Indeed, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and she runs the front and back of house, too. In the Las Vegas culinary scene, female chefs are shattering the glass ceiling like it’s the brittle crust of a creme brulee. From celebrity chefs to pastry whizzes and behind-the-scenes restaurateurs, we celebrate a kaleidoscope of female culinary success stories. To really get the inside scoop, we invited five of the best chefs in the city for a roundtable discussion. Jamie Tran (the Black Sheep), Gina Marinelli (La Strega), Megan Shaver (Spiedini at JW Marriott), Nicole Brisson (Locale) and Leticia Nunez (Bacchanal Buffet) came to the Las Vegas Weekly offices and shared stories about their first experiences in the kitchen, monumental life and career decisions and finding space in a male-dominated world.
What sparked your interest in wanting to become a chef?
Jamie Tran: My interest started with my mom. Back in California, she made food in a fire, putting wood in there, and she made pork belly and stuff. I was really young—3 years old. From that point, I knew she loved us. I fell in love with cooking [then].
Megan Shaver: I grew up across the street from Mr. Food. He was a TV food chef, and he was always filming in his backyard. I thought it was really cool. I was like 5 or 6. That’s all I really ever wanted to do.
Gina Marinelli: I think I fell in love with cooking when I started traveling, seeing other countries and really seeing the power of food and what it does for you.
Nicole Brisson: I grew up in upstate New York, where it was a lot of rural farming land. My mom had grown up in the restaurant business … and made all our meals from scratch. Our 14 acres were basically farmland, so we would, as kids, French [cut] green beans and pickle and make applesauce and cut peaches and can throughout the winter. That was my initial connection with food. From there, it just seemed like a natural fit. I moved out when I was 14 years old, and it became more about survival than passion in the beginning. I had to financially survive with my sister, and we put ourselves through college and lived on our own and paved our way in the industry.
Leticia Nunez: Growing up I have three brothers, one sister. But then when my parents divorced, we went to live with my aunt, who had 18 children. I was one of two females, and everybody else were boys. So I learned very early on to survive among a male-oriented family. But with my aunt we had to help with cooking, and at 7, 8 years old, I started working in the kitchen, going to get that chicken in the chicken coop and learning how to butcher and kill it. The first time I did it, I was scared to death. I'm like, ‘Oh, my God, it's moving around making so much noise.’ But then you learned that's what you need to do to survive, and what a beautiful dish you can make out of this beautiful animal. That’s how it started. I feel that’s the only thing I ever wanted to do.
Speaking of male-dominated, what is it like working in such an industry?
JT: I think you get underestimated when you walk into the kitchen, like they don’t think you’re strong enough, and you’re overlooked. Like Chef [Nunez], I grew up in a male-dominant house. I have six brothers. My dad’s from Vietnam, so he’s old-fashioned. Growing up in that environment, throw me in the kitchen—it’s the same thing. They always think, ‘You’re a girl, you can’t do this.’ ‘Can you do that?’ ‘You can’t carry that.’ I’m like, ‘I can carry more than you can bake.’ But if you want to break your back, then do it.
GM: My dad's a football coach. So growing up with that, you know, women were cheerleaders,
you were never allowed to be in the spotlight. The hardest thing being a female chef is, it’s more pressure for us. We can’t be erratic; we can’t be emotional or we’re crazy. And you know, we’re just trying to run a business professionally and do the best we can. We have bad days, just like if a man has a bad day, or he's an A-hole or he's powerful or he’s arrogant. I think it puts more pressure on us to be emotionally stable.
NB: You’re always fighting the preconceived notions. The most frustrating thing for me is, no matter how old I am, how much establishment I have in my career, you constantly have to prove yourself. When you've got accolades, it doesn't stop. And even if you've had the reputation of being great, you still have to prove it to everybody around you and work twice as hard as the men.
But I think it's changing more and more, just in the 17 years that I've been working on the Strip, and now off the Strip. It's exciting to see all the women at this table and see what they bring to Vegas. I'm excited to see where it goes. Because I do think that women manage our chefs in a very different way in the kitchen than men do, and that's a way that comes naturally to us. We are naturally multitaskers, we are naturally very organized, we are naturally nurturers. And all of those things are important in a kitchen, especially just years ago, when you're like breaking plates over people's heads and screaming at them and telling them to cook faster and do better. That was an error that's gone now. Now it's an error of, 'How can I mold you? How can I make you better? How can I make you work for me?' It has less to do with the individual that's working for you and more to do about yourself and how you manage that particular employee. And that's one thing that I think I've learned with age and patience and time.
LN: For myself, 32 years in the kitchen, it hasn’t been easy, for sure. When I was pregnant with my son, who’s now 14, working a big casino here, I was taken from an executive role to a relief chef because I became pregnant. That’s the only thing—I had nothing on my record that said I was performing at a lower level. There was not any issue other than, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant.’ Seven, eight months later, it got to a point where I’m afraid to even take time off, [thinking] I’m going to get fired. And during that time, when I was pregnant, I interviewed with [Caesars], and they saw what I could do. They hired me when I was nine months pregnant, and they said, ‘It's up to you. If you want to move now we can make sure that you're taken care of or you can wait and have your baby, and when you're ready, the position will be yours.’ Which just says volumes about where I'm at now. I love my company; I wouldn't switch it, and we have a very strong female presence, with executive chefs and female chefs in executive roles. But I am sure that it hasn't been easy for anybody here at the table, working and having to prove yourself consistently. It never never stops.
NB: But just to kind of touch on what Leticia said, I think something that people forget about women versus men is, immediately when we decide to go into this career, there's a crossroads. Do you have children? Don't you have children? Do you ever have that relationship? Don't you have that relationship? I've sacrificed many romantic relationships for my career. I've sacrificed … I was single for 15 years, just when I was focusing my career, I decided at one point, do I want to have children and my career made that decision for me. I got very ill and I got diagnosed with a disease and I'll never have children. It's admirable to see Nancy Silverton and all the chefs that I've known who have gone through pregnancies in the kitchen, and seeing what they went through in that particular moment. I mean, it sets you back … you're gone for nine months, 10 months, 11 months, whatever it is. And then you come back and you're starting all over again.
LN: My son was born at an omelet station. I was hoping to take some time off ... ‘Oh, OK. The water broke. Baby’s coming. Somebody take over for me.’ Maybe the stove was a little too hot (laughs). It's not easy being a parent and working. My son is now 14. Sometimes I get up at 3 in the morning and I don't get home until 8, 9 o'clock at night. But then, you also get those vacation times that you are able to spend with the family. It's not an easy decision if you love family equally, but when it comes to food, it’s your art and your passion. You can't divide it.
Given how demanding your careers are, is work/life balance achievable?
NB: I’ve been trying to find that for 25 years. It’s something that we all try to find, but it’s hard. Your passion supersedes your life. If it was up to all of us in this room, we would probably put our career 100 percent above our lives. That’s why we’re chefs—we’re slightly dysfunctional; there’s something wrong with us! (laughs)
MS: I think I’ve looked at it a little bit differently. I got diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago, and at this point, I do need that balance. You know, I spent 27 years cooking. What do I have to show for them? Like, [you’re] 41, you have breast cancer.
GM: Do you find yourself prioritizing your life more than your work?
MS: I did. I mean, at first when I was going through chemo, I was trying to get back—like three, four days and go in. I do take the time now. So it’s like, you go in and you can focus on what you want to focus on, you know. It’s a good distraction.
LN: I’ll tell you, five years ago, my 24-year-old son died in a car accident on the 215. I got the phone call on Mother’s Day 2014. And on Monday, I had this large event, right? So this is how your mind is thinking: You have this horrible, horrific thing that can happen to a human being, but then in the back of your mind, this survival thing comes on like, ‘Oh, but I have that party.’ You start to think of how to be busy and everything. It gets your mind off your crisis, what’s happening, and now you’re involved in something outside of you. And it helps you get through it. It really does. I mean, for me, I found it very therapeutic. Work really saved me. And it saves me every time.
Do you have any advice for younger female chefs just coming up?
JT: Don’t let anybody determine your worth. Know your own worth. I tell cooks that come into my kitchen, still, to this day, ‘Make them want you more than you need them.’ When you get that in your head, you don’t ever have to fear for anything; you’re going to always have that door open for you if you have that mindset. But if you don’t know your worth, people will take advantage of you.
MS: Work for a woman chef.
GM: Just to push and push. Come in an hour earlier than everybody else, be the last one to leave. We all get sucked into the party scene out here, but I think you push through that and you stay very focused on your career, then eventually you’re going to be where you want to be. There are 24 hours in the day. Use every hour—read, travel, taste, eat, use the city, the Strip.
LN: My goal is that everybody who eats my food and what we make loves it, and they can see all the work that went into it. So that’s why you stick with it, day after day after day [despite] naysayers, people rejecting you and bringing you down. You overcome all of them.
NB: I think all of us can say, ‘Don’t give up.’ One of my first mentors said to me, ‘Keep your head down and work hard, and everything else will come.’ And it’s very true. … Learn when you have the opportunity—before you have kids, before life gets in the way. I had a great opportunity when I was 21 years old to go to Italy, and live and work for free. Now, when I tell my young cooks that I worked for free for two years of my life, they think I'm crazy.
I think I had the upper hand and a little bit of advantage that before I even went to culinary school, I had already been cooking for seven years. And I didn't want to go to school, I didn't want to get my degree because I grew up very poor. And my boss, my first boss, said, ‘It's a different industry. You gotta change your mindset.’ If it wasn't for him, if it wasn't for all the people in my life. I wouldn't be here. I think that's the saddest part about our industry and how it's changing with the #MeToo movement and the sexual harassment. I think people forget, like, I had a lot of middle-aged white guys who really helped me in my career and they weren't trying to have sex with me. They really cared about me, you know, these father figures who became mentors. And I don't want young girls to forget that, that it's not about sleeping with you. There are people who genuinely care about your success and your future and your well-being. Find those people, seek them out and surround yourself with them. Don't surround yourself with people who are naysayers and negative and tear you down. There's more people in this industry who will tear you down and wear you out.
LN: I did my apprenticeship working for a French chef. My first job was to help the saucier. And then after six months, I would help make my own sauces and he would come and taste them and spit right inside the pans. "You donkey," [he’d say]. He always referred to me as the donkey.
The Mexican, the Latin Americans, are donkeys [who] are supposed to carry the load. And this was very, very hard. So during those two years, I said to myself, ‘I'm going to prove to you that I can make you need me by the end of my two years. You're gonna beg me for a job, to stay with you, because you're going to love everything I make.’ And I made that my absolute goal. In two years I learned everything in that kitchen, every recipe, and made it as perfect with my eyes closed and just by taste and smell. At the end of my two years, I said this is it, this is my end with this chef, Chef Andre. I'll never forget him because it's because of him that after that, everything was easy. He did say to me, ‘I would offer you chef de partie, saucier lead. Stay with us.” And that was such … you know that feeling, right?
‘Yes! But no. … I kindly say no to you.’ And I did. It was such a rewarding thing. I was only 18 years old back then. It would have been really easy to just walk away. I went home crying every day. My mother would say, ‘Why why do you stay there? He's so horrible, he calls you names and throws your food and spits in your food. Why would you want to stay there; you don't have to do that.’ I said, ‘I don't have to, but I will. And I want to because I will prove to him that he needs me. And he's gonna love everything I make.’
And that's my goal, that everybody who eats my food and what we make, they love. They can see all the work that went into it. So that's why you stay with it. You stick with it. Day after day after day, [with] naysayers, people rejecting you and bringing you down. But you overcome all of them
GM: There's no crying in baseball.
It takes a specific kind of personality trait to survive and thrive in this industry. Having gone through what you've gone through, do you have a more sympathetic view of younger people in your kitchens?
JT: The culture in the back is changing. I grew up in the kitchen, where my dad was screaming and punching the cooks, and I thought that was normal. And then working for a French chef [who’s] screaming. Japanese chef, they're always screaming. I don't want to be like that. I said to myself, ‘I don't want to be like my dad, I do not want to be that psycho.’
In the kitchen, I'm trying to teach my younger sous chefs, ‘You don't do that. Learn from other people's mistakes, learn from my mistakes.’ I blow up sometimes and can't help it. What we do is like a creative outlet for us. You obviously want things a certain way. It's representing you, what you put it on the plate. It's not about the dish and where it came from; it's actually you, and you want people to understand that. That's your expression. So with my cooks, I'm trying to tell them that you're learning what I'm doing. But in the future, this is going to be you on the plate. You’ve got to understand and not go crazy and not get freaked out when something's a mistake.
I'm trying to teach my chefs a new culture. I'm trying to not be that crazy. It's not worth it. There's a lot of mental health issues in our industry and nobody talks about it—a lot of anxiety that everybody goes through, especially females. Now, a lot of female chefs or chefs in general, we should understand it's not like the past; you don't need to mentally abuse people. You don't need to break people down, and you don't need to be quiet and just take it in. That's the past and it was built on the military, like a brigade system. My dad's from the military. He was straight crazy, too. But for myself, I do not want that for my kitchen.
What is the culinary community like in Las Vegas?
NB: The camaraderie now versus when I first moved [to Las Vegas] is leaps and bounds [better]. When I first moved here, people were moving out of Vegas just as quickly as they were moving in. Now I'm 38 years old. I see a lot of people around my age that are 35 to 45 who are settling down. They're buying houses and having kids and establishing families, and I think we have that network of not only the people at this table, but people like Brian Howard, Justin Kingsley Hall, Dan Krohmer—all the other chefs who are kind of taking that plunge and leaving the Strip, knowing that we don't need that huge overhead of the big corporations. You can exist there, but you're paying a lot more money to be there. And here we get to express ourselves and also develop a sense of community. And that was the biggest reason why I wanted to make the change. I joined the Board of Health, I bought a house, I made Vegas my home after years of saying I was going back to New York every year.
And finally, I feel like I've made that mental switch: ‘OK, this is my home now I'm going to make it my home and I'm going to make it the best community that I can for not only my peers, but the families around me and the people that I'm cooking for.’ Because that's important to me. Growing up in upstate New York, you're able to do that in small towns and create those relationships. And we, against all odds, did that at Carnevino on the Strip. Closing that restaurant was probably one of the most devastating parts of my career because I put so much into it. More and more I want to capture that special thing that is a part of you, that's part of your soul. We're all so complicated as people but also as chefs, because we're masochists, because we're doing things so differently than anyone else. And probably everybody at this table is their own worst critic.
LN: You never feel like your plate is good enough. ‘That plate is a masterpiece, I'm so proud of it … [but] I could have done that better. Maybe next time, I'm going to try it this way.’ I'm never satisfied.
Other than cooking, what do you do for fun?
JT: I really enjoy spending time with my niece. She lives with me. She's running around and does the cutest things. I try to spend time with her as much as I can until she gets her nap time or [it’s] night time. I'm boring. I drink. I do drink (laughs).
GM: I think we all do (laughs).
MS: Everything revolves around food. Like, OK, we're going to Chinatown. This [restaurant] is opening, and you go for drinks. No matter how much I try to like, OK, I'm gonna go do the painting, take up some new hobby. It all comes back to just food.
GM: Three things: I love my fiancée, but that doesn't count (laughs). But I love music. I think that's a great escape for all of us. I love going to live shows. I love football. I'm gay, I think I had to say that! Being active. I think that's good for mental health.
I wanted to say something about mental health. Ten years ago, I finally took care of ... I had severe anxiety as a child my entire life, just nonstop. And finally I went to the doctor, and I've been on medication ever since. And I honestly think without addressing it, I wouldn't be able to be where I am now. But for me to take that step, I think you really had to acknowledge it. I thought I was gonna pass out the day we opened the doors of La Strega. Like, every day can get like that. And you just … you’re criticized and you’re drill-blasted and people have no idea how much you think and put into it and strive for every second of every day, and someone comes in like, ‘It's loud in here’ and just slams you and you're like, ‘Oh, my gosh, so much time and energy.’ But it's something we should always talk about. It's a lot of pressure. We make food. We're not saving lives … we make food, and we get more pressure than anybody else to succeed. And it's a lot for us every single day.
NB: I have people ask me all the time, what would you do if you weren't cooking? And honestly, there's a thousand things I would love to do besides cooking. I mean, I love to cook, but like Megan said, everything revolves around cooking. You know, if I wasn't cooking professionally, I would be cooking at home every day. I'd be cooking for my family. People think I'm crazy. They're like, ‘You still cook at home even though you work like 120 hours a week?’ Yes, [chefs] still cook at home because they really enjoy it. It's my passion.
I love to read, I love to hike, I love to be on the water, I love to be on the beach. I love, I would say, all aspects of life, but you forget those things when you get so caught up in your career. I just took five mental health days and went to Hawaii with my boyfriend because he was probably gonna break up with me if I didn't. It was a family trip that we had scheduled before I even left Eataly. And it's so good in so many ways because it resets you, you decompress, you separate yourself from all the stress. That's important for mental health. Because if you don't do that, it can consume you. It can eat you alive. And I'm more of a masochist than probably anybody else. I think we all have to stop and realize there are all these things that we love to do in life; we just have to make time for them. The older I get, the more I see that’s a priority. And that's one of the reasons why I just made the big change that I did in my career. I hope to have more time to do those things.
LN: I have 134 cooks, nine sous chefs. Before 8 o'clock, I must have a thousand ‘Chef, Chef, Chef, Chef, we don't have this, this is broken, that happened.’ Or, ‘We didn't get this, that didn't come in.’ Before we even open the doors at 7:30 in the morning, I go and I walk around at the pool. And literally, it's so quiet. And that is my fun thing to do (laughs). That's if I can just find those 10 minutes to just go walk around the pool and pretend I'm a guest and lie down on the chair. This is so good. Close my eyes for 10 minutes and pretend and hope nobody saw me. You say we're only doing food, but it feels like you're saving lives sometimes.
Other than that, I love church on Sundays if I can go and not have to do brunch or something. Service and helping others—I really enjoy helping young people, outside of what my cooks may think because I am very strict in the kitchen. I don't like too much playfulness, because I think that you really do need to focus [on the job]. If you have your headphones and you’re listening to music or you're chit-chatting and talking about other things, you're really not paying attention to what's happening in front of you. And so you're not going to retain a whole lot of what's just being presented. So I like a lot of focus.
I tell the young people, ‘You know, if somebody is giving you time, which is a precious, valuable thing, honor it by paying attention. And if it's something that you want for your career later on, you're going to take a lot away from it. I have 32 years of cooking—so allow me to just teach you this.’ Because I when I was young, I would love for chefs to show me things, talk to me about their experiences, about food. I worked with Alice Waters and her experience with gardening and being a pioneer of farm-to-table. As a young girl back then—I was just a dishwasher at the time—but to me, just coming from Mexico and getting that opportunity to work in her restaurant … when she would speak to me, it was such an honorable thing. Her words were like talking to God! I'm not saying that’s me, but what I'm saying, for these young kids now who want to become chefs or want to do something in culinary, pay attention, give respect when they're showing you things, so that you're able to walk away with something.