Olivia Simpson: The Art of Being a Head Chef

A passionate chef with a true appreciation for her craft and a commitment to honouring local ingredients in her dishes.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Olivia Simpson, the head chef at Hawthorne Food and Drink. Hawthorne also doubles as a not-for-profit that provides free training and career development for people in need of employment. Olivia is also one of the chef’s participating in the Feast On BBQ taking place Saturday, October 14th at Evergreen Brick Works. In speaking with Olivia, her passion for connecting with people and building community through great food is instantly apparent.


Tell me a little about yourself, and the path that led you here.
Similar to most chefs, I cooked at home quite often with my family. My Mom’s side of the family is Eastern European and food was always the main event at our get togethers. I developed a true appreciation of how to connect with people through food and different cultures. I went to school for food science, but ended up in the kitchen and fell in love. What also sparked my interest was the experience you can create with people and the ability to connect with complete strangers on a common level: food.

Tell me about working at the famous Blue Hill at Stone Barns
I went to live in New York, and got an internship at the Blue Hill Stone Barns location in Tarrytown! Around that time I also worked in New York City at Mission Chinese Food and Dirt Candy. Each experience played an important part in my career. Dirt Candy is a vegan/vegetarian restaurant and the way they manipulate vegetables into these amazing dishes is so cool. After that I went on to Mission Chinese, who set out to overwhelm their guests with food and want them to have an outrageous, untamed experience.

Blue Hill is exact opposite – it’s highly sophisticated, very simplistic, and technique driven. It was really hard to work in that kitchen because there were a lot of expectations, high pressure and high standards. Everyone had farming chores once a week, and we would also sit down with the farmers before we started our day and we talk about ingredients, seasonality, and about things that they are hoping to harvest in the next week and even in the next month. This process got us thinking about upcoming dishes and really excited the cooks. We are forever mulling over and creating things in their minds. This practice really made me appreciate ingredients and the seasons. They created their own varieties of spinach called “Fighter spinach” in the winter. Because of the cold, the spinach produced a rougher leaf and by effect more sugar to stay alive. It was the best, sweetest spinach. Carrots too, every day we’d have to pick 100 of the “right” size. It really made me appreciate each individual vegetable and the season they were growing in, knowing that for a specific month it’s the best month to pick them.

Have there been other chefs in your life who have influenced you? In what way?
All of the chefs I’ve worked with have inspired my cooking in some way. My resume was all over the place for a while, every 6 months I wanted to jump around, learn something new, view what other people are doing. I went to George Brown which was a great program, but I don’t think I learned as much there as my first week in a kitchen. You get so much hands on experience. For example, the past head chef at Hawthorne, Ricky Gasipe, would order in a quarter of a cow, and explained to me that even if you go to a butcher and buy local grass fed, you need to be conscious of the cut. If you always buy flat irons it’s not sustainable because you’re killing more animals to get that one specific cut of meat. Instead you can buy a quarter of a cow that includes many cuts of steak and ultimately is a much more sustainable way of eating meat.

Can you elaborate on the link between building a great community and creating great food? Why is this link important in your work?
People that come to our program have a real want and need for a job. Having a love for food isn’t hard, but having a love for kitchen life as a whole is different. There are long hours, high stress, it’s hot, you get hungry even though you’re around food all day. But for those that stick around, having a social impact on the community by influencing it through food is really unique. I think food is a great medium to connect with somebody, it’s a level of understanding we all have no matter your language. It’s also a great way to to share culture, and understand other cultures through food and contribute to a greater melting pot that is the Toronto food scene. There are many menus in Toronto that are all mixed nationalities. Even when I cook, I have no background Szechuan or Filipino cuisine but I’ll add in small elements of these cuisines, which is my way of showing a nod of appreciation for that culture.

According to a Bloomberg study, only 6.3% of women hold head chef positions in prominent US restaurant groups. Do you think it’s becoming easier to be a successful female chef?
I think because there is more awareness and this issue is highlighted in the media, more female chef’s are being recognized and hired. But it’s definitely still an issue that I feel it all the time. There is a level of respect automatically given to male chefs that I don’t necessarily feel all the time. Someone will come into the kitchen for an interview or to fix something and immediately go to one of our male trainees. I’ve never worked in an all female kitchen, it’s usually just me and 5 guys. I’m lucky that the men I’ve worked with were always sweethearts and great teachers but a lot of the time it’s not like that. There are situations where you can feel disrespected or degraded. I find it’s scarier when a guy yells, so I’m trying to work on my deep angry voice, but maybe that’s not even the best thing to say because people should take you seriously regardless of the sound of your voice.

Do you have advice for female chefs growing their careers?
I’ve never thought of being female as an inequality I just worked hard, and kept my head down. I wanted to quit often and cried a lot after work. I remember crying to my Dad on the phone and he would say “Don’t give up”. You have to be strong and resilient. I craved the head chef’s approval, or for someone to just notice, even once. Let approval fuel you but don’t expect you will get praise or that it will be easy. Stand your ground and be confident but you need to earn that respect and camaraderie, and I did that through hard work. People can have a sense of entitlement when they start and I would recommend squashing that immediately. If you’re asked to do something outside of your job description you should jump at having the extra responsibility. Some people don’t look at it this way. They think they are being taken advantage of but instead it’s the chef giving you an opportunity to grow. You also truly have to understand the industry. It is going to be very long hours but it’s also so incredibly rewarding and I really do love it.

Hawthorne-chef-evergreen-brickworks-bbqWhy should people attend the Feast on BBQ this weekend?
Evergreen Brick Works is a magical place. Every time I go it’s serene. I was so excited when I heard the BBQ was going to take place there. It’s the epitome of Muskoka chair living: there will be lots of plaid. All the chefs involved are so talented and create great food so there will be fun ingredients and recipes. Mine is inspired by a recipe we used to have at my Grandmother’s house. It’s the best winter warming stew made of sauerkraut, pork, smoked paprika, bacon, and so much sour cream it’s ridiculous. I’ll also be making a vegetarian option: a beet goulash. I think it’s just going to be a fun autumn BBQ, kind of like the Christmas market in the Distillery but with a thanksgiving feel.

Get your fall feast on with Olivia’s amazing stew and so many other fall recipes Saturday, October 14th at the Feast On BBQ.