Chef longs for return to a kitchen
Bermudian chef Alexandria Dowling is the kind of person who always likes to give “150 per cent” of herself.
Back in April when she found out her employer Goddard Catering Group would be closed during the Covid-19 crisis, she asked the Open Your Heart Foundation if they needed help.
The charity, started by a group of concerned young men, often organises community events such as back-to-school giveaways of free haircuts and backpacks.
“I helped them last year with their Boxing Day Extravaganza,” Ms Dowling said.
She soon found herself volunteering to help the charity make hundreds of meals for the needy during the pandemic.
“When I started with them, they were cooking out of a kitchen in a church across from White Hill Field in Sandys,” she said.
The kitchen belonged to the Salvation Army.
“They only had one stove,” she said. “And they were making hundreds of meals with that. Meals consisted of one container full of food and a soup.”
When the need grew too much for the space, Open Your Heart was granted permission to move to a larger kitchen at Sandys Secondary Middle School.
“The students learnt to cook out of that kitchen,” Ms Dowling said. “There were six or seven stoves and worktops.
“Then we were able to take on more volunteers. And we were able to get the food out faster.”
When Bermuda started to open up in May the need only shot up, and at one point Open Your Heart was feeding 650 people a week, some for delivery and some through pick-up.
“After we cooked and cleaned up, sometimes we didn't get home until 11pm or midnight,” Ms Dowling said.
But she did it with a smile on her face. “It felt good to be helping people,” she said.
Open Your Heart has now ended its meal service, as many people in the community have been able to go back to work. But Ms Dowling has not been one of them.
“I just found out that I have been made redundant from my job at Goddard Catering Group,” she said.
She started with the airport company in May 2019.
“I was hired to be supervisor and work under the executive chef there and cook for the private jets,” she said. “One of the chefs left and they put me in that job. I ended up cooking for Aecon employees who were building the airport.
“That went on until April when the epidemic came.”
Losing that job was not a surprise because she knew she had been one of the last employees to be hired.
What has shocked her has been the negative response to the job applications she has sent out.
She has had several interviews with restaurant owners who claim she is “overqualified”.
“I am overqualified because they don't want to pay me what I am worth,” she said.
With no money coming in, and unemployment benefits ended, she is now forced to give up her apartment and move back in with her family. She is also selling off her possessions to pay bills.
Ms Dowling said in school the only thing she was really ever good at was sports. She did triathlons at one point.
When she graduated from high school she floated between jobs, working as a hairdresser, a tree surgeon, a lifeguard and as a waitress.
Then at 28, she saw an advertisement for Chef Search, a culinary apprenticeship programme hosted by the National Training Board and Bermuda College.
Curious, she applied for the programme and won a scholarship to enter the culinary arts programme at the Bermuda College. For the first time in her life her report card were full of A grades.
“I became the first person to graduate from the National Training Board culinary programme,” she said. “I started off at Fairmont Southampton hotel. In 2003, Hurricane Fabian happened. Instead of putting me on clean-up, they sent me to Fairmont Banff Springs in Alberta, Canada.
“I worked there for four or five months doing my pastry and allergy training. Then I came back to Bermuda.”
In 2009, she was able to transfer from the Fairmont Southampton hotel to The Savoy hotel in London, a Fairmont-managed property.
“My executive chef did his apprenticeship at The Savoy,” she said. “So I went through the pathfinder that Fairmont has and secured a spot at The Savoy.”
She was hired to work at The Savoy's Simpson's in the Strand restaurant as a demi-chef.
“Simpson's in the Strand was awesome,” she said. “I was working with fresh crayfish. It would come in boxes, alive. I was smoking my own fish.
“I was working with wood pigeon, grouse, all the delicacies you can have out there. Simpson's in the Strand is known for their roast beef and roast lamb carveries. It is a very prestigious restaurant that has been around since the First World War.
“The Savoy used to be a gentleman's club and women weren't allowed to work in there.”
She returned to Bermuda to work at the Fairmont Southampton hotel in 2013.
“I was ready to come back home,” she said. “They stuck me down at Wickets Burger Bar, which I wasn't too fond of, but because I love kids, I took it. I worked with chef Nicholas Van de Weg and we brought the place up several points.”
From there she went to work for Child and Family Services.
“I cooked for the children at Brangman Home and Observatory Cottage,” she said. “There was only one chef, me, and I did everything, ordering, cooking, and inventory. I left there in 2019 because I wanted to get back into a real kitchen.”
Ms Dowling said she's not trying to get rich.
“All I want to do is have fun in the kitchen and be able to survive,” she said.
Some of her friends from her hotel days have been calling her saying they need a job because of the pandemic.
“I say, ‘so do I!',” she said. “It is hard because of where I am. The hotels will hire them because they are chefs de partie, but do I want to be demoted to get a job?
“Bermuda is always complaining we don't have enough Bermudian chefs. In the last six years I have seen so many Bermuda chefs with the drive to do it, but when they get in it they are pushed aside.
“When I was still in college, we had a young lady come in from Canada. She was a demi-chef. I taught her how to set up a buffet. When I came back to Bermuda from London, I found out she was an executive chef of a Toronto hotel and I was just a junior sous chef.”
Ms Dowling has a lot of talent to offer. “I know how to smoke my own food,” she said. “I know how to make cured salmon from scratch. There are a lot of things I know how to do. But it is the prices and wage that people don't want to pay.
“I don't understand it. A dish washer and a waiter will make more money than a chef in Bermuda.”