Inspiring a Movement
Foodservice isn’t immune to the gender gap, neither in terms of pay nor leadership roles. Add to that, the chaos of the last two years have driven more women out of the workforce altogether. Gender parity is still a far way off in the restaurant world and beyond. Nevertheless, a growing number of women are rising in the ranks, whether that’s opening a restaurant, commanding the kitchen, or managing the business side.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we collected advice from 13 women in restaurants as a way to both inspire others to follow in their footsteps and deepen the ties among this existing network of leaders.
Pictured is Natalie Morales, executive pastry chef, The Kitchen Restaurant Group.
Brooke Williamson, Chef and Owner, Playa Provisions
“It’s all about experience, and there’s no way to get experience without diving in. There are so many hats to wear that if you’re not incredibly passionate and excited about what you’re doing, then giving up is the easiest thing. Expect the unexpected and know there will be bumps in the road and days you want to give up. A lot of people are getting into the industry because they think it’s exciting on its own. From my experience, the most important things are understanding a lease, location, and audience.”
Adrienne Cheatham, Chef and Founder, SundayBest
“For years growing up, I would see a few women [chefs] here and there, or I would see a few minorities here and there. Maybe that’s part of the reason I avoided going into that side of it, because I always thought of women and minorities in the behind-the-scenes roles. I never thought of the visible part of the restaurant, like the GM, executive chef, the person who gets all the credit and accolades.
“So I embrace it now. As awkward and weird as it still is sometimes, it’s really cool. If it helps someone else see themselves in that role, then I’m all for it.”
Meg Bickford, Executive Chef, Commander’s Palace
“When starting out in this business, you need to be a sponge and want it badly. I liken being a chef to being a professional athlete: You have to be dedicated, always practicing and honing your skills, and willing to push yourself to your limit. We have a motto at Commander’s Palace which I think sums it up: ‘Do not suffer the curse of low expectations.’”
Lisa Dahl, Chef and Owner, Dahl Restaurant Group
“Women still have to jump through more hoops than men and being recognized as a woman chef is more difficult than a man. I say this with no malice, just truth. It’s still a man’s world when it comes to the kitchen. Don’t be easily discouraged because you’ll be more supported by women than you realize. Try not to be thin-skinned. [Even] as a 26-year veteran working in kitchens, a woman’s voice is still harder to be recognized, so you have to work harder. Tenacity is what will make you get up every day and help you achieve your goals.”
Katie Reicher, Executive Chef, Greens Restaurant
“Several times throughout my career, I have experienced gender discrimination. I once was told that I had made the worst vinaigrette my chef had ever tasted. The same day, he threw my risotto pan against the backsplash of the kitchen and said I was hopeless. The next day, another line cook took my same vinaigrette to the chef to taste, and he was praised for such great work.
“There will always be people who don’t or won’t see your value, and that’s OK. The industry is changing, and you no longer need to put up with people and restaurant cultures that will actively mistreat you. Bring your talents to a high-performing place that will pay you what you are worth, appreciate you, and value your contributions to their team.”
Tiffany Derry, Chef and Owner, Roots Southern Table and Roots Chicken Shak
“I think it’s important that we all have representation, and that should be all across the board. One of the things I wanted was to make sure that people who want to own businesses can do that—those who are chefs, those who are business people. … We all know that the difference between some is just finances and having access to finances. And if we can figure that part out and work with someone and get people owning their own [businesses], creating their own spaces, then I think it creates a better ecosystem.”
Natalie Morales, Executive Pastry Chef, The Kitchen Restaurant Group
“If I could give 19-year-old me one piece of advice it would be: ‘Don’t wait for an opportunity to become a part of the conversation. Make those opportunities happen, speak up, and don’t be afraid to speak loudly.’ A cookie a day also helps, too.”
Kuniko Yogi, Executive Chef and Owner, Pikunico Japanese Fried Chicken
“To stay in the culinary industry as women, my biggest piece of advice is to stay on it, be persistent, and never stop. Those people make it whether you are a man or a woman. The continuous effort will take you wherever you want to go.”
Dilsa Lugo, Chef and Founder, Los Cilantros
“I have the opportunity right now to be in the [La Cocina] market where there are new businesses, so I try to help them—maybe when they need advice or when they need to just talk to people that have restaurants and we have the same issues. There are always women that want to grow as a person or as a business or just make their dreams real. But we need an opportunity, someone who believes in us.”
Hong Thaimee, Owner and Chef, Thaimee Love
“Keep on learning and be teachable. That way you can be the best cook/chef you can be. Get to know who you are and make sure that you know why you want to be in this industry. So when amazing days come, you can enjoy it to the max, and on the dark days, you can find the tune in your heart and find the strength and courage to keep on pursuing your dreams. It is not a sprint or a race. It is a journey.”
Nikki Guard, Partner and Beverage Director, TAG Restaurant Group
“To be honest, I actually really wanted to be a chef, but a couple of jobs in the wrong places convinced me that it wasn’t right. I love cooking but the culture was pretty harassing, and I unfortunately never had a chef man enough to change it. Sadly, I think that was just the way of it for many years and in some places probably still is.
“[Eventually] I wound up as the assistant general manager for TAG, my husband’s first restaurant. We have gone on to open a couple of handfuls of other restaurants together so far. I feel mostly fortunate to have found a career that I love that’s such a young age. Although there have been trying moments, I’ve had more good times than I could ever count.”
Rohini Dey, Founder, Vermillion and Let’s Talk Womxn
“My lens is a lot more about making sure that women, who are half our country, get half the due, whether it’s in financing or ownership. I believe it’s ownership that ultimately determines power.”
Ellen Yin, Owner, High Street Hospitality
“Something I’ve always felt is really important is to have women represented in management and in the kitchen. It’s something I take pride in and try to ensure that we do. Restaurants are facing unique challenges brought on by the last couple years—all the more reason to get better and more well-rounded.”