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Trailblazing Women of Canadian Foodservice: Michelle Tham on the pursuit of magic (and why her dad loves his ’50’)

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My job is pretty awesome. As a woman, a writer, a managing editor and a photographer in Canada’s foodservice scene, I get to meet, interview and learn from some of the strongest, most persistent and successful people in our industry.

Two years ago, I connected with Michelle Tham. It wasn’t an extraordinary exchange; I was interested in receiving information from Labatt about their history and their brands. I was pointed in Tham’s direction, and she has provided us with information about their brands, pairings, etc., throughout our issues ever since.

But it was a chance encounter at a barbecue this past summer with friends that found me chatting with a colleague of Tham’s who told me that she often works with Labatt (her name is Caitlin O’Connor). I said that I know Michelle Tham at Labatt who sometimes contributes to our magazine. O’Connor became effervescent; she bubbled over telling me all about Tham’s story and work in the food and beverage industry. O’Connor suggested that I had to speak to Tham…about Tham. So, I did.

Beginnings

Michelle Tham’s education was in Hospitality and Tourism Management. She graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Commerce, with the full intent of becoming a chef and one day owning a restaurant. She comes from a food-loving family. Her father’s side is from Hong Kong, and her mother’s side is from Calcutta, India. Her mother’s family is large, and they hold gatherings where “the influence of the food is partially Chinese and Indian, and then of course what we have picked up being here,” says Tham. Add to this: her mother is a sushi chef.

Despite her plans, Tham’s life today isn’t in the kitchen, nor is it in her own restaurant. Her obsession with flavour is her life’s unifying theme. She got her foundational knowledge in school, worked in restaurants, travelled, learning the crafts of the kitchen. Then she was asked to open a restaurant. She jumped into the front of house to open a spot called Four, and she says, “I never went back into the kitchen.”

Tham was drawn to the bar, the innovations constantly happening, the creativity, the flavours and processes, and exploring new ingredients. The bar became her new specialty, and she spent the next years opening some restaurants with established chefs in the beverage area. Tham homed in on where the trends were going in cocktails, spirits and beer, and wine at the time. She worked with Chef Claudio Aprile at Colborne Lane, with Chef Scott Conant at Scarpetta, and Chef David Chang in the opening team for Momofuku in Toronto and the beverage cocktail program there. “I believe that I brought a real culinary influence to what I was doing in beverage,” says Tham.

She employed her skills—working with her hands, developing recipes, engineering the menu and assembling a beverage program—along with her experience running back of house, front of house and behind the bar.

Beer

Beer resonated with Tham, partially because of how dynamic its growth was in the industry. It was the future she saw for herself. “I remember going into the Beerbistro…It really was one of the pioneers of bringing imported and craft beer into Toronto at a time where it was still very new,” she explains. Beerbistro stirred Tham’s ideas about beer and the flavour. “I had no idea that beer could taste this way. When I think back to it, it was a pale ale. It was not something crazy—bourbon barrel-aged or a funky farmhouse saison, or it wasn’t even a sour beer. It wasn’t anything nuts, but it was a pale ale.” She was overwhelmed by that one flavour experience.

Beer had captured her imagination because of the brewing process. There are over 100 different styles of beer, and “the process is still the same process.” She explains: “The principles of the brewing process don’t change. There are things we can do to manipulate it, there are different ingredients that we can integrate, but the brewing process is the brewing process. It’s the same brewing process around the world.”

And this is what fascinates her: brewers are constantly going to stretch the boundaries of what they can change or manipulate in the process to create something new. “You could spend years and years and years just studying hops,” says Tham. That complexity drives her.

Ten years ago was an especially exciting time to be involved in beer, and there weren’t a lot of women in that community. Tham doubled down and invested her career in beer by pursuing her Cicerone certification. At the time, there were few Cicerones and almost no women. Canada’s first was Mirella Amato, a person who Tham refers to as a friend and her mentor. “She really paved the way for women and Canadians in general to pursue that level of expertise in beer. There is nobody in the country that knows more about beer than Mirella and she has a supreme talent for not just gaining that expertise but sharing it. So, she is a real role model; I’d say anybody who considers themselves a beer educator would look up to her.” Tham continues to follow Amato’s example and passion.

Head of Education at Labatt

With her own achievements and education, business and hospitality experience and her professional accreditation as a Certified Cicerone, Tham created an opportunity for herself at a crucial point in the beer category growth, leaving behind restaurant roles with a real mission to help other Canadians experience what she had in beer. Tham became a Specialty Portfolio Manager at Labatt, and she achieved rapid success. It wasn’t long before she built her role of head of education for Labatt, a role she has continued to grow for the last three-and-a-half years.

“Beer’s an amazing place to be,” she says. Her job takes her across the country and around the world to meet with brewmasters and crafters, shaping what she calls “works of art and science.” The other part of her job takes her to establishments, on the ground: the people who sell and serve beer, servers, bartenders, retail store employees or the ones who bring beer to market. Finally she educates the everyday people who just love beer. “It is the best job to have in this country, where we are proudly a beer-drinking nation, and it’s inherent in our pride as Canadians.” Whether we’re sitting on the dock at the cottage or enjoying a backyard barbecue, beer is so present in Canadian life. Canadians are really curious about beer. According to Tham, if you look at the Google Trends, Canadians search more about beer than any other country.

Tham created opportunities after achieving her Cicerone certification in a place where she could share her substantial knowledge. She wanted to align with the fast-growing beer category “and Labatt at that time, and continues to do so, is truly ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation with beer, while maintaining tradition and authenticity,” Tham states proudly. 

Takeaways for Establishments

Tham prioritizes the translation of the technical to something that makes sense, and that is meaningful to beer sellers and beer drinkers. Particularly the importance of training owners, operators and FOH staff on how food and beer go together. Tham regularly calls on her experience being in the kitchen, through creating cocktails to studying beer and brewing: “Today, what I do the most of is talking about how beer and food go together because it truly is the present and the future of where beer is going to go. Canadian consumer behaviour is leaning to trading up experiences, premiumizing their experiences. Beer will still be relevant, but the way that we enjoy it will become much more relevant to how we eat, how we integrate it into our lives as we become healthier as Canadians.” Tham refers to flavours and beer styles as part of a healthy lifestyle. Beer has long been associated with nutrition across cultures, and today brewers continue to create beers that are lower in calories and lower in carbs. “Beer’s a great moderation facilitator. We talk about health and wellness; health and wellness aren’t just watching your calories. Health and wellness are our mental health and our social health, and beer is a beverage that brings people together.” Tham believes beer will always be part of a happy and balanced lifestyle. 

Restaurant, hotel and bar guests want chefs and FOH to be knowledgeable like never before. Back in the day, the options for pairings were wine. Now we see beverage professionals pairing food with all sorts of beverages, whether it is wine, spirits, cocktails, beer in its many forms, cider, tea and coffee. Consumers are not only driven by flavour preferences but values. This kind of disruption didn’t exist several years ago. “It’s been a whirlwind,” says Tham. “The amount of change that we have seen, the number of innovations that have come through our breweries, and it’s pretty amazing. We brought the number one non-alcoholic beer into the market with Budweiser Prohibition, and I can’t imagine that was four years ago…Prior to that, there had never been a Canada 0.0 non-alcoholic beer, right? To see the rise of radlers and where that didn’t exist before. It is just kind of crazy.”

Advice for Restaurateurs

Get educated on beer and the profitability of beer programs/menus. Then restaurants, in turn, can educate consumers. Talk about the way that beer and food go together. Talk about the way that the intensity of x beer style aligns with the intensity of x dish? Be able to explain what flavours exist in the food and what flavours exist in the beer that allow them to harmonize. Ask yourself, what are the contrasts of texture and taste that bring this food and beer together? “That’s the work that I have to do in this role…so that as consumers and operators become more knowledgeable about that, it allows and empowers them to be more thoughtful in curating their beer list to suit the food.” Tham can’t stress the importance of education enough; that by not educating themselves and their staff, restaurateurs are leaving a lot of money on the table. 

Tham considers herself, professionally and personally, in pursuit of that magic that is the exploration of flavour. It’s why she continues to explore beer and different breweries and interact with chefs and restaurants.

Being a Woman in Beer

Tham says that the beer industry isn’t perfect, but it has made incredible strides to be inclusive. “There is much work right now to close the gap in where women under-indexed as beer drinkers,” she says. And she believes this goes back to the work she does, making beer relevant by becoming more knowledgeable. She looks to continued efforts engaging more female drinkers and growing female participation in beer. “I think we will continue to reinforce the visual and social cues of seeing women participate in beer as well. So, you’ll see representation in advertising where you would see social occasions where it was just males drinking beer. I have a strong feeling you’ll see much less of that,” Tham explains. That’s the thing: how we reinforce visual cues and how we build understanding around the opportunities for flavour and styles that we have in beer to resonate with more women.

On Immigration, Family & our Canadian Identity

It’s a story Tham loves to tell. She has always seen Labatt—as the leading brewer in this country, leaders in social responsibility, and now being leaders in shaping the beer category—as a quintessentially Canadian company with a legacy in this country of representing and employing Canadians. “I’ve always equated Labatt with the Canadian experience for my family…My dad came here to the country in the late 60s and was drinking the number one beer in Canada at that time, which was Labatt 50.” And though it’s no longer the number one beer in Canada, Labatt 50 is still her dad’s beer. Says Tham, “There’s a bit of that symbolism of the Canadian experience for us.”

Tham’s family has been, perhaps, the greatest influence in her career. Their love of food and flavour: all that comes from her family, her heritage and the foods she’s eaten and enjoyed growing up. Her family celebrations and their support through all the turns her career has taken, says Tham, “led me to where I am now. They’re incredibly supportive, and I think what they are most supportive of is they can see that I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”

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