To know OpenTable Chief Executive Officer Christa Quarles is to know that she is all in with regard to everything she does — and that includes keeping the spotlight squarely on female empowerment in the restaurant industry. She is a staunch advocate for the 50/50 movement at OpenTable and beyond and working to have women represent 5o% of our workforce, particularly in tech jobs and C-suite positions. Quarles is also passionate about continuing to champion open conversations around the challenges women face in and around restaurant kitchens to foster change.
This week, she co-hosted Open Conversations NYC, another dinner in the series, with Kerry Diamond (Cherry Bombe), Clare Reichenbach (The James Beard Foundation), and restaurateur Vicki Freeman at her eatery Shuka in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. Over a family-style meal of meze, dips, grilled kebabs, and other delicious fare from chef Ayesha Nurdjaja, attendees were encouraged to “admire, inspire, and change.”
Leaders from all facets of the industry were represented, including Angie Mar (The Beatrice Inn), Beverly Kim (Parachute), Ashley Noor (LDV Hospitality), Elizabeth Faulkner (Iron Chef), Cyndra Rook (Riverpark), Georgette Farkas (Rotisserie Georgette), Dana Cowin (Speaking Broadly), Suzanne Cups (Untitled), Tami von Isakovics (Dinex), Michelle Weaver (Charleston Grill), Mimi Weissenborn (Vinateria), Amy Brandwein (Centrolina), food writer Priya Krishna, and Evyn Block (Evyn Block Communications).
Quarles set the tone for the evening of discovery with her opening remarks. “So much of this conversation from my point of view is, ultimately, yes, we want to have a catharsis, we want to have a conversation, we want to let it out, but as we move to a phase of activism, we have to ask how do we make more connections? How do we make sure women are getting funded, more press, more mentions, more notice, more awards? How do we make sure that starts happening? Because the minute women take an equal role at the top, all of it will change. I’m certain of it,” she said.
Freeman discussed how the #MeToo movement brought about real change in her own attitude toward harassment in the workplace. Fortunate to have been raised by parents that empowered her by focusing on her passions and the pursuit of professional success rather than her gender, she has never personally dealt with harassment or feeling less than her male counterparts. “I didn’t know there was anything to overcome [by being a woman],” she admitted. As the issue has crept out of the shadows, she noted, “I started to think about what I can do — ‘How can I be part of change? What part can I play?'” It is worth noting that her restaurant group has great parity among the sexes, with men and women in leadership roles on the team. “I think really what I can do is try to set an example every day. I think it is hiring and promoting whoever is the right person for the job. I have no preference for women, no preference for men.” But she added,”I hire who is best for the job and think because of that we have a pretty even distribution [of men and women] in the company.”
As she took to the microphone, Reichenbach stated, “I’m a single mother of a young daughter so this stuff matters to me professionally and personally.” Her work at The James Beard Foundation includes setting up a greater number of programs to promote entrepreneurship and leadership among women in the industry. And a large part of that is equipping a greater number of women with the tools they need to succeed — and that means access to investments and capital. “We need a systemic shift. We need to jolt the system.”
As the evening drew to a close, Diamond unveiled a sexual harassment PSA poster ideated by Karen Leibowitz of The Perennial for use in restaurants and kitchens. As guests departed with the poster and an even broader network of women to support their collective efforts to #86This, they were also armed with new ideas around how to continue to build momentum around the movement. Diamond said, “All these stories and life have been unfolding in such a weird way ever since. Klancy Miller put it perfectly, ‘It’s not like we get to read about it in a textbook. We have to learn about it in real time.'” It’s fair to say that it’s all the participants’ hope that, rather than in real time, the future female culinary leaders will be able to go the textbook route and harassment in the industry will be a page from history.
Photo credits: Toni-Ann Langella.