In an industry known for gender imbalance, especially in top roles, Elia Herrera’s Toronto restaurant is challenging the norm

Los Colibris
Credit: Courtesy

“Most people, when they ask for the chef, they all think that it’s a guy.” Miriam Echeverria is chef de cuisine at Los Colibris, and she’s referring to the restaurant’s executive chef, Elia Herrera, who is definitely not a guy.

Statistically, those who expect to find a man leading a kitchen usually find just that. Only 21.4 percent of chef positions go to women, who tend to orbit the lower-paying areas of the restaurant industry. While the numbers are trending upwards in America, recent data from the U.K. indicates a decline in female chefs on the other side of the pond. And although the Culinary Institute of America reported slightly higher enrollment by women this year, leadership in the nation’s kitchens won’t likely reflect that shift any time soon.

In an industry known for gender imbalance, especially in top roles, Herrera’s Toronto restaurant is unusual. Women aren’t just running the kitchen—they’re looking after the entirety of Los Colibris, from front-of-house management to marketing and events.

“Coming from a more male-dominated company into this space was very welcoming,” says manager Kristen Doyle. Event sales manager Alanna Fournie agrees. She describes life at Los Colibris as a “breath of fresh air” after a previous job where men held most of the management roles—including a male chef. “You’d walk into the kitchen and you don’t know what’s happening,” Fournie says. “Things are getting thrown at people…”

Los Colibris
Credit: Courtesy

Echeverria shares a similar story, one she heard through the grapevine about a chef who hit his cooks with wooden spoons. “If your chef is a male, and you’re doing it wrong, it’s going to be yelling for sure,” she says. “And swearing—’What the f*** are you doing, go home’—they make you cry.”

But in Herrera’s kitchen, the mood is calm. “In all the kitchens I’ve worked, the chef is loud and angry and very dominating,” says manager Karen Davidson. “With chef Elia, while sometimes you can see that she’s frustrated or under pressure, it doesn’t show...She uses the stress in sort of a positive atmosphere to push the team forward, and I’ve never heard her raise her voice.”

Despite the industry horror stories, Herrera doesn’t think her leadership style is unusual—she says that she’s always worked in kitchens led by men, but their teams were solid and made communication a priority. “I think that behaviour from the past, about yelling and being aggressive, it doesn’t happen as much anymore,” she says. (It does.) But Herrera acknowledges that she’s been “very lucky to work in places where people really feel that the business belonged to them.”

Herrera, whose grandmother was a chef, interprets the restaurant as another home—a place of belonging, filled with love and family. “I grew up with it,” she says. Her family history is the inspiration behind Los Colibris, where Herrera cooks her grandmother’s recipes for a fine-dining audience.

Los Colibris
Credit: Courtesy

Herrera looks to the restaurant, and her team, as an extension of her family. With her staff spending so many hours at the restaurant, she points out, “It’s very important to me that we all feel at home.” She describes wanting to surround herself with love, respect and collaboration. The women of Los Colibris seem to be on the same wavelength: Doyle describes the space as “comforting,” while Davidson says that “it’s a very nurturing and friendly atmosphere.”

All of this positivity might sound like a win for the matriarchy, but Doyle says that, although there’s a definite sense of belonging in the restaurant, “I don’t know if that’s because the people who work here are amazing in general or because they’re women specifically.”

In fact, most of the team is hesitant to attribute its success to gender. On problem-solving and communication, Davidson says, “Our male team is great with that. And I don’t sense any conflict in the building with so many women in power.” Herrera says that the ability to get along is “just a personality thing.”

But Doyle points out that the managers are rarely willing to say "no" to each other—”I think [that’s] very much a woman thing.” And Fournie says, “I think there’s something about it being all women that opens up communication a bit better, in some ways.” These aspects of a restaurant’s culture start at the top, and it’s clear that Herrera motivates her team by example.

For pastry chef Sora Lee, whose role at Los Colibris is her first kitchen experience, Herrera’s leadership inspires her to look forward. She says, “I want to be like her one day.”

Herrera, who believes that more women should be in the kitchen, will be happy to hear it. “We have to be brave and do what we really want,” she says.