highest level, male or female, you get the respect to be that top chef. You will be bullied and challenged by both sexes, it’s competitive and vicious to get where you want to be.” In the cuisine industry, it seems as if there is an initial barrier that holds women down, but once they break the boundaries, there is no holding them back from getting to the highest and most respected position. Melanie elaborated, “It is a very competitive industry. If you work hard you can take it. It’s all about how much you want it.”
Although at a certain skill level, the playing field seems even, an interesting question to moot is: if we assume in America that the woman is the one that is home cooking meals for the family, why are the majority of head chefs male? Chef Parker gave an eloquent response, “It goes way back in history when men were the primary breadwinners. They were hunters and gatherers. The male has always, naturally, taken over that leadership role, so men often do become fantastic chefs. Women are the caring ones. It’s not that we aren’t natural leaders; it’s just that our way of doing things is different. In the recent decade, food has become a rock star, something to celebrate. The profession has transgressed from something an everyday housewife used to do, but now it is inspiring women across the globe to say to themselves, ‘Hey, I can really do this!”’ Women want to empower themselves so they want to be in a commercial kitchen, not a home kitchen anymore. Parker has hope that one day the playing field will be even for females and males at all levels, which is essentially the definition of feminism, both entry level and the best of the best. Once the prejudices that come with being a female is overcome, the industry will rely only on the skill of the chef – no matter what their sex.
Quite obvious to everyone, the male and female brains work differently, especially so when it comes to cooking. What makes their cooking different is the way both sexes approach the techniques and skill. A person can view cooking as a science, as if they are engineering something with a set of precise instructions, following the rules of the recipe and the conditions precisely and repeatedly, inch by inch or dollop by dollop, so the results should constantly be the same. Or someone can view cooking as an art form, a place to be ultimately imaginative. Instead of measuring out consistent amounts of ingredients, an individual chooses their personal selection of spices, materials and cooking methods to create a desired end result in order to create, not recreate. When asked if men and women cook differently, Chef Melanie laughed, “I can’t talk for every man because there are exceptions, but women have more of a passionate way of cooking, we cook with our hearts and that reflects in the food. Even in relationships we have more sensitivity.” Chef Jelisa expanded on that idea by explaining, “Women are emotional creatures so we put love and spirit into our food.” Chef Parker holds a different stance on the situation stating, “I don’t think men and women cook differently when food is concerned – it really depends on the palette. Someone’s interpretation of an ingredient is always different than another’s. It doesn’t take a different gender to define that.”
Being a chef is not a glamorous profession, to say the least, but the means justify the ends when it comes to professional cheffing. The outcome of hard work and passion is unique and delicious food. No matter what your reason, cooking can be used as an outlet in many circumstances. It can relieve stress, take you away from everyday life, or excite you in certain scenarios – it gives you release. As Jelisa said, “while you’re cooking, all your worries deplete. You can play some music and be happy or bang some pots and pans – whatever it takes.” Cooking can be anything from a creative expression to a form of empowerment and self-assurance. “When a dish is done it’s an achievement. It’s a confidence booster. When you eat it and everyone enjoys it, it’s the best boost. Cooking empowers me the privilege of enjoying the life I have. Cooking gave me the privilege of people bringing me into their lives and sometimes being a part of their family, in their home. It gives me strength and satisfaction that my work brings people joy.”