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Mixing, cooking, pairing: hospitality hotshots

The food-and-drink industry has a reputation for being a bit of a boys’ club – especially in the upper ranks. Top chef, bartender and sommelier positions have traditionally been filled by men. That’s beginning to change, though, in part thanks to women like Sandy De Almeida, Anne Martin and Tobey Nemeth, Torontonians who haven’t taken notice of the gender divide and, as a result, helped to pave the way for women who dared to follow their dreams.

Sandy De Almeida

Resident bartender at the Drake Hotel

The Drake’s Sandy De Almeida also has an impressive home bar, where she has even entertained fellow bartenders. (Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail)

De Almeida’s contribution to Canada’s cocktail culture is legendary.

Nearly 10 years ago, along with her then business partner, Mike Webster, De Almeida launched Kindling, a pop-up that helped school Toronto on how to make a proper drink and introduced sturdy cocktails to a city that was still under the influence of flavoured vodka “martinis.”

De Almeida’s cocktail recommendation

Rust and bone

2 ounces Cedar-infused

Four Roses Bourbon

½ ounce Amaro Nonino

¼ ounce Benedictine

Dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients over ice using a bar spoon, then strain over a 2-inch cube into an old fashioned glass.

(Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail)

At the time, she was working at the Gladstone hotel’s Melody Bar, a male space if there ever was one.

“Except for the weekend karaoke nights, pretty much everyone who walked in there were men, most of them over 60,” recalls De Almeida. “When these guys first started coming to the bar, women weren’t even allowed in there. I’m not saying that’s what they were used to, but they could remember it, from a time when they were drinking there and sitting at the exact same stool.”

The customers at her bar back then were definitely in charge, to the point that they even brought in their own universal remotes so they could flip channels on the television. You can’t get away with that kind of nonsense at De Almeida’s current bar, a few blocks east, at the Drake, where cocktail enthusiasts perch to watch the legend in action. About half of the bar’s original cocktails are her creations and her influence can be seen on menus throughout the city. But it wasn’t an easy transition.

“I always used to work with women,” De Almeida says. “Then all of a sudden, the cocktail world became male dominated, but that’s because bartenders were suddenly getting a little degree of respect.”

De Almeida’s drive to bring better drinking to her city set her apart. She led the way, often from her home bar, where she entertained fellow bartenders with her philosophy and expertise, something she still does on shift at the Drake. Every once in a while, though, she has an interaction that feels like a blast from the past.

“Sometimes customers will bypass me, saying, ‘I’d like to speak to the manager,’ referring to a co-worker,” she says, noting that she trained most of her colleagues. “We all wear dress shirts and ties, so there’s no reason to think the other bartender would be my manager, outside of the fact that he’s a man.”

Anne Martin

Head sommelier at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Complex

MLSE’s Anne Martin has 25 years of experience in wine. (Marcus Oleniuk/The Globe and Mail)

Whether you’re at Real Sports Bar and Grill to watch the Leafs or warming up before a Neil Diamond show in the Platinum Club, if you’re drinking a glass of wine at the Air Canada Centre complex, Anne Martin had a hand in selecting it. It is a huge, multifaceted job, but with 25 years of experience in wine, this somm is on top of it. Martin, also trained as a chef, first started learning about wine in London, but when she moved to Toronto she struggled to find a job, mainly because there were so few sommelier positions in the city at the time. But that didn’t stop her from trying.

Martin’s summer sipping recommendation

Anne Martin’s perfect summer wine is a rosé from Château Léoube. If you can’t find that, she recommends just about any southern French rosé you can get your hands on. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

“I started doing a wine class with Michael Carlevale and, at the end of it, I asked if I could be his sommelier at Prego. He, being an adventurous sort, said yes,” recalls Martin. “And so, I was one of the first female sommeliers in Toronto, if not the first. There were only a few of us back then, literally three or four in Toronto, period.”

Martin doesn’t recall thinking all that much about how she was the only woman at pretty well every wine tasting in the early days. Though, when she had her son a little more than a decade ago, it was hard to find a good job that offered flexibility. The answer for her was entrepreneurship. She started a consultancy and offered wine pairings at private events.

“At that time, there were very few women doing this, which actually turned out to be quite an advantage, since a lot of people seemed to warm to the idea of a female sommelier doing tastings,” she says, “People felt it was more personal.”

Now that her son is a little older, she is back in the game, thriving on the energy that comes from working with a team of wine professionals, many of whom are women. There are now at least as many women as men getting into the wine industry – possibly even more.

“Yes, it has changed as much as you think it has,” she says, referring to the wine industry in Toronto, where there are dozens of positions in the city filled by women. And, at tastings, she is almost never the only woman in the room any more.

Tobey Nemeth

Chef and owner at Edulis restaurant

Edulis chef Tobey Nemeth gets to work in the kitchen. (Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail)

Chef Tobey Nemeth has accomplished a feat that most restaurant industry insiders consider nearly impossible, namely, the acclaimed restaurant she runs with her husband, chef Michael Caballo, just hit the five-year mark. Her passion for food, legendary hospitality and 20 years of hard work in kitchens around the world is the secret to her success.

Nemeth’s perfect pairing recommendation

After a hard day’s night, Tobey Nemeth recommends this perfect pairing, a habit she picked up in Europe: Monforte cheese, salted almonds and a healthy pour of vermouth, garnished with a slice of orange. (Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail)

“I’ve been really fortunate in that I haven’t worked in a lot of dramatic, chauvinistic places; the sort of kitchen nightmares that you hear about, I’ve managed to dodge,” she says. “Some of that might have something to do with my personality but I mostly just think I’m really lucky.”

Those aren’t the only blessings she counts, either, since she considers Toronto, over the past couple of decades, one of the easier places in the world for a female chef to succeed. Having lived and worked in several other countries, namely Panama, Italy and Spain, she has seen worse: “The moment you go to any other country, it’s rare to see a woman in the kitchen outside of the pastry department,” she says.

“When I look at this industry and see and hear about how much things have changed over the past 50 years, I can only feel grateful that I entered it when I did,” she says. “I think if I had been born into a slightly earlier generation and tried to enter the industry 10 years earlier, I would have had challenges that I have never had to face. So I feel pretty grateful for that.”

But it is not just luck that has put Nemeth where she is: She puts in 16-hour days. “Every job I’ve ever had, I’ve always tried to be the first one in on the dirtiest job,” she says. “Never shy away, never wait for somebody else and always pick up the heaviest box, that’s the key to working in this industry. But I’ve never thought that was because I was a woman, that’s just how you learn how to do the job.”

After a hard day’s night, Nemeth recommends this perfect pairing, a habit she picked up in Europe: Monforte cheese, salted almonds and a healthy pour of vermouth, garnished with a slice of orange.

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