On this International Women's Day, we highlight Chef de Cuisine, Erika Tucker, at Marsh House in Nashville.
In the United States, 80% of head chefs are men. Erika has followed her passion for food and has navigated success within the male-dominant culinary industry. In this interview, Erika shares her career path, her passion for cooking, and advice to future female chefs.
What was your career path to becoming a Head Chef?
Ever since I was a little girl, six or seven years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in this life: I wanted to be a Chef. I wanted to cook, and that was interesting because I had actually been given a full ride scholarship, an athletic scholarship, to Berkeley. I graciously and gracefully declined that scholarship. It ended up being a decision that I stand behind and I will stand behind for the rest of my life. A lot of people look at it as a huge mistake, but it was the right path for me.
I was in New York City when I was 18 years old and I didn't know anyone. I completed an intense 6 month program and graduated at the top of my class. I was there to focus; I took it very seriously. I was paying for it myself and upon graduation, they asked me to stay and help teach. Teaching was an incredible opportunity because it really reinforced my education. I was sent to Tokyo and I worked on a Sushi Bar in the middle of Tokyo, a very nice one. I was the only blonde female on the sushi line, and I can assure you every single person in that restaurant was looking at me. It hasn't always been a comfortable journey, but I have learned along the way and continued to pursue my passion.
What is the most important piece of advice you have received?
I was always told that fear means run. If you're scared of something, then you should do it because what you'll get from that experience is something that will change your life. Things in this life that aren't easy, are the most rewarding. If you are scared of something, I think it's inherent for us to run in the opposite direction, when in reality you need to run straight towards it!
The culinary industry is not easy, but for me it's the most rewarding. If you figure out that cooking is what makes you happy and is what you're passionate about, the industry has a lot to teach you. Cooking requires passion, precision, but most of all, LOVE. It's also a science. It's a basic skill that we've been doing since the beginning of time.
Who inspires you in the industry?
There are multiple levels to cooking, there's nothing I love more than a beautifully talented, confident Female chef, one of the chefs that I look up to most in the industry her name is Leticia Robach. She is an executive chef for Ellen Dukas in New York City. She's a phenomenal human being. If you look at her food, you'll see that she has refined the art of French cooking, but she takes it to the next level. It's not pretentious, it's just delicious food and I look at chefs like her and I try to get an understanding of how they got to where they are.
What advice do you have for future female chefs?
There are so many phenomenal male chefs in the industry who I look up to and it's rare to see a female leading the kitchen. From what I've seen and what I've experienced myself, you need to immerse yourself in a quality work environment because there are tons of restaurants all over the world and you could be working in the industry for 25 to 30 years. If you only surround yourself in the mediocre, subpar restaurants or places of work, then you're probably going to be taught the wrong thing and life experience is all about quality, not quantity, in my opinion. So Ironman that fosters education and teaches you the basics, that stays true to the fundamental techniques of cooking. Go into it open. Understand that you are where you work. Be sure to immerse yourself in quality work environments. Be sure to work for a chef that wants to push you, that wants to make you better. I say to my team all the time, all I ask them, how many of you wanna do the same thing and be in the same position for the rest of your life? The point of that question is don't listen to those who tell you that you can't do it or that it's gonna be too hard.
What is the most important message you want to send out to young women thinking about their careers?
" You are perfectly capable and deserving of absolutely anything you want in this life, no matter what that looks like. It's not to say that it will come without a lot of hard work, but you are capable. Pursue your passion."
Don't listen to those who tell you that you can't pursue your passion or that it's gonna be too hard. If you want something, you are worthy to pursue it. You hold after it and you get it. I am 36 years old, in the middle of my career, and I have been able to raise two children. Yes, I navigate spending some holidays with my family and others with my work family, but you figure it out.
Happy International Women's Day!