Chef Felicia “Phe” Lacalle believes that staying firm to your principles is the best way to be successful in the food industry.
As the Executive Chef and Owner of Kuba Cocina, a modern Cuban cuisine restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL, Chef Phe has faced her share of challenges in being a business owner.
“When I started as an owner, everything was questioned… But with dignity and self-respect, I never gave in nor did I allow myself to be subdued by anyone.”
Learn more about her journey and her advice for fellow business owners.
Tell us about your career journey. How did you become the Executive Chef/Owner of Kuba Cocina?
I have always had a passion for cooking. My mother was the best at cooking and had me in the kitchen with her since I was a little girl. My first experience was when we baked a Black Forest cake together when I was in 5th grade. It sparked my interest so much. From there, she would always have me in the kitchen with her cooking dinners at home after school.
For my first “kitchen job,” I worked at Bern’s Steak House during my senior year of high school. Then, I got the news that I was accepted at Johnson and Wales University to pursue my career in Culinary Arts. After college, I returned home to Tampa and started working at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion. I was there for a little over 10 years when I decided I wanted more out of myself and my career. I took on a job at Samba Room for seven months before it closed. After that, I continued to learn different aspects of the food business, working as an executive chef at Daily Eats, a pastry chef at CMX CinéBistro Hyde Park, and a sous chef at Malio’s Prime Steakhouse.
In 2017, one of the silent partners from Samba Room asked me if I was interested in putting a stall inside Armature Works, a mixed-use event space and food hall. I was introduced to some investors, and then the rest is history. After being located at Armature Works for a few years, I decided to move Kuba Cocina to St. Petersburg in 2020.
Do you have any advice for women who want to start their own business in the food industry?
The most important factor is to make sure it’s your passion! The worst feeling in the world is waking up to go to your own restaurant and despising it. Working in the food industry and owning a business isn’t for the weak. You have to grow a tough skin, but also be gentle with yourself at the same time.
What’s the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your experience as a business owner?
I’ve been undermined because I’m female and Latin. It’s been a challenge at any location where Kuba has been or is currently in. I’ve had to step into a “white man’s” world. In the beginning, when I started as an owner, everything was questioned, questioned again, then questioned a third time. But with dignity and self-respect, I never gave in nor did I allow myself to be subdued by anyone. I always remain grounded with my feet planted firmly in the knowledge I have learned over the years, and my faith in myself and God.
What does being a woman and business owner in the food industry mean to you?
When professional kitchens were first started, only men were allowed to work in them. Now in 2022, statistics show there are over 145,000 chefs in the U.S., and 25.2% of them are female and 10% of those females hold top positions. Slowly but surely we’ve made our existence known, but I pray that there will be changes in the near future.
How does your cultural heritage inform your approach to food?
Being Latina, I approach my food with bold flavors, spice, and sazón! I take a simple yet complex approach to food, as Latin cuisine is a beautiful mix of many origins from East to West.
What are your future plans for your business and career?
God willing, the plans are to expand Kuba into destination cities and make them all destination locations. Career-wise, I would like to publish cookbooks, have a show on Food Network, and eventually write a biography.
Do you have any other thoughts or advice for female business owners in this industry?
Listen to your intuition and your gut always — it never fails! Stand firm, tall and proud! Be humble, and give yourself time to rest your mind, body and spirit. Be forgiving of yourself when you make mistakes because those will happen. Learn and move on. Always speak up! Be BRAVE!