Meet Solstice Head Chef Elissa Hayward

Elissa Hayward is the new Head Chef and Kitchen Manager at Solstice Bar & Grille. We sat down with her this week to find out a little more about her past, her passions, and her plans for Solstice.

Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up? Where are some of the places you worked prior to arriving at Solstice Bar & Grille?

I was born in Florida, and I was raised in Kennesaw, GA. I graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, NC with a Bachelor’s Degree in Food Service Management, and Associates of Science in Culinary Arts as well as an Associates of Science in Baking and Pastry Art.  While going to school, I worked in quite a few higher-end privately owned restaurants. I was very lucky to be able to work at some of the best fine dining restaurants in the city.

I moved to Orlando with an opportunity through Marriott International. I was a part of the Voyager program at the Orlando World Center Marriott working as a Kitchen Manager in many of the outlets on property. After the program, I was offered an opportunity to be the Sous Chef/ Pastry Chef at Root & Branch Bistro + Bar in Clermont, FL. This Chef owned and operated restaurant was a fantastic opportunity to learn all about farm to table initiatives and how to support your local businesses. I am very excited about this new position as Head Chef here at Solstice Bar & Grille!

When did you first realize you had a passion for cooking?

Growing up, I always helped in the kitchen. I loved trying out new recipes with my family and always loved the time my family spent together during the meal. The older I got the more I learned about the similarities and differences in cuisines. And that’s when I knew I wanted to learn about the science behind cooking as well.

What is your favorite dish to prepare? What is your least favorite to make?

My favorite thing to prepare would be fresh pasta. I love making all kinds and experimenting with types I have never made before. I really enjoy the challenge. My least favorite thing to make is mashed potatoes. I’ve had to make them way too many times to count.

Professional kitchens are often characterized as a male-dominated environment. Do you find this to be the case? If so, what advice would you give to young women thinking about entering the culinary field?

Yes, I can vouch that kitchens are very often a male-dominated environment. But it is absolutely an environment where woman can thrive! A piece of advice that I would give young women is this: do not ever let anyone tell you it is not the right place for you. If your passion is cooking and you love being part of the culinary world, then stick to your guns and make it the right place for you.

There will always be challenges for female chefs, and there will always be bully chefs and cooks out there against us, but there will also be people rooting for you as well—male and female! If you’re on the fence, take the leap, we need more females in this industry!

Do you have any professional or personal role models who inspire you?

Yes, someone who I considered to be a mentor throughout my schooling and a lot of my fine dining experience is Chef Nick Tarnate. He took me under his wing, and we ended up working together at multiple fine dining restaurants in Charlotte. We worked well together, and I truly value everything I learned from him. We still stay in touch and I am always blown away by his food.

What’s the biggest challenge in managing a kitchen?

My biggest challenge is that I am a young and female. In the past, there were times where my line cooks doubted my knowledge of food because they have been cooking much longer than I have. I have had to manage employees that openly choose not to acknowledge me or my management title. These are very discouraging traits to come across, especially since I have worked so incredibly hard to be where I am today. I am very lucky to have been handed such fantastic staff here at Solstice Bar & Grille!

What makes working at Solstice special?

Something I have noticed that makes Solstice special is the camaraderie of the staff. Everybody seems to work very well together. It is not very often that the servers and cooks have a positive attitude toward each other. It is very refreshing.

What is your favorite food, musical artist/group and movie?

My favorite food is anything Cajun! I love pretty much anything seafood, as well as spicy food. It’s the perfect combination.

I love music and movies so much it is very hard to narrow down to only one favorite! I love Queen, The Smiths, and Bob Dylan. And my two favorite movies are The Fifth Element and The Shining.

Where is your dream vacation?

My dream vacation would be to eat my way through Asia! I find Asian cuisine to be very fascinating and I would be able to learn so much and try so many unique dishes I have never had.

What about the upcoming year at Solstice are you most excited about?

I am the most excited about seeing the results of all the hard work we have been putting in as a team. Since I have started, the management team and I have put a lot of new systems in place. The staff has reorganized and refocused. I have noticed the attention to detail continue to grow as well.

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