These Seasoned Female Chefs Share Lessons Learned

The panelists of an ACF ChefsForum Webinar celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 described some lessons they learned during competitions and their rise toward the top.

Green Light, Red Light

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Chef Virginia Willis

James Beard award-winning cookbook author and food media personality Chef Virginia Willis was over the moon when she achieved her goal of landing her own cooking show on the PBS WGBH affiliate, where Julia Child had her first show. However, this elation became deflation when she wasn’t able to secure the funding needed for the program.

“It absolutely crushed me. This was the dream I had,” she says. “My first job cooking was on a TV cooking show working for Nathalie Dupree. I was the kitchen director for Martha Stewart. I was the kitchen director for Bobby Flay. I’ve been behind the scenes on television kitchens since I was 22 years old, so having this opportunity to finally be the person in front of the camera and have it so close, yet not be able to secure it was a lot to absorb.”

The silver lining of this cloud was that Chef Willis learned she didn’t have to let a setback hang over her head for the rest of her career. “It was a lot to absorb, but I also realized that failure does not have to define me,” shesays.

Practice, Practice, Practice

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ACF Chef Fionna R. Espana, CWPC

For ACF Chef Fionna R. Espana, CWPC, pastry chef and president of ACF Chefs de Cuisine Association of California – Los Angeles, a big lesson she learned was during her first pastry competition in 2019 when her overconfidence got the better of her and she decided not to practice despite urging from her mentor. Then, when she walked into the competition, she quickly realized her mentor was right.

“When I got there, I had a couple of bags of mise en place, and I went into the room and it’s full of speed racks of mise en place to the T. I mean to the very last ounce of flour, sugar, 15 whisks, whatever it was,” she says. “I wanted to just turn around and get out of the room because I was like, ‘I’m not prepared; I don’t know if I can do this.’ And my mentor said, ‘You already signed up, you’ve got to finish, you’ve got to go out there.’”

She did go back out there and found herself feeling more anxious as she watched her competitors work, realizing that she really was woefully unprepared to meet the challenge of that competition. However, Chef Espana still managed to put out three completed items and received a participation award. But most importantly, that experience helped her when it was time to earn her pastry chef certification, and it has acted as a lesson learned she still uses to this day.

“A month later, I took my certification for pastry chef and did great, and that experience helped me prepare for that,” Chef Espana says. “It was a major turning point of just being prepared in the kitchen. You can never be overprepared.”

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ACF Chef Lauren Desteno

Similarly, ACF Chef Lauren Desteno, corporate executive chef at Altamarea Group, described what happened when she was working at an event in New York City with a well-known chef, and despite thinking she had everything she needed, some of the product got misplaced. As a result, not all of the plates went out the same. Although the guests did not realize it, the issue nagged at her.

“I was absolutely mortified; it was just an awful day for me. I didn’t really have a good silver lining from that experience other than when your name is on the line, when you are the person that is going to be responsible at the end of the day for what’s happening, you do need to be overprepared,” she says. “You need to be hypervigilant about all of those components because every single one matters, particularly when your name’s out there. So that never happened again. It never happened up until that moment, and it has never happened again.”

To hear all of the inspiring stories from the panel of chefs, check out the “ACF ChefsForum: ‘International Women’s Day’ Women Leaders in Foodservice” webinar on ACF’s YouTube channel. Click here for a full list of the ACF ChefsForum webinars. Click here to learn more about ACF-hosted competitions.