Tawnya Bahr, mum of two, has combined her extensive culinary experience and passion for understanding the 'paddock to plate' process to become an industry powerhouse as a hospitality entrepreneur, chef and a company director of two businesses.
Ms Bahr was recently named Gault&Millau's 2018 Culinary Advocate of the Year; and despite her life always revolving around cooking, it was not her first career path.
Originating from Roseburg, Oregon, Ms Bahr's first job whilst going to college was as a receptionist for an IT company, where she climbed the internal business's ranks for most of her 20's to eventually become their International Sales & Marketing Manager, giving her the ability to travel the globe, explore cuisines and hone her business skills.
After moving to Australia in 1995, Ms Bahr found it challenging to find condiments which tasted like her homeland favourites and contained no preservatives; a gap in the Australian market she wished to explore.
"My business background and love for food allowed me to heavily research the Australian market and understand opportunities, which is how my first business, 'The Condiment Connoisseur', started. I engaged US suppliers and soon began importing chillies, pickled garlic and mustards, and became an Australian distributor," said Ms Bahr.
After running the business successfully, Ms Bahr expanded the range with her own products including a line of gourmet seafood sauces.
I've always cooked from scratch so to take one of my recipes and navigate the process to bring it to market was incredibly rewarding and terrifying. When I started selling my seafood sauce at the Sydney fish market, I knew I had found a passion I wanted to pursue and grow."
Following feedback from her customers at the market, Ms Bahr refined her formulas to cater for the Australian palette, which landed her a place in the food halls of retail powerhouse, David Jones. The Condiment Connoisseur grew rapidly into a food production and gourmet distribution company, which Ms Bahr later sold in 2001.
After selling her business, Ms Bahr continued to be a consultant within the industry assisting other artisan producers, catering, teaching cooking classes and running farmers' market tours which involved educating her audience on the 'pasture to plate' way of cooking.
In 2010, Ms Bahr decided to formalise her culinary qualifications by attending Le Cordon Bleu Sydney Culinary Arts Institute, where she studied commercial cooking.
"At Le Cordon Bleu I was exposed to an extraordinary level of culinary expertise, and the institute gave me formal training from the ground up, allowing me to back up the skills and knowledge I had gained in the industry already," said Ms Bahr.
"The experiences provided by Le Cordon Bleu were second to none, with my most memorable moment being able to cook for Chef Hervé This, one of molecular gastronomy's patron saints – it's a moment in time I will never forget."
Having gained her qualifications with a Diplôme de Cuisine (Commercial Cookery Certificate III), Ms Bahr started her industry food tour company 'Straight to The Source' whilst still running her consultancy business 'Tawnya Bahr Food Consulting'.
Having worked in the industry for over 23 years, Ms Bahr has observed the highs and lows of hospitality and recognises its challenges including mental health across all sectors of the food industry. The service Straight To The Source provides in supporting the farmers and giving chefs an opportunity to get out into the country, breathe fresh air, connect with the soil and have time out is a healthy and beneficial professional resource.
"Creating a business from scratch, staying true to your values and having it be sustainable isn't always easy. The food industry isn't a 9 to 5 job. It's fast moving and constant which requires you to wear a lot of different hats," said Ms Bahr.
"The food industry is still very male-dominated and being a mother in the workforce can be quite challenging. It's a constant juggle for work-life balance, it's difficult to tend to your sick child in the middle of a dinner service or regional food tour in the Australian outback."
"You need a thick skin in this industry, otherwise you can become quickly disheartened, so as a mother, sometimes you can be made to feel like you're letting the team down. However, it's essential to surround yourself with a circle of people who pull you up, and make you want to be your best self both at work and home, and make you feel supported."
Ms Bahr has a passion to support the growers and farmers behind our food system and her work in both of her food related businesses does just that.
Ms Bahr will continue to bring growers, producers and chefs together with her knowledge of the local and global food landscape to nourish a thriving food industry.
Question: What originally inspired you to follow your passion and leave your IT job for the food industry?
Tawnya Bahr: Cooking and feeding people has always brought me immense joy. Understanding how food is grown and products are manufactured was, and still is, a passion of mine. I also love sourcing the very best ingredients and products I can find. Being in IT allowed me to travel the world and explore other cuisines, cultures and ingredients. I wouldn't have had that exposure had I not been in IT. With that said, one day I was driving home after work thinking about what to cook for dinner then I had this moment and I thought, 'How can I take the education and skills I've learnt in IT sales and marketing and apply it to what excites me… the food sector?' That was an epiphany that started me on my quest to find my way into the food industry. After a number of years in the industry, I decided to formalise my culinary qualifications by attending Le Cordon Bleu Sydney Culinary Arts Institute, where the experience provided by them were second to none. The Institute gave me formal training from the ground up and backed the skills I've learnt to support in starting my two businesses.
Question: Can you explain why the 'paddock to plate' process is so important, to you?
Tawnya Bahr: Growing up in Oregon, we had access to healthy soil and quality produce. We were also exposed to so much processed fast food and I always observed how the two ways of eating ran parallel in my hometown. When I moved to San Francisco I started to connect to growers and producers at farmers markets and get a real understanding of what goes into growing a vegetable or making cheese and appreciate its value. The resources that go into producing our food is substantial and because I've taken a sincere interest in provenance and understanding the paddock to plate process I've become an advocate to help educate the consumer. In my opinion, our food is far too cheap.
Question: Where do you find inspiration when creating new dishes?
Tawnya Bahr: When I'm cooking for my family, I find serious inspiration at the farmers markets. I've been running market tours for 15 years and when I'm not taking a group around, it's how I feed my family. I go around the market, collect what looks good and then create a dish. When I'm creating dishes for clients, I work with a brief and will often have a core ingredient that I need to include. The next step is to look at what's in season and start creating from there. I don't always get it the first time around. Believe me - I've had a few disasters.
Question: How have you overcome the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated industry?
Tawnya Bahr: I'm certainly exposed to challenges from a chef's perspective, entrepreneur and business woman but I just get on with the work I'm doing and don't think about it unless I'm blocked in some way because of it. Many of my mentors are men and I just think the more successfully we as women are in our respective fields we will attract more women and then the balance will shift.
Question: What's a typical day like, for you?
Tawnya Bahr: No two days are the same. One day I could be in my office responding to emails, and the next I could be in the kitchen developing recipes or in regional Australia on a farm with a group of executive chefs then cooking lunch in a barn. That's what I like about both my businesses – I have variety and every day has a new 'to do' list. Today, I'm flying to Melbourne to spend the day on a mushroom farm.
Question: What five ingredients could you not live without?
Tawnya Bahr: Australian EVOO, salt (I'm a huge fan of exploring the different flavour profiles of salt so if I had to select one it would be sea salt, however I love pink lake salt, black lava salt, Fleur de sel,), garlic, fresh ground pepper and cultured butter.
Interview by Brooke Hunter