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#GirlsWithKnives Spotlight: Palestinian-Californian Chef Mona Leena Michael

With little experience and a ton of drive, Chef Mona worked her way up through notable San Francisco restaurants. Now, she’s delighting San Franciscans with her Californian-inspired Palestinian cuisine, from hand-rolled couscous to succulent braised lamb cheeks.

Dine with Mona

Enter To Win Messermeister Knives

How did you find your way into the historically male-dominated culinary industry?

Right before my last semester at SFSU, I decided after I graduated I was going to go to culinary school. I later saw an ad for multiple positions at Jardiniere Restaurant in SF. With no experience, I went in, staged with my mother’s knives, and landed a job cutting cheese and shucking oysters. Within a year, I was chef de partie of two hot line stations. I kept my head down, worked, and learned from anyone who was willing to teach me. Within three years in the industry, I was hired as a Sous Chef under Emmanuel Eng of Bix, then after that, Deepak Kaul of Serpentine took me under his wing. Now, I am taking the leap and making a name for myself through Feastly, and I am so excited to do things my way!

What has been a defining moment, either positive or negative, in your culinary career?

The most defining moment in my career was getting hired as the Sous Chef at Serpentine by fellow Jardiniere alumnus. Chef Deepak Kaul gave me the tools and the freedom to delve into the flavors I loved and wanted to create. His Indian flare and my Middle Eastern touch worked harmoniously together. I gained confidence I never had. To be honest, every day of the two years I worked at Serpentine was a defining moment in my career.

Tell us about the women serving culinary inspiration in your life.

My mother: I swear up and down she’s the reason why my palate is so naturally on point. She trained my tongue to like good food! My mom has always been an excellent cook. Her balance of salt, acid, and fat is so perfect and she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it!

My best friend: Vivian Hussein is a bad ass pastry chef who I met in my first culinary job-Jardiniere. We were hired around the same time. I learned drive, dedication, bad-assness, and most importantly, how to quenelle from her! She doesn’t know it, but meeting her helped me learn what was such a foreign culture to me when I first walked in the door.

What advice do you have for other women trying to build their culinary careers?

+Don’t ever play “the female card” if you wanted to be treated equally by “all the boys.”
+Don’t ask anyone to help you do something you know you can do – just work a little harder.
+Always work harder, cleaner, and happier than everyone else.
+Project positivity, be nurturing, and be empathetic…but do not be a pushover.
+Don’t worry about the negative people you encounter (they will dig themselves into their own hole). Just worry about you and your job.
+Always put your physical and mental health above anyone or anything else in this industry.
+And most importantly, have fun!

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