Women's Month: Salute to females in the food and beverage industry

Kerry Kilpin. Picture: Clair Gunn

Kerry Kilpin. Picture: Clair Gunn

Published Aug 7, 2022


What was once, and to an extent, is still considered a male-dominated industry of food and drink is being challenged every day, empowered, and inspired by a growing line-up of talented, motivated women.

With August 9 marking National Women's Day in South Africa, we could not imagine a better time to highlight these stories of food and drink industry powerhouses. In celebration of Women’s Month, we want to salute these ladies that have taken over the industry with great flair.

These women are blowing us away with their talent, innovation, and all-around creativity.

Kerry Kilpin - Executive Chef at Steenberg

Raised on a pineapple farm in the Eastern Cape just outside of Bathurst, Kilpin is the executive chef at Steenberg Wine Farm and oversees two restaurants on the estate - the Bistro Sixteen82 and Tryn Restaurant.

Food has been a passion of hers since she was a child.

“Back then, I baked cakes on the farm for the staff children and later for my friends at boarding school. My love of food was sparked by my passion for experimenting in the kitchen. My culinary skills were honed at the Silwood School of Cookery in Cape Town shortly after I graduated from Grahamstown High School in 2000. In 2003, I worked as an intern at La Colombe under seasoned chef and mentor Franck Dangereux, who immediately promoted me to sous chef in 2004.

“After leaving La Colombe in 2006, I became head chef at Franck's Foodbarn in Noordhoek, where we worked together until 2014. My career path finally led me to Steenberg in November 2014, when I became the executive chef at Bistro Sixteen82. My role as Steenberg executive chef evolved into managing both Bistro 1682 and Tryn restaurants in 2018. Happy chefs make happy food, which makes happy people. I love to make people happy,” said Kilpin.

Asked about the one thing she absolutely hates cooking, despite its popularity, she said it has to be baby food. Kilpin said even though she has a four-year-old and an eight-month-old, she is not a fan of making baby food. She finds it to be one of those life hacks.

In the industry, Kilpin currently admires chef Jackie Cameron because of the way she approaches food, students, and the industry as a whole. She said cheffing is so much more than what you see on television, and Cameron is the perfect example.

Briefly detailing some of the hurdles she faces in her career, Kilpin said the cheffing industry is dominated by men, and managing two restaurants as a woman and a mom is a challenge every day. Nevertheless, her work ethic will pay off, and she has a never-give-up attitude.

She said although the food and beverage industry is still male-dominated, more and more women are taking on senior positions in the kitchen and that it is just a lot more challenging having a family and running two restaurants. Kilpin advises any woman who is considering a career in the industry to make sure first that this is the right career for them.

“Although the work is hard, has long hours and is physically demanding, it can be a rewarding industry if you are passionate about food and beverage,” she said.

Mala Bryan - model, restaurateur, and self-taught chef

Born on the Caribbean island of St Lucia, Bryan is currently a new mom, but she still helps run the Carne restaurants, which she owns. She is also a model and the creator of Malaville dolls. Bryan got into the hospitality industry while still in her teenage years and got herself professional experience working at a hotel for a few years.

When she came to South Africa, her partner, being the owner of the 95 Keerom and Carne restaurants, reignited her love for the industry. Over the past few years, she assisted chef Giorgio Nava around the world, gaining experience and working alongside some of the top chefs in the world at times.

Detailing how the restaurant business came about, Bryan said they had a space available, and she just thought it was because Cape Town was lacking an authentic Caribbean restaurant at the time, and she thought it would have been a good idea to use the space for that and it was something she had always wanted to do at some point in her life, so she took the opportunity when it came along.

In the industry, she admires fellow countrywoman, chef Nina Compton, based in New Orleans in the United States, because she feels like they speak the same language at times without her knowing it and that her infusion of Caribbean cuisine with other foods is incredible.

Asked about hurdles she has experienced, Bryan said there are many, but for her, it was being able to train people to cook Caribbean food the right way.

“Some of our cooking methods are a bit different. You don’t realise it when it is something you do all the time. Also, lots of substituting of ingredients because not everything can be found here, so that took a lot to get the flavours close enough to home. Most importantly, get the right people to help you run your business because we tend to need people who love and care for it like it’s their own. I love making people happy, and helping people create beautiful food experiences makes me happy,” she said.

Bryan concludes that the industry is not a space for the weak. She said you need to have very tough skin because the industry, in general, is already tough and intense, no matter what role you are playing.

Grace Harding - CEO of Ocean Basket

Grace Harding. Picture: Debbie Yazbek

Born in Berea in Gauteng, Harding was raised by a Greek-Italian, Egyptian woman and Greek grandmother. At her house, it was all about food. She joined Ocean Basket in 2012 to work with the founder in transitioning the brand and gearing it for growth. Ten years later, they continue to evolve, expand and create opportunities. In the industry, Harding admires Natasha Sideris, who is the founder of Tashas.

“She is a dynamo, passionate, relentless, and a go-getter of note. Every restaurant is meticulously and carefully thought through,” she notes.

Asked about some hurdles that she has experienced in her career and what she loves about what she does, Harding said the hurdles never end, and most are self-inflicted.

“When I don’t listen properly or make assumptions. There are always hurdles. If we are successful, we learn to learn from them. What I love about what I do is creating opportunities, taking ownership of evolution, driving a meaningful culture, and meeting so many diverse people from all over SA and the world. I never stop learning. That is what I am addicted to,” she said.

Harding said the industry is a tough industry for women, especially working in a restaurant. She said the hours are long, and in SA, it is not easy for women to travel home from work late at night, and she thinks that men have naturally been attracted to the industry, but this is changing. Harding advises any woman who wants to join the industry to do it.

“It is an industry with so much opportunity, and we need more women in an industry which is all about care, warmth, and serving. It is a way of life,” she said.

Julia du Toit - Head Chef at Beyond

Born in Walvis Bay in Namibia and later relocated to Gordon’s Bay in Cape Town, where she grew up, Du Toit is currently the head chef at Beyond Restaurant. She has always had a passion for food. Ever since she was little, she was in the kitchen helping her mom cook, watching cooking shows on television, and reading cookbooks.

Du Toit studied at The Culinary Academy, known as The Hurst Campus. She did her training in hospitality management trading at The Victoria & Alfred Hotel Waterfront and her culinary training at Erinvale Hotel in Somerset West. She moved on to working with Peter Tempelhoff and Ashley Moss at The Greenhouse, then moved on with the team to FYN restaurant and Beyond. Du Toit said what she loves most about her job is the fact that you can be creative in so many ways.

“You have endless combinations and pairing with food, but once you find that perfect marriage, it literally is like music to your ears, or should I say, taste buds. At the end of the day, everyone will have an opinion, but to find the perfect match is key,” she said.

Du Toit said, to a certain extent, the industry is still quite male-dominated.

“Slowly but surely, you see more and more female head chefs coming to the fore under the guidance of a male restaurateur or chef-owner. I think as females, we are made out to be delicate and fragile, but you can have a soft nature and still be a strong force to be reckoned with.

“This career is not very forgiving in the sense that you work long hours, and most of the time, you are working when the rest of the world is not. Don’t give up on your dreams, but also try to find the balance. Finding a partner that is understanding helps, as well as having the support of family and friends. Finding time for your support network is also important as it reminds you that you are human,” she said.