On the first or second day of the program, Belen made a debut appearance in a slightly racy, very funny skit: this small bright Spanish woman was a good choice for the part – and we all laughed heartily. Then I began to hear about her as I spoke with other Spaniards about my life (this was always a two-way street). By the time I had my first session with her, probably 3 days into the program, I knew she was a chef and that she taught in a culinary school. I was keen to meet her.
We talked at length about the restaurant industry and culinary schools, comparing notes. Belen speaks very good English. Not surprisingly, there are many similarities between the culinary worlds of Spain and Canada. It is a male-dominated profession, with long hours and poor pay. Belen and her husband (also a chef) ran a restaurant in Madrid for two years, then gave it up because it was too stressful and left them no time for other things. Now they both teach at a cooking school in Leon (in the northwest of Spain) – and are very happy there. It is a small school that takes in about 30 students each year and loses about half of them by second year. The students cook for the public in both years. They study classical cuisine in year one and more contemporary cooking in year two. They design their own menus for the school restaurant. A Number decide not to pursue a career in the business after experiencing its rigours
Everyone in the program knew Belen was a chef and we would all seek her professional opinion of the food we were served in various places. She was diplomatic and positive, but we knew when, in her opinion, the food was not up to snuff. “A little heavy on sauces”, she commented once. We all nodded. She spoke to me about the challenges of being a woman in the restaurant industry. A couple of years ago, 5 female chefs (of Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain) and their assistants (she was one of those) went to design and prepare menus at Iberostar resorts in the Caribbean/Mexico; the local male cooks had trouble dealing with directives from women. Fascinating to hear how similar circumstances are in different cultures. So hard for women to gain respect in that industry, even though at home, women rule in the kitchen (well, except for at Carolina’s house!)
Why did she want to improve her already excellent English? Because Belen has another passion: horses. She judges/stewards competitions in Spain but wants to get her qualifications to become an international judge/steward. English is required – and I believe she is taking her qualification exam this coming week-end. (Good Luck, Belen!) Once she passes, I hope she will come to North America for a competition so we can meet again. And I am sure she will pass. Nothing gets in the way of this woman’s drive to succeed!
We talked often during the week. Like me, she has two sons, young teenagers – and she clearly missed her family. Walking one day she told me she’d spoken to her son, a serious musician, on the phone that morning. He was upset because his music teacher had made harsh comments; he needed to talk to his mother.
At age 49, Belen is a ball of energy, and a force to be reckoned with on the mini-stage and the dance floor, not to mention in the kitchen/classroom or at equestrian events. She kept us all smiling with her radiant presence. Next time I am in Spain, I will go to Leon, just to see her and meet her family. It will be a delight – as it was getting to know her. Another Spanish jewel.