Executive chef Wendy Lopez, a child of restaurateur parents, has been messing around professional kitchens since she was 3 years old, and in all that time, not much has changed. Lopez helms the kitchen at one of the city's finest Spanish restaurants, Tapa Toro, and as much as she wants to immerse paying customers in a gastronomic experience of her liking, she's fully aware that paying heed to feedback is key to survival.
"When I first crafted the menu at Tapa Toro, it was full of dishes I liked, but not necessarily dishes everyone else liked," says Lopez. "So I've listened to what our guests thought about the menu, and I've evolved it over the last three years – all the while keeping the guests in mind."
That's quite a mature posture for a 29-year-old chef who says relevance is a by-product of passion. "If I'm passionate about cooking it, it's relevant. If guests are passionate about eating it, it's relevant."
She's keen on making Tapa Toro a place where cooks can hone their skills, yet she does so in a manner that fosters synergy. "I surround myself with people who push me to be better, but I really make it a point to mentor the people who work in my kitchen," Lopez says. "I'll give them a random ingredient, like soft-shell crab or fresh melon, and ask them to imagine what they can do with it. Sometimes these kitchen experiments end up on our menu. Sometimes we burn eight pounds of peaches."
As a woman in the kitchen, Lopez has been burned in other ways, but the #TimesUp movement has empowered her to take action when boundaries have been crossed. "I've witnessed harassment in kitchens before," she says, "and a lot of kitchens haven't valued women's opinions. Now I can put a stop to it in my kitchen."