Conversations: Meet Canada's First Female Top Chef, Nicole Gomes
Nicole Gomes is owner and Executive Chef of Nicole Gourmet and Cluck N Cleaver. Her passion for food has taken her around the globe, earning her a place alongside some of Canada’s best chefs and as a contestant on Top Chef Canada season three. She was the first female winner of Top Chef Canada: All Stars in 2017.
How did you get started and where did it all begin?
It all began with my mom and it’s why I became an entrepreneur. I love cooking, it’s a passion. I’ve always cooked. It tends to be the trials and tribulations in your life that spark change.
When I was 18, I was running with the wrong crowd, so I decided to change my circle of people and find something I could sink my teeth into. It was difficult coming from a Chinese culture, women didn’t go into cooking, they went to university. I didn’t, I wanted to become a chef. My family didn't support my decision. But when a challenge is put in front of me, I work harder.
What were some of your challenges?
There are challenges being a woman in this industry. When I started there weren’t a lot of women. I had to endure a lot of torment and belittling. But I had a goal, I’ve always made goals and I was determined. You have to believe in yourself and stay true to yourself.
What do you attribute the success of your business to?
It’s been 12 years with Nicole Gourmet which has a more direct link to the client. I love teaching my team about cooking and about building a business. We have an all-women staff. There is no ego involved. I let the team sort out conflict amongst themselves and give them lots of autonomy. My career is about love and passion.
What inspires you?
For me, cooking is part of my culture. It’s about sharing, being around the table and talking with friends and family. That inspires me. I have a motherly nature, I like to nurture, and I get a lot of joy in the sharing. Teaching gives me a lot of satisfaction as well, it’s very gratifying. Also my mom, she is a strong and positive single mom. She was left with nothing and worked her ass off to support us.
What frightens you?
Lots of things. I wonder if I am a good manager. Money frightens me. My body failing me is frightening, there are many scary moments being a business owner.
I’ve really been working on my health. When I was young I would just go for it, trying to keep up with the boys. All that partying and drinking takes a toll. Having a better state of mind makes me more creative and keeps me on point. My health has been top-of-mind as my family has been dealing with cancer for a number of years. Cancer wakes you up and reminds you that life is too short. It makes me less inhibited and I live life to the fullest because of this.
You are Canada’s first female Top Chef. This is a huge accomplishment, tell us about your experience.
I don’t look at myself that way, it doesn’t define me. But it was a great experience. The first time was a shit-show, I did not have the confidence at the time I needed. I wasn’t healthy and got really sick near the end. It was a wake-up call that I needed to get healthy and get my shit together.
I chose to do it because I knew it would be fun, that I could do it and it was a challenge. I didn’t do it to prove anything to anyone else or for fame. It was for me and whatever the result would be, I’d be fine with it.
The second time I was a bit more hesitant. I was at a different place in my life, I had started my restaurant Cluck N Cleaver. But I am glad I did it.
Any advice for women in business or for women wanting to venture into a new project?
If I was a millionaire I’d open a restaurant and just cook!
A business plan is a crucial step which a lot of people skip. I didn’t do that with Nicole Gourmet. You need to have goals and they have to be realistic, you need a direction. Things can evolve and change, but do not skip the business plan. I did one for Cluck N Cleaver and we followed it. We have a solid plan that we continue to use for expansion. This chicken joint was the smartest thing I’ve ever done; formulating something that runs itself and is scalable.
Having a mentor is extremely valuable, both male and female. You need a sounding board with impartial thoughts and opinions. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, so ask. Women tend to think they can do it all themselves, but you need help and the support of other people. I’ve met so many powerful, amazing women through different channels. It’s important to reach out. Be self-aware and know who you are.
And you need to put in the time to succeed. The first five years of a business are the hardest. You have to sacrifice everything. You need determination and focus. Making mistakes is also important to learn from. Be happy to take accountability—fuck up and learn. Have no regrets. I’m lucky it’s something I love. You need to love it to find the drive to carry on.