I recently attended a Women in Culinary Leadership dinner presented by The James Beard Foundation and Vermilion Restaurant in New York City on June 25th. The panel included Susan Ungaro, president of The James Beard Foundation (JBF), Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion; Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine; Gail Simmons, Director of Special Projects for Food & Wine; Kristen Kish, a “Top Chef” winner and former chef de cuisine at Menton in Boston; and Michael White, executive chef and co-owner of Altamarea Restaurant Group.
Having attended other “women in restaurant” or “women in food” panels, I did not expect much to come out of this one other than more of the usual issues being raised and discussed. I have felt many of these sessions sadly turn into bitch sessions about how the media unfairly puts male chefs on a pedestal (Time magazine, “The Gods of Food”), how the kitchen is a hard-to-crack fraternity (aka “brass wall”) and how juggling work-family-personal health is a continued challenge (frankly, this is an issue for anyone owning and running a business not just women chefs and restaurateurs). Sometimes it feels like a mise en place of commiseration. All the ingredients are laid out on the table, but no recipes for change are executed.
JBF’s Susan Ungaro pointed out that “over 50 percent of culinary students are women and yet less than 7 percent of restaurants in the U.S. are owned by women.” She also noted that, for the first time, two of the top honors at this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards went to women: Barbara Lynch for Outstanding Restaurateur, and April Bloomfield for Outstanding Chef. Perhaps the tables are finally turning for women in the industry.
But, there is more to be done through education, mentoring and business training.
Ms. Dey, a Ph.D and former executive at McKinsey & Co., got down to what I feel is the heart of the matter: Women have all the talent and passion for working in a kitchen but may lack the training to run a business and negotiate financing. As a business woman myself, I know it takes more than great ideas, salesmanship and management skills to success in business. It takes confidence and cojones along with practical knowledge about finance. Culinary schools may need to sharpen their business training curricula to match up to teaching knife skills.
Yet, everywhere I look in the food, beverage and hospitality, I see more women making significant strides. I think there are more opportunities than ever for women if you look beyond the kitchen.
On July 10th Les Dames d’Escoffier New York, a not-for-profit organization of leading women in food, fine beverage and hospitality, awarded $92,000 in scholarships to 26 women pursuing careers in the culinary field. What struck me was the range of careers these women were pursuing and most with the goal of owning and running their own businesses.
Nutrition and public health, wine and spirits, farming, food science, food and beverage marketing, specialty foods, and culinary education are just some of the areas where women are running successful enterprises and thriving.
Nearly 50 percent of the winners at this year’s Specialty Food Association sofi™ Awards were specialty food companies owned by women. Walking this giant food show at Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan I couldn’t help but notice the significant number of women owned specialty food brands.
Many of my colleagues own spirits brands, run beverage programs for major hotels and restaurants, own their own bars, specialty food businesses, catering companies and marketing consultancies, produce artisan chocolates and other food products and services. Some of the most respected names in nutrition and food policy are women. Maybe we just need to stick our heads out of the kitchen and look around and other opportunities to make money and make a difference in the lives of others as well as our own.
I think organizations such as The James Beard Foundation, Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and Les Dames d’Escoffier are helping to raise awareness of the issues. They also offer scholarships to help further careers in the industry through education. I’d like to see more done to help raise awareness of all the business options for women in other areas of the industry. We have more to offer and there are more opportunities out there.
The James Beard Foundation www.jamesbeard.org
Les Dames d’Escoffier International www.ldei.org
Les Dames d’Escoffier NY www.ldny.org
Specialty Food Association www.specialtyfood.com
Women Chefs & Restaurateurs www.womenchefs.org