Food is for many a deeply personal thing, tied so closely to fond memories of childhood and family.
For Isabel Chung, Executive Chef at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, those early memories carry an added weight: her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer when Chung was just 10 years old.
"I watched her live with that for the next five years. Multiple surgeries, chemo, radiation," she recalled. "Ultimately, my mom passed away in '95 as a result of a metastasized brain tumour, so since then, as I've grown up, cancer has been a huge cause for me."
That personal connection was a major reason Chung spearheaded the ELLEvate TogetHER dinner as part of this month's Cornucopia festival that will bring together some of Canada's female leaders of the culinary world. It was also the inspiration for Chung's wild salmon and pork belly dish with cauliflower, caviar and buttered scallop broth that will serve as the fourth course of the fundraiser dinner.
Pork being "an essential food group" for her traditional Chinese family growing up, Chung paired the roasted pork belly with wild salmon as an homage to one of the last trips her family took together before her mother fell ill.
"One of my best childhood memories is definitely when my mom and dad took my sister and I salmon fishing in the Queen Charlotte Sound when we were kids," she said. "I've always had this connection with salmon and smoking salmon."
Along with raising money for the Canadian Cancer Society, the other goal of ELLEvate is to shine a light on women succeeding in Canada's culinary industry. Joining Chung behind the lines will be Bearfoot Bistro Executive Chef Melissa Craig and recent Top Chef Canada All-Stars winner Nicole Gomes. Each chef will oversee two courses with the help of a female apprentice chef. Winemaker Nikki Callaway will also share a selection of Quails' Gate wines with guests alongside two of B.C.'s top sommeliers, the Bearfoot's Maryke Vandermarel and Jill Spoor from the Fairmont Pacific Rim.
"It's incredibly valuable that we can do something together that really promotes women in the industry that might be in non-traditional roles," noted Chung. "I think it's an important thing to do as a role model to the apprentices that will be working with us, and to each one of us this is a cause that's deeply personal."
Chung, the only female executive chef across all of Fairmont's properties, knows firsthand the challenges that women working in kitchens often face, so she recognizes the importance of empowering those following in her footsteps.
"It's not necessarily about what your gender is, but ensuring there's equal opportunity across the board," said Chung, who noted that three of the eight apprentices employed in her kitchen are women.
She also acknowledged that the struggle for equality in Canada is much different than the battles being waged by women around the world — but that shouldn't stop those in positions of power like herself from joining the fight.
"When we speak about equality (in Canada), we speak about salary equality and equal hiring opportunities. In other countries, they speak about the right to live or to exist in their own bodies," she explains. "So for us, I think we're quite privileged as it is, but it doesn't mean that we can't work harder to ensure equality and equal opportunity as well as supporting other countries as they grow."
The ELLEvate TogetHER dinner is scheduled for Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. in the Fairmont Chateau's Grill Room. The six-course meal costs $279 to attend and tickets can be purchased at whistlercornucopia.com.