In this #TimesUp moment, it seems shocking that only 21% of head chef roles and 33% of restaurant businesses are majority-owned by women across the country. In honor of International Women’s Day 2018, let’s take a moment to reflect not on what women and womyn have yet to achieve but on what the women and womyn among us have accomplished and how they got there. Women like Elizabeth Blau, Vicki Freeman, and Stacy Jed are at the avant-garde in this business, taking their cues from pioneers Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, Nancy Oakes, and other luminaries. And with women currently representing half of all culinary school graduates, the industry is ready for an even greater revolution.[i] I spoke with accomplished restaurateurs, chefs, and business owners about what it takes to find success in a business that is known for its challenging workplace conditions and grueling hours. Here are a few lessons gleaned from their hard-earned success.
Find a mentor.
For Vicki Freeman, proprietor-owner of The Bowery Group in New York, figuring out what it took to manage both the creative and the business sides of owning and running restaurants took time and support from two different mentors. “Michael Weinstein of ARK Restaurants was a huge mentor for me. I [previously] had such a romantic image of restaurants. He taught me it’s a business or it won’t stay open,” Freeman said. Chef Jonathan Waxman, who Freeman met when Waxman was the executive chef of ARK Restaurants, helped Freeman with the creative side of the business. But it was Ralph Lauren who gave Freeman her big break. At 19, Freeman was tasked with ordering in lunches for a group of dress and suit buyers from major retailers. “I remember thinking, ‘This food is bad.’ I went to Ralph and said, ‘I can do this better.’” I had never cooked but knew I could do it. I worked for them for 10 years.”
Try, then try again.
Finding the right work environment is not always easy and it can take several experiences to land in a role that is a good fit. Chef Angie Mar of The Beatrice Inn in New York struggled in the early years of her career to find the right restaurant and the right mentors. “Many of the chefs I wanted to work with were never really around. It was a huge learning experience for me,” Mar said. Then Mar met Pat LaFrieda of LaFrieda Meats. “He encouraged me to buy a business and helped me find the best way to run it,” she said. After experiencing the power of LaFrieda’s mentorship, Mar ultimately made the conscious decision to be present in her kitchen. “I could really mentor the young cooks that I work with,” she said.
Know when food is your calling.
Despite growing up in a family of restauranteurs, restaurateur Stacy Jed of Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco had no idea that the restaurant business was her calling. “My mom’s side owned and operated restaurants for 45 years in San Francisco,” said Jed They sold chickens to restaurants and hotels and then opened a restaurant. They didn’t want me to go into this business. So I went into tech.” That changed about 10 years ago when she met her husband, Adam, and they started a consulting business together and realized that not only were her skills transferable, but she had found her true home. “This business can be so grinding,” Jed said, “but if you love it, it is so fulfilling.” And if food is not your calling? That is ok, too. “Maybe it’s is a bridge to something else.” [Read more…]