Now 20 years sober and executive chef at The Oregon Grille, Amanda Brennan seeks to make her restaurant a space where employees feel safe to talk about anything.
In an industry where less than 7 percent of women hold executive chef titles, Amanda Brennan is at the helm of a 200-year-old restaurant and seeks to mentor and uplift her staff, especially women.
Brennan led the grand re-opening of The Oregon Grille, a fine dining American restaurant located in Hunt Valley, Maryland, on January 30. Although the restaurant was purchased by Baltimore-based Atlas Restaurant Group in late 2021 and has undergone multi-million-dollar renovations, Brennan’s relationship with the restaurant is not a new one.
Her journey with The Oregon Grille began with the first opening in 1997. While working her way up to sous chef in the first 10 years, Brennan experienced pivotal life events such as getting married and having children—but she was also silently battling an addiction to drugs and alcohol during this time.
With the high stress and fast pace of the restaurant environment, Brennan thought she was managing her addiction well enough. But Mark Henry, the head chef of The Oregon Grille at this time, could see through the act. Henry and the owner at the time, Ted Bauer, showed Brennan a kind of sympathy rarely seen in the restaurant industry.
“They pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, you’ve got to do something or else you’re not going to be able to work here,’ and they actually let me take time to go to rehab,” Brennan recalls.
In the month she was in rehab, Henry and Bauer kept in contact with Brennan and sent her cards every week. And while some of the other restaurant staff were going through issues, Brennan says they would console one another and became each other’s support system.
Experiencing the accepting work environment created by Henry and Bauer spurred Brennan to create a similar type of space at The Oregon Grille when she became executive chef, where her employees can talk with her when problems arise.
“You know what you can’t do by yourself, we can do it together,” Brennan says when talking about her employees. The support system helped her stay sober for the past 20 years, she says.
Brennan also understands how discouraging being a woman with children in the restaurant industry can be.
When relaunching The Oregon Grille, the first woman Brennan hired asked for a Saturday off for her child’s birthday, and Brennan quickly agreed—even agreeing to cover her shift if another coworker couldn’t.
“Because I know that I’ll be in a situation where I’d have to say, it’s my baby’s birthday and I need to be there, and they’ll go, OK, we got you chef,” Brennan says. “So it comes around full circle when you are empathetic with people. And Atlas has kind of taught me that, like hey, as a chef, you need to take care of yourself.”
During a brief stint working at a local restaurant with a new chef, Brennan recalls the head owner saying she couldn’t be both a mother and a full-time chef.
“I really enjoyed working there and I really looked up to the owner, but I knew it was time for me to leave when he told me that I couldn’t be a mom and an executive chef at the same time,” she says. “I was like okay, watch me.”
So Brennan returned to The Oregon Grille, where they were struggling financially. As sous chef, she and another chef, Jason Openhym, “whipped this restaurant back into shape,” and they were able to increase the check average from $50 to between $75 and $100.
Then, when Brennan was seven months pregnant, she was promoted to head chef after Openhym moved to Maine.
“I kind of failed at first at being a chef because I’m used to being a sous chef and to having to answer to somebody,” she says.
After Covid hit, Brennan saw it as a blessing because she was able to take a step back and regroup. When she came back to The Oregon Grill, she was running a $3.75 million restaurant.
At first, Brennan was skeptical when Atlas Restaurant Group purchased the restaurant, since she had only worked at independent restaurants. However, after spending nine months training at a sister restaurant, a fellow chef pushed her to believe in herself.
“He helped me like mentally kind of get out of that post-Covid funk, to be like, I am good enough, I can do this.”