Update: The deadline to apply for the Women in Culinary Leadership Grant has been extended to Monday, February 8. Learn more and apply here.
In December, the James Beard Foundation opened up applications for its 2016 Women in Culinary Leadership Grant, a mentoring program that aims to help women build leadership skills in the kitchen and in restaurant management and entrepreneurship. Now in its third year, the program has signed on 19 industry-leading restaurateurs to mentor the grantees, including April Bloomfield, John Besh, Kim Bartmann, Tom Douglas, Cindy Pawlycn, and many more.
The Women in Culinary Leadership program was founded by Rohini Dey, founder and owner of the Indian-Latin Vermilion Restaurants in New York and Chicago; and Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. Seeing that women make up less than 7% of the head chef positions in the industry, they wanted to take a step toward reversing that statistic.
We spoke to Rohini Dey (who’s also one of the 2016 mentors) about the inspiration behind the program and what chefs and restaurateurs can do to set women up for success. Read on, and click here to learn more and apply.
You made the shift from academics and finance into the restaurant industry — tell me more about your background.
I grew up in India and came to the U.S. when I finished my Masters in Economics. I had no intent of entering this industry at all. (In fact, growing up in India there was a bad rap on this industry — 20 years ago it wasn’t considered elite to be a restaurateur.) I worked at the World Bank in Washington D.C., which is international finance, then worked with McKinsey and Company, where I learned a lot about working across new industries. That gave me the confidence to go entrepreneurial.
How did Vermilion come about?
Fourteen years back, I felt Indian food in the U.S. was doing itself a disservice: cheap, easy, unauthentic, and limited in its repertoire. Food was booming — at that point Nobu had just exploded onto the scene and changed the face of Japanese cuisine in the U.S. I decided to put my money where my mouth was and go entrepreneurial.
I also wanted to create something new, which is the Indian and Latin fusion at Vermilion. I’ve traveled extensively across Latin America and felt that there’s a tremendous affinity between the two regions and cuisines. That’s what inspired me to actually get into the industry — creating something new and provocative. Think of a Brazilian seafood stew but add a little coconut milk or garam masala or fenugreek to it. It makes it fun. I think American consumers have rapidly changed their palates; they are so much more globally adventurous.
What inspired you to found the Women in Culinary Leadership program?
I’d worked in corporate America and with the World Bank for well over a decade, and I wasn’t any stranger to the fact that there aren’t very many women in senior roles. But when I entered the restaurant industry, I noticed there are very few standalone women restaurateurs. I’m not a family-owned, or husband-wife team.
Even in the kitchens women tend to dominate in the softer side, which is pastry or the cold station. This is despite the fact that close to 50% of enrollment in culinary schools tends to be women — the CIA and leading schools. From then on, women are dropping out like flies.
Four years ago I teamed up with Susan Ungaro of the James Beard Foundation and funded the first scholarship. We had this vision in mind that we wanted to test. The first intern was with us for a year; she had been working in catering, doing two or three part-time jobs in New York for several years, and had a culinary background, but hadn’t moved very much in her years of work experience.
In one year, we gave her such an expedited training program that she walked out completely able to lead a kitchen. She learned every station in our kitchen, she contributed to innovation, she was managing food cost, hiring, labor cost, inventory, ordering, purchasing. The goal of this is not purely to accelerate your culinary skills, it is to fully round out your management skills.
How does the program prepare women to take on leadership or entrepreneurial roles?
Not every grantee who signs up may be interested in being a restaurateur. But we strongly, fundamentally believe that exposure to different areas, and also helping your financial literacy, is very important. We’ve partnered with women’s business centers, which do these programs on how to do a business plan, how to read financials, the legalities of starting your own business. Our grantees have been supplementing with programs there to give them a whole leadership platform.
The intent is to give women that accelerated boost to incent them to stay in this career, and to push much harder to get leadership positions and build that confidence. It’s been very gratifying. The first year we had one grantee who was our guinea pig — she went off to lead her own kitchen. The second year we had seven grantees, and now we’ve expanded to 22.
Tell me about the mentors who have signed onto the program. What are their responsibilities?
All the mentors who are backing this program are undertaking a significant commitment. They’re not only taking this woman into their kitchen or front of house for six months to one year, they’re committing to doing her training with their own management leading it.
We do monthly calls with all of the grantees and have them send in written reports. We assess where they are to make sure that they’re leveraging their skill set. It reflects poorly on a mentor if they’re slacking off in any way. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward.
The mentors are committed to a huge training, and they are also financing them. If it’s a six-month program the mentors are contributing $15,000, and if it’s a one-year program the mentors are contributing $30,000. The women get a $500 stipend for every week out.
Out of these 22 I personally reached out to well over 200 mentors, and we were very selective in who we approached. Susan and I and the James Beard Foundation culled the list and tried to make sure that we approached the right set of people, and then I spoke to well over 25 mentors one-on-one to explain the program and to sell them on it. The mentors get a lot out of it, too. They have the chance of retaining terrific talent within their organization — these are qualified and very driven women. It’s a win-win.
What can mentors do to help women in the industry, whether part of the program or not? How do we make sure people don’t keep dropping out?
This is the quintessential, million-dollar question. If we could crack this, there wouldn’t be the need for programs like WICL, and that would be the ultimate definition of success.
It’s your environment in the kitchen, making sure that everybody’s comfortable. Making sure it’s an equal opportunity environment: equal pay, equal chance to progress, to develop. Perhaps stepping in just a bit extra with the women to make sure their development plan is crystal clear. Not to lower the standards in any way — I strongly believe in a meritocracy. I just think women need that little extra, given that this industry has some intrinsic barriers. It is a very male-dominated environment; it’s a grueling industry; there is no glamour, what you see on TV. It’s grunt work, it’s competitive, it’s hot, it’s grimy. Outside on the floor, too, it’s working in a battlefield.
It’s tough, especially when women get to the critical juncture of family and requesting flex time, and that’s an inflection point where restaurateurs or mentors can be extremely helpful. This is an industry that lends itself to that. It’s not a nine-to-five job; you could come for a morning shift or afternoon shift for a couple of years. You can do so much to retain talent.
Did you have any early mentors when you were starting out in the industry that helped you along?
I’ve had them all my life, men and women, and I strongly believe in it. I forced myself to get out there. Just when I was entering the industry I spoke to over 40 different managers and owners to learn the business outside in, before I jumped into it.
Since then I’ve stayed in touch with many. Kevin Brown, who’s the CEO of Lettuce Entertain You — I meet up with him twice a year over a drink and he gives me some counsel. Susan Ungaro of the James Beard Foundation — I think the world of her. Had it not been for the James Beard Foundation back at the origin of this program, we couldn’t have brought it this far.
Is there anything that you did in your career as a restaurateur that helped you succeed and stick with it?
I had some advantages coming in. I knew not the business model of restaurants, but I was comfortable with the financials and business. That helped me negotiate a lease for my space and talk knowledgeably to my lessor, go talk to banks for debt. All of the 40 different contracts it takes to get a restaurant going, whether it’s utilities or insurance or linens.
I wasn’t shy about negotiating for myself. I was willing to put myself out there and not willing to take no for an answer. Seeking help when I needed it.
It was a terrifying roller coaster, entering this industry. This is one of the toughest industries; the failure rate is humongous. I think by investing in myself before jumping in, I found it easier to stick it out. The other thing that helped me and Vermilion was distinguishing ourselves with the Indian-Latin. I think to have that uniqueness in your concept is really vital; you can’t be another farm-to-table, seasonal, organic — it’s been done.
Tell me about your experiences mentoring other chefs.
My mentorship for women and other chefs began well before this program. When I opened Vermilion I took a raw graduate from the CIA. I developed an Indian-Latin menu with another chef, but I trained her on that and gave her the reins of the restaurant at the outset. She was with us for eight years. She was the Executive Chef; I promoted her so she was on Iron Chef, Next Iron Chef, Chopped, and she’s now a judge on Chopped.
Similarly, other chefs from my kitchen have gone on to compete on Top Chef and Iron Chef and to run their own kitchens. My current grantee in the program is an Indonesian lady; she’s in her early 40s, and what blows me away about her is that she’s a single mom. She has a daughter who’s 12 or 13, and she was working in L.A. as a pastry chef. She’s passionate about bringing the gospel of Indonesian cuisine to the U.S., and she wants to do for her cuisine what I’m doing for mine — with some playfulness and fusion.
It’s been eight months now, and she’s leading our kitchen. She backs up our chef completely on days that he’s not here. That kind of leap in skill set is tremendously gratifying. I know she’ll go on to do other things, and I hope to play a part in her life and help her do it.
How have you seen the role of women in the industry evolve over recent years? What do you see for the future?
I’m familiar with a lot of the organizations that back women in some way or another, and most of them tend to be associations with memberships. I’ve seen it come to the fore quite a bit lately, with the mushrooming of more organizations.
But I would love to see more on-the-ground training to get women to where they need to be. I think the bias is towards culinary scholarships at this juncture, and my read on the situation is that that’s not where the bottleneck is. There are enough women getting a culinary education; the bottleneck is in the field.
I’d love to see more restaurateurs stepping to own the issue, because that’s when actual change will happen.
What tips do you have for people starting out today — men, women, or anyone who wants to ensure their success?
The same things that helped me succeed: Get to learn the industry inside out. If you own a section of the kitchen or love to cook, that doesn’t mean you know what restaurants are. You’ve got to wear the owner’s hat, chef’s hat, manager’s hat, and then dive in.
Invest in yourself, especially financial literacy. Don’t be shy; go seek mentors across the breadth of the spectrum. Then test it. I may have this vision for whatever, Indian-Latin, and I may think it’s delicious, but it’s not a marketable one. Test it with your potential investors and potential clientele, early media if you can, and then invest early in awareness, either through social media or PR.