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INSIDE THE RITZ-CARLTON

4 Fearless Chefs On How They Made It to the Top

A collage of four female chefs.

The busy women running the show at The Ritz-Carlton restaurants around the country are dishing on everything from how to get ahead to the condiments they can't live without.  

Meet the Chef: Paula DaSilva, The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale

“I’ve always loved food,” says Paula DaSilva, Executive Chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale. A Brazillian native, she began honing her cooking skills at a young age while working at her family’s restaurants in Massachusetts and South Florida. DaSilva went on to earn her Culinary Arts degree from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and her impressive resume includes a second-place finish on the fifth season of Hell’s Kitchen. She’s also received numerous industry accolades. Case in point: While DaSilva was Executive Chef at 1500 Degrees in South Beach, Esquire magazine named the hotspot as one of the “Best New Restaurants in America.” With over 20 years in the business under her belt, here’s what DaSilva loves and what she’s learned. 

“My wife and our kids sit down almost every night for dinner and we talk about our day at work or school. They are truly my favorite companions, but I would love a chance to cook or dine with my grandmother. She passed away when I was a teenager, so she never got a chance to eat at one of my restaurants.”  — Chef Paula DaSilva

What’s the last great dish you ate?

“Chicken wings! Oddly enough, one of my favorite places to eat wings is at our local Mexican restaurant. They’re crispy and tender–just the way I love them.”

Who are your dream dinner companions?
“My wife and our kids sit down almost every night for dinner and we talk about our day at work or school. They are truly my favorite companions, but I would love a chance to cook or dine with my grandmother. She passed away when I was a teenager, so she never got a chance to eat at one of my restaurants.” 

Who is your food icon?
“Eric Ripert. He’s known for his simple yet perfectly refined techniques and beautiful presentations. Le Bernadin Cookbook was the first cookbook I purchased as a young chef and I fell in love with it. I had a chance to meet Eric in Grand Cayman and I was so nervous and excited to talk to him. I actually cried after! My friends thought it was hilarious.”

What’s the most interesting thing on your menu?
Octopus. Guests always rave about it and say that it’s perfectly prepared.” 

What’s the best career advice you ever received?
“I don’t like to move and therefore I spent the bulk of my career in South Florida. The chef I worked for, Dean Max, suggested I train in different restaurants during slow summers to give me a chance to work with different chefs without having to relocate. I traveled to Europe, Central America and all over the states to learn about different cuisines. The bottomline is you don’t have to hop from job to job in order to climb the ladder in the kitchen.” 

What’s your best advice for chefs, especially women?
“Women tend to be more empathetic and sometimes people take advantage of that. On the flip side, if we are intense, we might be perceived as rude or emotional. Don’t change yourself to fit into a mold or expectations because of your gender. Teach and mentor as much as you can, be kind to your team, and stand your ground in your leadership role.”

What is one word that you would use to describe your style of cooking?
"Rustic."

 

Meet the Chef: Melissa Lee, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis

Born and raised in Southern Ireland, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis Chef Melissa Lee’s cooking education began long before she graduated in Culinary Arts from Limerick Institute of Technology. As a young girl, she cooked alongside her most influential teacher–her father–in the kitchens of the Cantonese restaurants her family owned. “My parents inspired me to dream and deliver. My mum said, ‘Do not let anyone tell you that you can’t. Reach for the stars and you can do anything you put your mind to,’” says Lee. The dynamic chef has proven her parents right. Her impressive accomplishments include working on board The Queen Elizabeth 2, cooking at The Ritz-Carlton locations like Pentagon CityAmelia Island, and Orlando, Grande Lakes, and winning prestigious industry awards such as the Most Innovative Leader of the Year. Here are the lessons she's learned along the way. 

Casa Don Alfonso
Club Lounge - Watermelon Salad

What’s the last great dish you ate?
“Rack of Colorado lamb, fresh Mediterranean herbs, baked onions and potatoes, and lemon zest all prepared with the freshest quality ingredients by Chef Sergio Chierego at Casa Don Alfonso.”

What’s the most underrated spice or condiment?
“The right amount of salt can do so much for a dish. It brings out the natural flavor profile, balances, brightens and brings the dish together. Remember, you can always add salt but you can’t take away.”

What’s the most exciting thing on your menu?
“Inari sushi rice stuffed in seasoned aburaage tofu pouches with wakame, sesame, crab and a chili kewpie. Guests get excited about this, as it’s so simple, tasteful and interesting.”

Who is your food icon?
“My dad! I admire him as he taught me so many life lessons, not just about cuisine but how to run a successful business. Growing up, he created meals for our family of five on a budget of $5 a day.” 

What’s your best advice for chefs, especially women?
“My advice for other chefs is to hold the team and yourself accountable, drive consistency and processes. Believe in oneself, and stand up for what you believe in! When you have a moment of failure, adapt, overcome and move forward.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from leading a kitchen?
“To have key players in the right positions. Strong, clear communication creates a high performing team, builds trust and drives results. Most importantly leave your ego at the door.”

What is one word that you would use to describe your style of cooking?
“Fusion.”

 

 

“My advice for other chefs is to hold the team and yourself accountable, drive consistency and processes. Believe in oneself, and stand up for what you believe in! When you have a moment of failure, adapt, overcome and move forward.”

Meet the Chef: Gihen Zitouni, The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage

Before she began whipping up unforgettable dishes as Executive Sous Chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, versatile culinary star Gihen Zitouni had a chance to display her talents all over the world. She’s worked at Ritz-Carlton locations in Spain, Portugal, Toronto, Miami, and St. Thomas Virgin Islands. Being immersed in the food world is exactly where Zitouni wants to be. “I love to spend as much time in the kitchen as possible, and I’ve always wanted to be a chef. I remember being a young girl fascinated with helping my father prepare dishes at home. It was magical,” she says. Here, she dishes on her go-to condiment and her secrets to success. 

“Always remain honest. The only way for someone to grow and be better at their craft is to accept and listen to constructive criticism.” — Chef Gihen Zitouni

Roasted chicken topped with a sauce and surrounded by roasted vegetables A glass-walled building overlooking a mountain valley at night A female chef stands outdoors with pink flowers behind her.

What’s the last great dish you ate?
“My mother’s lamb couscous. She uses fine semolina and prepares a rich tomato base sauce with turnip, cabbage, carrots, onions, and hot peppers. She makes this dish every time she visits me. It’s simply the best!”

What’s the most underrated spice or condiment?
“Sumac. It's used in several Middle Eastern dishes, and it adds a subtle sour finish to rich savory dishes such as kebabs, stews, grilled meats, and rice.”

What’s the most interesting thing on your menu?
“Our Veuve Clicquot paired burger. It elevates simple flavors with subtle statements and bold enhancements. Truly delicious.”

What’s the best career advice you ever received?
“Chef Laurent Geroli of The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas told me to always remain humble and to always pay attention to my surroundings in the kitchen. This was in 2002 at the beginning of my career with The Ritz-Carlton.”

What’s your best advice for chefs, especially women?
“Always remain honest. The only way for someone to grow and be better at their craft is to accept and listen to constructive criticism.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from leading a kitchen?
“Never take yourself too seriously. I always remind myself to savor the enjoyment and fun in our fast paced environment. With ever-changing surroundings, it is most important to smile and enjoy!”

What is one word that you would use to describe your style of cooking?
“Simple.”

 

Meet the Chef: Emily Dillport, The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain

No matter where award-winning culinarian Emily Dillport is cooking, she never forgets where she came from. The Florida native has held senior roles at The Ritz-Carlton, OrlandoPalm BeachArubaSt. Thomas and New Orleans, and now she’s overseeing the culinary teams at the five restaurants inside The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. “My passion for food started early on with my family. Our southern roots were really defined with the cuisine we ate. There was always bacon grease in a jar under the sink. That was your cooking oil for everything,” Dillport says. These days, Dillport uses more sophisticated ingredients, but she still finds creative ways to incorporate the flavors of Florida and the Southwest into her food. Here, Dillport shares who she looks up to, and the key advice she loves to pass down. 

Dinner setup on the porch of Cayton's

What’s the last great dish you ate?
“Sushi from our hotel–it’s the best in Southern Arizona. I had the new snapper carpaccio dish and the Dove Mountain Roll with spicy tuna, topped with hamachi, jalapeno, yuzu and caviar.”

What’s the most underrated spice or condiment?
“Sumac. I love that it compliments a wide range of flavors. Fish sauce is a close second–I love the Umami.”

Who is your food icon?
“Masaharu Morimoto. He’s technically brilliant, and he has an imagination that is ahead of the times. Plus, he's a truly humble person.” 

What’s the most exciting thing on your menu?
“Definitely the nopales gumbo at Core Restaurant. It’s braised Arizona pork cheek topped with a traditional andouille gumbo that’s made with nopales instead of okra. The dish also features wild rice from the Red Lake Nation Native American tribe, prickly pear fluid gel and pickled cholla buds. It’s a really fun dish that merges New Orleans flavors with Arizona Ingredients.”

What’s the best career advice you ever received?
“My previous Executive Chef taught me the importance of taking care of your team, and treating them as you wish to be treated. This creates loyalty and respect for the leader.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from leading a kitchen? 
“That it’s not just about the cooking. I keep an equal focus on food quality and the engagement of the team. If the team is not engaged, it will show in the food.”

What’s your best advice for chefs, especially women?
“Don’t sit on the sidelines. Be confident in what you do, and go for opportunities.”

What is one word that you would use to describe your style of cooking?
“Whimsical.”