The Life of a Sous Chef: Hanalei Souza’s Kitchen Experience   

Sous Chef, Hanalei Souza
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We talked about the skills and qualifications you should develop if you want to become a Sous Chef. But we also know that nothing can beat the personal experience. There is no hiring expert who could provide a better insight into the job than an actual Sous Chef.

In today’s Celebrity Interview you will meet Hanalei Souza, a Sous Chef, content creator and book author. Hanalei is an outstanding Sous Chef, who promotes gender equality in the culinary world.

If you want to know the secrets on how to balance several careers in one lifetime, this interview is worth the read.

What motivated you to pursue a career in the culinary field? 

This might sound like a cliche, but I started cooking when I was a kid. I was always in the kitchen cooking, and I loved everything about it. However, I never assumed it would be a career, so I didn’t really pursue it at first.

I had a bunch of other jobs. I worked at different summer camps. I also love snowboarding so during the winter I moved up to the mountains and worked at a ski resort.

I was aware that this was just a seasonal job, so I started thinking about what I could do during the summer.

It was my husband who encouraged me to start cooking professionally. He inspired me to apply for a Line Cook job and even found a couple of open positions for me.

I applied at a small seafood restaurant and got the position. There were only three cooks in the kitchen. I stayed for the summer and learned everything I could.

Once the season finished, I went back to the ski resort, as at that time I still didn’t believe that cooking would be my long-term career.

During the second summer I decided to give cooking another try and decided to apply to one of the busiest restaurants. I decided to get my ass kicked and see if it could be a long-term career for me. Five years later I am a Sous Chef at the same restaurant.


What advice would you give to young women entering the industry?

There is a lot to that question, and it’s what my book ‘Nice work boys’ is about. My short answer would be: ‘Be yourself’.

Don’t think that you have to change who you are at your core. Don’t think you need to be more masculine or be someone you are not.

Just because you are a chef and you see other chefs yelling at team members, it doesn’t mean that you should do it. You can and should create your own culture and be who you are. Being yourself you will be way more comfortable in the leadership role, and as a matter of fact in any role you are in.

Hanalei Souza, Sous Chef for gender equality
Photo Credit: Chaebin Yoon

Please note that if you’re at a workplace where you feel like you must hide who you are and be someone that you’re not, change it. Examine why you feel that way and try to find a workplace with a culture that is a good fit for your personality.


How did you earn respect in a predominantly male environment? 

Don’t think that everything came to me over night. There were a lot of moments where I would push through certain situations.

Earning respect and making a place for yourself takes time and experience.

There were several occasions where I was nervous to speak up about something. There were also situations where I was questioning if it was the right career for me. I also felt certain places were not a right fit for me. This is common for every career path, so just don’t be too hard on yourself.

At the end of the day all it takes to succeed is time, experience and being confident in your own skillset.

So, if you are starting out take time to be good at all the stations, that will give you to confidence boost to be able to say: ‘That’s not how we do it here, let me show you how we get it done.’


How important is mentorship for a culinary career? 

Mentorship is super important. In both the industries I worked in there was a direct supervisor who inspired me to grow. It is because of their humility and willingness to pass their knowledge down that I could evolve as a professional.

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of my main mentor, but then I’ve also had different people help me along the way.

I believe that you can learn something from everyone! I feel like mentors come in all different shapes and forms.

It is a good thing to have someone you would consider your mentor but be open minded to learning from everyone along the way. If there is a new Dishwasher at the place you work at who has an idea how to improve the dish pit, listen to them. You will be surprised to how many times you will think, oh that’s amazing I would have never considered this approach.


How can someone become your mentee? 

I would say hard work goes a lot further than talk. I think a lot of people say they want to be the next Sous Chef, but they are not ready to put in the necessary work.

Let me give you an example, I am kind of at that point where I will start looking for another Sous Chef soon. In my mind I tried to figure this out way before you asked.

What does it take to work with me? Hard work and good work integrity. Work ethics speaks volumes. It says more about you than any fancy school you attended. It speaks louder than even your skillset.

If the skills are not quite there yet, but you are a teachable person, it will take us no time to get you up to speed. I would pick that over any fancy culinary school diploma and a person not willing to accept feedback and learn along the way.

When hiring I look for people who work hard, people who are willing to stay late, team players who will work for the benefit of the entire team.


What are the most important skills for progressing in a Sous Chef career?  

Well, first off, you’ve got to know every station in the kitchen inside and out. I’m talking about everything from prep work to the grill, sauté, even the dish pit and pizza station. If you don’t have that down, it’s tough to lead and tell people what to do.

Next, you’ve got to be super adaptable. Imagine it’s a Saturday night with 200 people in the restaurant, and one of the cooks calls out sick. As a Sous Chef, you need to jump in and handle their station without any hesitation. That kind of versatility keeps the kitchen running smoothly.

Then there’s being aware of the whole kitchen, not just your station. It’s about keeping an eye on inventory and orders. Like, if you use the last ribeye, you should be the one to say, ‘Hey, are we ordering more?’

Another big thing is helping your team. Check in with the pantry guy, see how you can support them, and just be a team player. It’s about the whole kitchen running efficiently, not just your part of it.

And finally, delegation is key. It’s something I struggled with at first—I’d take on too much and get overwhelmed. But it’s important to know when to pass tasks to others. If someone’s not busy, delegate! It shows leadership and keeps things balanced.

I would say that these skills were what made me stand out from the crowd and what I would want to see in a perspective candidate.


How long does it take to get to the Executive Chef role? 

I consider myself a Sous Chef training for an Executive Chef position. I am trying to take off as much as possible from my Chef’s plate so he can focus on improving the entire restaurant. My current goal is to think about the bigger picture, and do the scheduling, building maintenance and other things my Chef normally does. The past six months have been eye opening for me.

The Executive Chef does more of that big picture stuff I just mentioned. A Sous Chef is in the kitchen every day. They delegate everyday stuff and run the kitchen.

If you are looking to get promoted, don’t think that one day you will go into work as a Sous Chef and the next day you will be the Executive Chef. It is a really long progression.

Even if you get promoted quickly, it will take you a long time to really settle in the role. In my opinion it is much better to prepare during your time as a Sous Chef. Once you get the new fancy title you will be ready and will know what to do. At least this is my approach to the career progression path.


What inspired you to write your book and do you see the impact on female Chefs? 

What inspired me to write ‘Nice work boys’ was my experience working in the ski industry. At 21, I was the only woman in a department of 30 men and got promoted to supervisor. It was my first leadership role, and I learned so much from it. I processed a lot of my experiences through writing, initially just journaling about my time there, with no intention of publishing.

 

Nice Work Boys by Sous Chef, Hanalei Souza
Image courtesy of Sous Chef, Hanalei Souza

When I transitioned to working in a kitchen, I continued to write about my experiences. I noticed many similarities between the leadership positions. Both environments had similar challenges, and I was often one of the few women among many men. Writing became a way to process and compare these experiences.

Over time, I compiled my writings—stories about interesting people I met, lessons I learned, and the parallels between my two careers. Eventually, all these writings came together into a book, which I published nearly three years ago.

The impact on female Chefs has been incredible. I receive Instagram messages from women who say my book resonated with them and helped them feel less alone in their struggles. Some have even told me that my story inspired them to pursue new opportunities and achieve their goals. It’s amazing to see how sharing my journey has created a platform for connection and support among women in the industry.


What can employers do to promote gender equality in the culinary industry?  

To promote gender equality in the culinary industry, employers should focus on merit and work ethic rather than gender. In a perfect world, it shouldn’t matter where you’re from, what you look like, or what gender you are. All that should matter is that you’re good at your job, you can hold down your station, you work hard, and you have integrity.

One of the biggest things is not judging based on stereotypes like, ‘Oh, she’s a woman, so she might not be able to handle that.’ Just give everyone a fair chance based on their skills.

I’m not a fan of programs that make it obvious they’re trying to hire more women just because they’re women. We don’t need the bar lowered for us; we just need to be judged equally.

Instead of setting quotas or specific targets for hiring women, look at everyone’s work ethic and competence. Don’t lower the bar by picking someone just because of their gender. That’s degrading. We just need workplaces that value hard work and skills over anything else.

Employers should focus on whether someone can hold the line, handle pressure, and do their job well, not on prejudiced notions. Employers need to treat everyone equally based on their work ethic and skills. That’s what really matters.


From humor to Sous Chef excellence 

This interview has it all, humor, gender equality and the excellence needed to succeed in the Sous Chef role. Regardless of where you are at in your culinary career you can learn something from Hanalei Souza.

In case this interview inspired you to apply for the Sous Chef role we crafted several interview questions that will help you land the role. Instead of searching for the open roles, focus on preparing for your interview and check out the top-paying Sous Chef jobs in the United States.

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