Vancouver innovators discuss their journeys into food, hospitality

For International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting four women forging a path in the fields of food and hospitality.

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The restaurant industry wasn’t Deseree Lo’s initial career calling.


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Though she harboured a love of “eating and cooking” that stemmed from her childhood, Lo followed her post-secondary education path to New York before starting a career there in finance. While living in the Big Apple, Lo devoured the destination’s diverse serving of food and culture.

“I was so in awe and so blown away by all these amazing and different types of food and cuisines, from street food, mom-and-pop shops to three-Michelin-starred restaurants,” she says. “It is indeed the melting pot of all food scenes and culture.”

The buffet of choices in the international hot spot left her hunger satiated but didn’t prompt a desire to step into a kitchen full-time. That came later, when her outlook on life changed after Sept. 11, 2001, as it did for many.


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“I started to find my work and day-to-day routine becoming less appealing,” she says. “Life is short, fragile and unpredictable. However, I always found myself doing the same things: cranking out meaningless spreadsheets, going to the same bars, meeting finance guys with Blackberries trying to impress you with their job and industry jargons …

“I was losing my mind.”

Somewhere amid the day-to-day grind and the growing sense of discontent, Lo picked up a copy of late chef and author Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential.

“I couldn’t put it down,” Lo recalls. “After I finished reading it, I knew cooking was my true calling.”

Lo decided to leave the finance world behind, enrolling in The French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center) with the goal of becoming a professional chef.


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“I quit my job and never looked back,” she says.

Fast-forward to today and Lo is the chef, wholesale and retail sales manager of the Vancouver-based sustainable seafood purveyor Fresh Ideas Start Here (F.I.S.H.). While she admits the transition from finance to food wasn’t easy, she found she was “wholeheartedly” supported within the industry as she’s worked her way through professional kitchens to her current position developing new products and educating staff at F.I.S.H.

While Lo points to “cooking shows, competitions, smart phones/cameras, the internet and social media posts from food enthusiasts and bloggers” as helping to build out the diversity of the professional food world, she says the industry is still “very much a male-dominated” one.


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Lo urges women who are looking to follow in her footsteps, to standup for themselves and advocate for their positions in order to further the opportunities for themselves — and for others.

“I think it’s our reluctance and hesitation to speak up and ask for what we deserve and stand on our ground and really fight for what we want is what is hindering us from gaining the same recognition and levelling our playing field with the male chefs,” Lo says. “I have always asked for what I want. So what if I get a ‘no’? It’s a ‘no’ right now, but it’s not forever. And what if I get a ‘yes’?”

Elpie Marinakis, co-owner of the Wedgewood Hotel and Bacchus Restaurant.
Elpie Marinakis, co-owner of the Wedgewood Hotel and Bacchus Restaurant. Wedgewood Hotel

 Following in family footsteps

For Elpie Marinakis, co-owner of the Vancouver-based Wedgewood Hotel and Bacchus Restaurant, the decision to find a place within the field of food and hospitality was spurred on by a family connection.


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“Growing up, I was always surrounded by the hospitality industry,” Marinakis says. “Although I had originally pursued a career in law, hospitality has always been in my heart. My mother, Eleni Skalbania, was at the helm of the hotel since the hotel opened in 1984. I spent endless summers and holidays assisting my mother at the hotel, it was my second home growing up. My mother then took the difficult decision to step back, that’s when she offered me the opportunity to step in.”

Marinakis credits her mother’s work within the local industry as setting a path for her own success in the field, which sees women holding about 12 per cent of hospitality industry leadership positions, according to a 2019 report by Castell Project.


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“I feel fortunate my mother was one of the pioneers of the industry,” Marinakis says. “There is an abundance of tremendous women in this industry. We all work really hard and we all work really hard together, regardless of position or gender.”

Marinakis notes there is a growing emphasis on inclusion and diversity within the hospitality industry, which she hopes prompts more people to join the field in future.

“Whether you’re passionate about fine cuisine, excellent customer service or even finance, the industry has something for everyone,” she says. “It’s a very rewarding profession, you are in the business of making people happy and providing an experience to create lifelong memories. That’s what people now are really looking for.”


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Jillian Justine Brooks, owner of Metis Bannock Queen.
Jillian Justine Brooks, owner of Metis Bannock Queen. Photo by Jillian Justin Brooks

Preserving tradition and paying it forward

The desire to preserve her Métis food traditions is what prompted Jillian Justine Brooks, founder of Metis Bannock Queen, to pursue a side hustle that also gives back to the community.

“It’s a family recipe that my grandfather passed down to me from his mother,” Brooks explains of the delights she whips up that are available for purchase through Instagram and select retailers such as Vegan Supply and Old Crow Coffee Co. “It’s important for me to keep the traditions going and share my family’s joy and culture with others.

“The Métis peoples have such a beautiful history and amazing food like Bannock that more people should know about.”

For Brooks, who works full-time as a department manager at Scanline VFX, her time spent cooking for Metis Bannock Queen is also about giving back.


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“I make sure I cover my costs for materials and then the rest goes to the charities,” she explains. “My mother’s mom and dad raised us to help others and give back whenever we could, especially when you are financially stable and able to give back.”

To date, Brooks’ donation beneficiaries have included Team 700, a competitive boxing team for Indigenous youth, and the Urban Native Youth Association.

“Honestly, it’s been raising money for different charities in the community and hearing how the donations have improved the lives of others,” Brooks says of her proudest moment so far with her baking enterprise. “Also hearing other Indigenous people share their family bannock stories with me.

“Everyone always has a different way of making bannock and enjoying it with their family and friends.”


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Her work with Metis Bannock Queen, she says, sees her join a growing number of Indigenous entrepreneurs in the Lower Mainland offering an array of products, from food to clothing.

“The future is Native and I’m so excited to see where we are in the next decade,” Brooks says.

Miki Ellis, co-owner of Dachi Restaurant.
Miki Ellis, co-owner of Dachi Restaurant. Photo by Miki Ellis

Investing in a passion

There’s a passion for the food and hospitality industries that drives these innovators along.

“I love the food and beverages we work with, and the people we get to work with,” Miki Ellis, co-owner at Dachi Restaurant, says. “From suppliers, farmers, to vineyards, industry folks, and people who just love community.

“Every day is different in restaurants, but somehow it always comes together, and only by a team effort.”

The sense of community, she says, “is very special.”


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For Ellis, there’s an added draw of individuality — meaning the restaurant industry, and a person’s role within it, can allow someone to make whatever they choose of it.

“It’s exciting to see where it can take you,” Ellis says. “Working with people we like, wanting to support other small producers and farmers is where it started, and we just stay open to what may come — because the last three years have definitely been a surprise.”

Owning restaurants and holding management positions also allows pros like Ellis the chance to write the future of the Vancouver food and hospitality industries by offering opportunities to people of diverse backgrounds.

“The industry has to get more diverse. It’s not going to survive staying the way it is,” Ellis says. “Being more inclusive allows us to learn about and taste other flavours, which is exciting.

“The opportunity to expand our palates by allowing those on our teams to create dishes and drinks from their background and experience is such a special way of sharing who we are.”



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