WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – BLANCA VALENCIA, COOKING INSTRUCTOR
I’d never heard about Blanca Valencia until Mei Chin wrote to me saying “hey, I wish you would write about this woman because I think she’s brilliant!”. And guess what, Mei is right!
Blanca Valencia is very sharp, she has a lot to say and you can hear it all. She is a third of the Spice Bags which is a food podcast about Ireland’s relationship to the outside world. It is witty and the foreign voices are so welcome and so fresh on this subject I’m most passionate about. There is great chemistry between the hostesses and I strongly suggest you go listen to it as soon as you can. You will nod, or not, but you will likely learn something new and have a something new to think about. I love it!
On the back of it, I know that one day, I’m going to sit down with that woman and shoot the breeze. Watch this space.
Blanca will also be conducting various online workshops at the Cervantes Institute in Dublin looking at food from different angles like Art, Movies, Advertising and Sayings. She is a regular with the institute and has been running workshops with Cervantes for 10 years both in Chicago and Dublin.
I’m talking to women in the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
I left a career in IT consulting to focus on cooking by going to Cordon Bleu in London. Since then I have worked in different cities like Madrid, Chicago, London and Dalian (China) in places like Books for Cooks, Alambique Cooking School in Madrid and many others. I started being a cooking instructor but quickly moved into also managing the school.
When I started working in a food importer in Chicago my focus changed to Spanish food promotion. I started going to food fairs and meeting and visiting producers and I realized there were so many opportunities for Spanish products.
Along the way I became a Spanish food consultant. Spain’s history is so rich and fascinating and that is reflected in the food.
How does your career fulfill you?
I love telling stories and creating events. I never do the same job. I could be doing a cooking class one day, a lecture or working at a food fair.
You get to showcase food from so many different angles and meet so many varied people.
Working with food I have been able to explore different areas. In Chicago I worked for 2 years in Common Threads, a not-for-profit that taught children from Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods about different cultures and how to cook. This was rewarding work and I learnt so much from the children.
I love doing Spice Bags podcasts and getting to create shows and do interviews where we discuss food topics from different angles with writers Mei Chin and Dee Laffan.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Blanca Valencia?
At the moment I am doing an MA in Gastronomy and Food Studies at TUD. I have wanted to give my work a more academic spin for years and the MA is giving me the opportunity to explore that.
I would love to write a book about Spanish food history in the future.
In January, I will be conducting various workshops at the Cervantes Institute in Dublin looking at food from different angles like Art, Movies, Advertising and Sayings. I have been running workshops with Cervantes for 10 years both in Chicago and Dublin.
In your opinion, what challenges women face in the food industry?
I think you face many challenges as a woman but when you have children the hill becomes a mountain. It is very hard to manage a career in the food industry and children. Part of my job in Chicago was going to restaurants for dinner to visit chefs we worked with. This was challenging with toddlers and a husband who travels.
For women in general there are less networking opportunities (less associations, less support). We also need to challenge stereotypes of men being the face of food in magazines, the press and TV.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
I am an admirer of Clara Maria Gonzalez de Amezua from Alambique in Madrid who started her school and shop in Madrid in 1978. She is a member of the Royal Spanish Academy of Gastronomy and winner of many awards.
She is a pioneer of the Spanish food world. Right after the Franco dictatorship she saw an opportunity to educate people in food. She would hire French chefs or talented housewives with everything in between to come and teach at her school. She would search the most unusual tools and bring to the school all sorts of classes from Moroccan to Sephardic cooking. She appreciates the link to culture. Cooking is not a mechanical activity for her so the classes in Alambique are multi-dimensional. Alambique is 42 years old and to this day it’s an inclusive and multicultural place.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry?
This is a societal problem. It can’t be solved individually. In Ireland I think providing affordable after school for children would solve a lot of the issues that women have. I am not for “women prizes” but think women need more PR and media exposure.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
Getting a job to run the test kitchen in Books for Cooks in London right after Cordon Bleu and being asked to lecture in Cervantes Institute in Chicago and Dublin. I am also especially proud of my work for Common Threads in Chicago.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Invest more in experiences and less in material things. You will never regret going to a 3 star Michelin restaurant!
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Working with government institutions like Cervantes, the Commercial Offices and producers promoting Spanish Food requires a lot of teamwork. The type of work I have done requires an understanding of different cultures and their cuisines, organization and research. You need to be open to new products, ideas and people. In the last ten years, Spain is producing not only great products but the people behind them are very well trained and multicultural.
When you are promoting Spanish products the cultural angles (the stories) are important. The producers realize that to stand out in the market you need a compelling story.
What is the one thing you wish you had known when you started to cook?
Learning to cook is not just about work, it’s about personal empowerment; it’s about having a skill set to treat yourself and the planet better. It’s also a gateway into other cultures and eras. It’s a pure form of love and appreciation for others.