Monday, February 8, is the deadline to apply for the James Beard Foundation’s Women in Culinary Leadership grant, awarded to women who are aspiring to careers in the culinary industry. Learn more and apply here.
The James Beard Foundation’s Women in Culinary Leadership program provides aspiring female chefs and restaurateurs the chance to work with some of the industry’s most influential leaders, building in-depth skills in the front and back of house. Now in its third year, the program aims to break through the glass ceiling of the culinary world.
“There’s not that many women who stick with this business,” says Cindy Pawlcyn, chef and owner of Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, and Cindy’s Waterfront in California. “The more mentoring they can get, the more helpful it will be for them to be successful and stay with it long-term.”
Cindy is one of the established restaurateurs providing mentorship and leadership training to grantees through the 2016 program. We talked to her, along with Minneapolis restaurateur Kim Bartmann — of Barbette, The Third Bird, Pat’s Tap, and many more concepts — all about their success and how they see the role of women evolving in this industry. Here are five ways mentorship can help.
Create a nurturing, supportive kitchen culture.
Kim started her career as a line cook in restaurants in Minneapolis. “I had a couple of bad experiences, especially being a woman in the kitchen in the ’80s,” she says. “I quit and vowed I would never work in a restaurant again.”
Eventually Kim found her way back to the industry when she opened a coffee shop with a friend, and now she has eight restaurants. But early on she struggled to be taken seriously by some of her male colleagues, especially when she became an expeditor and had to tell everyone else what to do. She points to “the usual butt pinching” and the fact that at that time, there were almost no women in the kitchen at all.
Cindy knew she wanted to be a chef when she was as young as 13. She took cooking classes, catered, attended trade school at night throughout high school, and eventually graduated college with a hotel and restaurant management degree. When she was 28 she opened her own restaurant, Mustards, in Napa.
“Everybody told me I couldn’t do it because I was a woman,” she says.”Some wouldn’t believe it now, what happened in those days.”
She endured name calling and other discriminatory behavior but remained determined to succeed. When she applied to the Culinary Institute of America, she was told they had filled their quota of women for the next three years and advised to reapply then. Now, Cindy says, the door is more open for women, but she’s still eager to see more women finding success in this business — and that’s where mentorship can help affect change.
“I think it’s good for our restaurant community if everybody could have someone that they’re bringing up. When you start being more in a teaching and nurturing and developing mindset to this one person, it spreads to all the rest of them. It’s a good culture.”
Reward people who work hard and want to learn.
When we asked Kim and Cindy how they managed to achieve success in the environment of those early days, they gave similar answers: they put their heads down, worked hard, and learned as much as they possibly could.
For Kim, that meant becoming familiar with new ingredients and learning to execute the same dishes and techniques perfectly every time. She is reluctant to hire culinary school graduates because they have never worked in a kitchen and don’t know how to operate in that environment.
“The only way you can get that skill set in a kitchen is by having a mentor, a chef, or a teacher teach you how to do it – on-the-job training,” she says. “And to be able to utilize a mentor, you have to be willing to accept the help and learn from other people’s mistakes and successes. Those are rare people in the world.”
Cindy advises not to leave a job before you’ve learned everything you can get out of that place. “People come in with a pre-determined, ‘I’m going to work here six months or a year and a half,’ but it doesn’t really matter how long it is. It matters how much you get out of that experience. They’ll be more successful in the long run.”
Offer real-life training for a broad range of skills.
Grantees under Kim will have a program tailored to their goals, but she hopes to mentor someone who wants to learn about multi-unit management, her area of expertise. She manages eight sets of chefs and front-of-house managers, which offers a unique perspective into the business and operations of a group.
Similarly, Cindy looks forward to teaching someone how to grow food for a restaurant in Mustards’ garden. They will learn how to harvest and order and plan ahead; work all stations in the front and back of house; work with all of the managers; and build their wine experience by working with local wineries.
“I think you have to take the time out of your day to put somebody under your wing, versus just having them work a station,” says Cindy. “You have to teach them how your mind thinks and how you make a decision. You have to say how you’re going to do this and why you’re going to do it that way.”
She sees younger team members who come on board and don’t understand what the restaurant business really is — they just want to be a TV chef. They don’t have management skills or know how to make the business profitable or cost recipes. “You don’t learn that in school, you learn that on the job and facing real day-to-day experiences.”
Make yourself a better, stronger leader.
Young chefs aren’t the only ones who benefit from a mentoring relationship – there are massive rewards for the mentors, too. Once you’re explaining your thought processes and nurturing your team, you begin to question yourself again, which is always healthy for the team and the business.
“When they come in and go, why do we do it this way? You’ve got to figure out why we do it this way,” says Cindy. “Maybe there is a better way.”
Give people the knowledge and confidence to achieve their dreams.
Kim and Cindy both have benefitted from the support of mentors throughout their careers. Kim opened her coffee shop by maxing out her single mother’s credit card, and there was no way she was going to make a late payment. She participated in a benefit dinner and was introduced to four female leaders on the Minneapolis food and wine scene: Brenda Langton, Lynne Alpert, Pam Sherman, and Nan Bailey.
“All of the sudden I had somebody to call when I had a really difficult question or a problem that I couldn’t figure out. I had this incredible wealth of knowledge and resource and people who were willing to tell me what to do. That can be a really powerful thing, to have that assistance.”
Working with mentors like Rich Melman and Julia Child, Cindy built the skill set and confidence she needed to succeed. Julia taught her to stand her ground, to cook good food, and to use good ingredients. Rich advised her every time she opened a restaurant; she would call him with questions or challenges (and still does). “That’s a true mentor,” she says. “You can say, ‘What do I do? What do you think?'”
She learned to trust herself, even when others assured her she wouldn’t succeed. “That’s important, to be able to have confidence in yourself and go out on your own,” she says, remembering making the decision to walk away from her business partnership of 22 years. “They would mess with me and say, ‘On your own you’re not going to be very good because you don’t know how to do this and that.’ In the end I knew how to do all that stuff.”
Photos courtesy of the James Beard Foundation.