Award-winning chef and author Bridget Foliaki-Davis has shocking memories of her first job in a hotel kitchen more than two decades ago as a young female apprentice. Like the time her male colleagues lit the peak of her chef's hat on fire and patted it out just as the flames singed her hair.
The South Auckland-born mum also remembers taking a big sip through her straw during a busy lunch service, before realising it was filled with searing Tabasco sauce.
"I was a young female apprentice running the hotline and the boys didn't like that, so they'd try and throw me all the time," recalls Bridget, 44.
"I don't use straws to this day because I have such bad memories of lying on the ground, choking in the middle of service and they're laughing."
The accomplished foodie – who has cooked for Oprah Winfrey and Jacinda Ardern – says it was extremely hard for women to find their place in the male-dominated industry.
"I never thought of myself as female," tells Bridget, who has published three cookbooks.
"I thought of myself as a chef, as a human and I wasn't going to let idiots put me off what I love. But I can count on one hand the number of females who held high positions in kitchens I've worked in."
The busy Sydney chef – who runs YouTube channel Bridget's Kitchen – says as a toddler, she pulled an overturned beer crate to the bench so she could watch her mother cook. Then at high school, she was kicked out of home economics for asking too many questions.
"I was constantly like, 'What if I swapped this ingredient for that?' because I knew I wanted to be a chef."
Bridget left school at 14 to waitress before starting a chef's course in Manukau, South Auckland, where she graduated top of her class and was voted in as the first president of the New Zealand Training Chef's Association.
"There I was at 19, a female who grew up in Otara, sitting at council meetings with middle-aged male chefs," she laughs.
By the time she started as an apprentice in the kitchen of an Auckland hotel, Bridget was a solo mum to her eldest Krissy, now 27, and working hard to make ends meet.
"That's when I began to uncover how bad the industry is as a young woman," she tells. "I'd bend down to get something and the male chefs would push my head into their crotches and say, 'While you're there…' You have to be tough and resilient, and I put up with a lot."
Eventually, she moved to a small family-owned Italian restaurant on Auckland's North Shore, where she was taught under a Michelin- trained chef and blossomed. By 21, she owned a business catering for luxury yachts on Auckland Harbour and was head chef at a wine bar.
"I felt like finally I was in a place where I could learn the ins and outs of the industry, and not be watching my back the whole time," she tells. "But always – even if I was head chef – I had to prove myself to any new male who walked into the kitchen."
By the time she was also mum to Coco, 17, and Mason, 14, Bridget met husband Mahe'i, 44, at a bar in 2006. When the family moved to Sydney shortly after, her career took off and she ran kitchens for celebrity chef Bill Granger, even cooking his famous "Best Eggs in the World" for the queen of daytime TV on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
After opening two busy gastro pubs, Bridget launched her first cookbook in January last year, which opened the door to cooking online.
"I was invited to appear on TV to promote the cookbook and was paralysed with fear because I was the biggest I'd been," she explains. "I weighed 90kg – more than when I was nine months pregnant!"
So using her foodie genius, Bridget created low-fat recipes that are sugar, gluten and dairy-free, and within four and a half months, she's shed 25 kilos.
Bridget also noticed that her mood and sleeping patterns drastically improved too.
Excited by the concept of "food as medicine", Bridget created hundreds of healthy meal ideas that she started sharing online. Within a week, she was getting over 500 requests per recipe every day. Now, she's author of Bridget's Healthy Kitchen, which sold out its first print run in six weeks.
Bridget has another career highlight – cooking for our Prime Minister at her family marae in the Bay of Islands, where she grew up with her cousin Kelvin Davis, deputy of the Labour Party.
"When I started out, people told me, 'Girls don't become chefs, they become waitresses,'" she says.
"Half of me believed them, but the other half didn't and decided not to listen because food is what I love doing."
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