Meet Danika Heslop, the chef who is leading cafe chain Jamaica Blue on a health mission

Danika Heslop

Danika Heslop. Source: Women's Agenda

Eating out in Australia is now a massive $25 billion industry, so it’s incredible to think that just 25% of chefs are women.

For Danika Heslop, her career as a chef has taken her everywhere from working in kitchens during the 2000 Olympics, to Level 41, Quay and all over the world.

Now balancing a career with a young daughter, she’s the executive chef at Jamaica Blue, and leading a health overhaul of the cafe chain. Her role covers everything from training to new store openings, food development, product selection, procurement and logistics.

Below she shares how she’s aiming to push healthy eating, as well as what a career as a chef is really like — especially in a male-dominated industry, where Danika was once told by a head chef that they like hiring female chefs because “they always seem to work twice as hard as male chefs to prove themselves … which makes them better chefs”.

How did you get to where you are now?

After high school, my passion for cooking lead me to study commercial cookery with the dream of becoming a chef. After 10 years in the industry, I’d built up a great career working in a number of excellent Australian restaurants such as Level 41 and Quay. I also gained experience in a two Michelin starred restaurant, Bagatelle in Oslo, Norway.

However, by my late twenties, I knew I needed a change; I had a real passion for training, yet didn’t want to loose the practical side of being a chef. Becoming a food consultant with Jamaica Blue was the perfect balance/solution.

What ‘game’ are you changing and why does it need a shift?

We knew that there was an established trend of healthy eating in Australia, however, according to our Healthy Eating Study, 55% still experienced ‘post meal regret’ when they ate out.  Clearly, restaurants and cafes were not providing options that made their customers feel good about their choices. Ninety percent of our survey agreed, feeling strongly that restaurants and cafés have a public responsibility to provide healthy choices.

This is a real need that cannot be ignored, and I wanted to train our staff to feel empowered to facilitate change in this area. To further strengthen our position on this, we partnered with Food & Nutrition Australia to ensure our latest menu truly delivered a balanced health and nutritional meal every time.

Training and inspiring our staff will remain a priority as we continue to move forward. I want them to continue to push boundaries and really embrace innovation for Jamaica Blue to ultimately be market leaders in this area.

Who or what inspired you to do this?

Many Australians have their first job in reputable QSR [quick service restaurant] chains, and I feel there is a great opportunity here to instil some passion in their jobs and let them know that a career in hospitality is a rewarding and enjoyable.

I have found very talented staff in the most remote places across Australia, and it has made me want to ‘give back’ some of the skills that some great chefs have passed onto me. The great thing with cooking is anyone learn to do it and it’s an everyday life skill.

What skills have you acquired (or do you naturally have) that have aided your game-changing abilities?

If I could pick out one skill that has aided me in all aspects of my journey, it would be the skill to listen to others. Listen to what they are saying or needing and encourage them to speak up. This skill has enabled me to fix many problems, and often gives me inspiration or highlights those intricate details that we are missing.

What does an average day look like for you?

In December 2016 I had a little baby girl, so 2017 has been the year of learning the essence of work-life balance! Everyone always told me that working full-time with a baby would be hard, and even with the many years of long chef hours to prepare me, this is certainly a game changer!

There is no one day alike with my job — one day I could be in the development kitchen working on our next promotion, the next I’m flying up to Brisbane to visit some of our franchisees. It is important to me to keep that personal connection with our business partners and staff so that the projects we work on at head office are relevant to their needs.

From day to day though, I do try to keep a balance; spend time with my family, work hard to achieve business goals and KPI’s with my team, and when possible, take some time for me.

What key thing (or things) would you say have helped drive your career to date?

I have always said what I’m thinking; I think that honesty has been the key driver for me. Keeping thoughts and ideas to ourselves doesn’t benefit anyone. For women especially, it sometimes can be hard to find the confidence to share your opinion in a large group of people, but what I have learnt is that this is the time where you are given the chance, and these chances for me have been what has helped me to grow.

What are some of the best things you’ve learnt about leadership, innovation and disruption?

I have learnt that leadership is earned by your colleagues, not something that a job title can instil. For me, leading by example has worked well and has created good foundations in my team.

Innovation isn’t something you can plan for; it is fluid and comes from getting out in the world and experiencing as much as possible. It is also collaborative. Brainstorming with the team and bouncing off each others ideas is when we get our best ideas.

Disruption can be challenging in such a fast paced world. I set myself goals everyday to complete to keep on top of things, and as a woman, obviously multi-tasking comes naturally …

And how do you look after your wellbeing and health outside of work?

I love yoga; this is my go-to for mind and body balance in life. After the baby it has been harder to keep this up, but I do my best to still keep a Monday night class of Yin Yang Yoga after work as ‘me’ time.

Why do women make great game-changers?

I worked with a great head chef when I was quite young who once said something to me I’ll never forget: “I like hiring female chefs, they always seem to work twice as hard as male chefs to prove themselves in a very male dominated industry. This, more often than not, makes them better chefs”.

What do you do to get away from your work and business?

I love to travel and see the world. There is something really energising about seeing a new place, trying new food or experiencing a different culture. It is good to be reminded sometimes that there is a big wide world out there ready to be explored!

What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

Get a coffee of course! Working in a coffee business, nothing beats waking up to the smell of aromatic ground coffee beans.

What advice would you like to tell your 18-year-old self?

There is so much pressure when you finish high school to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. I would tell my 18-year-old self not to worry so much about picking the right career path, and do something that you love. The career will follow, and so will all the necessary skills and training needed to succeed in that career.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.


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