Ilanit Bard’s accent attracts many comments, whether she’s working in a restaurant or as a hospitality consultant. “My accent is pretty thick and people always ask where I’m from,” she says. But what may seem like a simple question has a complex answer.
Bard was born in France. Her mother is from Tunisia, and her maternal grandparents are from Libya and Spain. Bard's dad was born in Israel, and her paternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Hungary. Replying that she’s French would only tell a small part of her story.
She has been living in Melbourne since 2013, where she learned English while washing dishes and polishing cutlery at Bistro Guillaume. She then moved to the front of the house at other restaurants like Bergerac and The Moat. Until last year, she was the general manager of fine diner Lûmé.
When the pandemic hit, it made her rethink everything. “How will I go from working 70 hours a week to doing nothing?” she wondered, particularly as it was hard for her mental health. “But I needed the time off, it was good. I needed to think of my values, ask 'what do I really want to do and who do I want to represent?'”
In September, she launched Soigné, a consulting service to help hospitality businesses and workers. But a few months in, she missed serving people and connecting with them. “I wanted to keep working on the floor, but on my own terms, and with women. Working in a male-dominated industry makes you realise that you want to be working with women,” she says bluntly. “I wanted to create a platform for women in hospitality, for them to express themselves, to show their culture authentically.”
This is how The Thick Accents Project was born in March. Bard collaborates with other migrant women to create culinary events. “We are the backbone of hospitality in this city. But if you open a newspaper, you’ll see white male chefs. I’ve worked in many restaurants, and there are always women there behind the shadows suffering from sexism and misogyny,” she says.
For the first event, she worked closely with Napier Quarter’s Lorena Corso, who explored her Sicilian heritage during a long lunch at Lyons Will Estate in the Macedon Ranges. Corso cooked over fire (dishes like stigghiola and charred mackerel) and Bard laid down tablecloths from her paternal grandparents for good luck. The lunch was a hit, and so was the second event, a tapas dinner (hello, oxtail toastie) at Golda with Andalusian chef Ana Cortés.
Guest chefs pick the event format they want, as well as the dishes. Bard does a bit of everything, from prepping food and washing dishes to hosting and working the floor, alongside a team of women.
“I wanted to create a platform for women in hospitality, for them to express themselves, to show their culture authentically.”
“Hospitality fits what I like to do. I love the connection with people. Food is intimate. Cooking for someone and serving someone is quite intimate. I have a big family and grew up around a large dining table at home. We had a lot of guests so hospitality is also a family value,” she explains.
Bard already has big plans for the winter, including a Tel Avivian brunch for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival in August, which she says will help heal her identity crisis.
And while she thinks we still have a long way to go before women achieve equality in restaurant kitchens – both in terms of money and power – she’s working hard so we can get there sooner. “I’m lucky to be assertive, though some men might call me bossy. I want to give back and help other women,” she says.