Tonya Allen’s passion for cooking started in the kitchen of her family’s San Fernando Valley home at the apron strings of her mother and grandmother, preparing dishes from their homeland of British Guyana. No Christmas passed without a week’s worth of pepper pot on the stove. It’s also where she learned the power of women; she has set the same tone of sisterhood at Bacari PDR, where she has worked her way up from line cook to chef de cuisine.
“Like most parents, they wanted super successful kids,” Allen tells L.A. Weekly from the Playa del Rey restaurant on the hill that overlooks Dockweiler Beach. “Mom was pushing for medical school, she wanted doctors in the family. She didn’t really see my true passion and what I really loved. She thought I was great at doing it but saw it more as a hobby and not a way to make a living, and that it was a man’s world. ‘You’re going to get chewed up and spit out,’ she told me.”
Allen enrolled at CSUN as a biochem major, which, despite her knack for chemistry, was a real challenge.
“I just wasn’t happy, and I rebelled. I gave up the university gig and came home one day telling my family, ‘Hey, I just enrolled in culinary school.’ I’m great at math and science and cooking is all about chemicals and bonds, especially in baking and how food reacts in the oven.”
That was six years ago, and aside from learning how to brunoise and sous vide, culinary school also taught her about gender in the kitchen and how important it is to be heard and confident.
“There’s a nice vibe that we give off when it’s all women in the kitchen here at Bacari,” Allen says. “We were told in culinary school there can be differences between the genders. Guys might be faster but many times are messier. Women tend to be cleaner and more detail-oriented, resulting in better presentations. Maybe it’s just the way our brains work.”
Executive chef Lior Hillel has created an open and inviting space for women in the kitchen, allowing Allen to grow and make her own impact on the cuisine at Bacari. He fostered her from line cook to chef de cuisine, resulting in inspiring kitchen chemistry while working on his dishes such as lamb-stuffed eggplant, cold poached shrimp with citrus chili sauce and the Best Cake You’ve Ever Had, made with Medjool dates, brown sugar caramel and crispy bacon. Allen's signature bone marrow with caper panko is a house favorite.
“In this man’s world, I’m excited to see how this company has grown with women taking over the kitchen,” Allen says. “There are times we are having brunch and it’s strictly women running everything in front and in back of the house. We are really blossoming and out in the forefront."
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Allen wants not only to set an example for her team but hopes to make an impact on and shift the gender inequality in the restaurant industry.
“I’ve had a couple of experiences in the kitchen with men where they put me through hell. They wouldn’t admit it but they had problems with female authority and women telling them what to do. Me being their supervisor, not sure if it was an ego thing or they felt they had more experience from their past jobs, but they were uncomfortable with women telling them what to. They’d work fine with all the other male figures in the kitchen but when it came to me, I got some of the worst hell ever, and I was hating life coming to work every day. I was supposed to be running this kitchen and had an insubordinate line cook. They’re long gone now."
So what does her mother think today?
“Oh, she’s so excited,” Allen says as the ocean breeze flows through the rustic patio at Bacari PDR. “The job is so demanding that I don’t see her as often as I’d like, but we text. Every time I got a promotion, I’d text her and she got so excited. Sometimes if I get a breather, I’ll send them pictures of my dishes. The whole family is so happy for me that my dreams really came true."