There’s no doubt that chefs are the stars of the hospitality industry. They’ve become celebrities via reality TV shows and garnered huge followings on social media platforms such as Instagram. But there’s far more to running a great restaurant than the food. Kylie Javier Ashton hopes being named Restaurant Manager of the Year in the 2017 Women in Foodservice awards will help highlight that fact.
Gender has never been a big issue for the general manager of David Chang’s acclaimed Momofuku Seiōbo, at Sydney’s The Star entertainment complex. Of the restaurant’s 25 staff around half are female and half male. But, as in other restaurants, men tend to migrate towards the kitchen while women are more likely to be seen on the restaurant floor.
“If anything, I think front of house needs to be recognised and celebrated more,” Ashton, 35, says. “When you think about hospitality as an industry the focus is always on the chefs. Eighty per cent of my front of house team are women. That’s just the way it is.”
Ashton would like to see more women enter the hospitality industry as a whole. “It’s not just about being a chef and slaving away in the kitchen,” she says. “There’s so many other facets of our industry that are really attractive and fun.”
Born and raised in Sydney to parents of Filipino background, Ashton started working in bars in her early 20s. But after a while she thought she should get out of hospitality and get a day job because “that’s the normal thing to do”. She applied for a position as a reservations assistant at award-winning Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s, attracted to the job because it was still linked to the industry. But the operations manager said there was an opening in the restaurant and suggested she apply for that instead, sealing her fate. For the next two-and-a-half years Ashton worked in a range of roles, from cashier to bartender to section waiter, giving her a great foundation for her career.
“All the guys who worked in the kitchen at Tetsuya’s are the chefs or owners of the top restaurants in Sydney right now,” she says. “I didn’t go out with the intention of working in hospitality – I just fell into it and really loved it.”
After that she moved to Bentley Restaurant & Bar, where she worked with chef Brent Savage and sommelier Nick Hildebrandt. “I knew my weakness was wine at that stage, and Nick is one of Australia’s best sommeliers, so I wanted to work with him,” she says. “It was such a different style of service to what I was used to. It was a really great learning experience for me.”
She studied a certificate IV hospitality (sommelier) at TAFE, followed by a WSET level III (Advanced Certificate) at Sydney Wine Academy. She was also part of the original Taste of Young Sydney team – a collective of young chefs, sommeliers and other food industry professionals who created pop-up dinners around town. Her first management role was at Duke’s Bistro.
She was excited to hear that Momofuku was coming to Sydney, and a few months after it opened she got a job there helping out. When the general manager had to return to New York she was offered the role.
“It was a great opportunity for me and it’s such a great place to work – I love the team and the ethos of the company,” she says. “It’s just a fun industry. You’re surrounded by good food, good drinks, people are there to have a good time. You get instant gratification. The people I have worked with are really awesome.
“Hospitality is a very dynamic industry. It’s creative, it’s social, but it’s also really challenging. You have to think quickly, there’s a lot of problem solving involved and you have to do it all with a smile. The hours make it tough to try to maintain a social life and a healthy lifestyle. It can be hard being around delicious food and not eating for hours on end, but It’s kind of all worth it too.”
Working for an international company has also given her the opportunity to travel to work in other Momofuku restaurants in Toronto in Canada and New York in the US.
While she doesn’t want to dwell on gender, she says it’s pleasing to see women supporting other women with networks and initiatives such as the not-for-profit organisation Women in Hospitality and the Fully Booked Facebook group.
“I definitely think that women doubt themselves a lot more, whereas men just go for it,” she says. “Women need a little bit of reassurance and for someone to say: ‘You can do this’. I definitely felt uncomfortable to nominate myself for this award. I told my husband about the awards and he said I should nominate myself but I said I didn’t want to, so he said he would. That’s definitely a trait.”