Hot Topics: Female Chefs Weigh In: Empowering Women in The Restaurant Industry

Eater Staff
August 22, 2014
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The second annual Eat.Drink.Empower benefit dinner at Max's Wine Dive takes place this Thursday, where Austin's female chefs and bartenders will serve a twelve-course benefit dinner to benefit Safe Space. Organized by Max's executive chef Erica Beneke, the dinner aims to highlight the talents of women in the restaurant industry.

Eater spoke to the chefs featured in the event about how they found their way into restaurant kitchens, and how the industry can support more women who want to follow in their footsteps. Read on for the insights and stories of the chefs at The Bonneville, Epicerie, Uchiko, and Trace.

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[Photo: Spencer Selvidge/EATX]

Jennifer Costello, owner/chef at The Bonneville
How did you get started?
I loved to cook, but didn't know the first thing about turning that love into a viable career. My sister is persistent and kept nudging and prodding by sending me pamphlets about culinary schools and suggesting I look into it every time we spoke. Eventually, the seed took root and I started to explore culinary schools. I could finally see a path and took the first steps.

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Do you have any mentors? How did those relationships start and how do they help?
I was an intern looking for a job and [Chef David Fritchey from Boston's Algonquin Club] took a chance on me. As long as I was focused and interested in learning, he would teach. He was also the first to tell me I had talent, that not only could I do this, but I could really go far. Second would have been Chef Laura Brennan. It was so exhausting but I loved it. I developed a new understanding for my limits–they were much higher than I had thought.

How can women encourage other women to get involved in the culinary world?
You have to love making people happy. Ultimately that's what we do: create food that elicits an emotional response from someone you've no other connection to. But the industry can be grueling, and yet so very satisfying. If we are strong and present role models, we will make the industry more accessible across the board. I don't see it as a female-specific issue, however. If you see genuine interest, it can be cultivated and honed. Talent can come from anywhere, and doesn't need to come out of the formal school system.

What can the food industry do about that?
Predominantly by making ourselves present, available, and accessible. Events like this one showcase the talents of women who have worked extremely hard to find their place. For some like myself, it was a conversation about possibilities, but more than anything, exposure to the reality of the industry would be more helpful, giving women a chance to see what it's truly like and understand not only the conventional possibilities, but also the alternative options.

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[Photo: Raymond Thompson/EATX]

Sarah McIntosh, owner of Epicerie
Do you have any mentors? How did those relationships start and how do they help?
I definitely had a couple mentors that were definitely a huge part of why I am where I am today. I wouldn't be owning my own restaurant if somebody didn't instill that work ethic and confidence and ability in me.

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How can women encourage other women to get involved in the culinary world?
I don't know, I think it's for a specific group of women. I don't know if necessarily it will ever be a woman-dominated industry by any means. I wouldn't say that bothers me much. I don't mind working with men, but the dynamic is just...it's a tough industry. You have to have a thick skin and you have to just keep on moving when it's hard. I don't know that, by nature, a lot of women would be attracted to that. I grew up one of five so I was always fighting for everything. It's just by nature for me to forge my own path and just do my own thing and I don't know if that's a natural instinct for women.

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[Photo: Uchiko/Facebook]

Kerstin Bellah, pastry chef at Uchiko
Do you have any mentors? How did those relationships start and how do they help?
My very first chef was a very loud, very traditional Swedish pastry chef named Claes Passmark. He is the chef who knew what I was capable of before I did. He was always pushing me to be better, faster, and cleaner everyday. From him, I learned the importance of doing things by hand. He also knew how hard I was on myself and was always there to encourage me. Another mentor I've had is Andrew Lewis, the pastry chef at Uchiko. Not only have I learned an unfathomable amount of techniques and flavor combinations from Andy, but also professionalism. Respecting yourself, your fellow cooks, your kitchen, our craft, and the product we are fortunate enough to work with.

How can women encourage other women to get involved in the culinary world?
The best way to get more women involved in culinary arts is to just be good role models–to be strong and confident in our career. Being a woman in the kitchen isn't always easy, but if we can show younger generations how to be strong leaders, to be passionate about something, and teach them that being a women, even in a male-dominated field, doesn't make you any less capable than your counterparts, they would be less apprehensive.

What can the food industry do about this?
The food industry could do more to promote women chefs. There are more than a handful of very talented women chefs that run some of the best restaurants in the world, why don't we hear about them?

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[Photo: Trace/Facebook]

Angel Begaye, executive pastry chef at Trace
How did you get started?
Most [family] gatherings were at my grandparent's house on the Navajo reservation, no running water or electricity, with cattle, sheep and horses. This is where I learned to work with what I have and to bring everything I needed to prepare my dishes, since there were no grocery stores nearby.

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Do you have any mentors? How did those relationships start and how do they help?
I worked with Executive Pastry Chef Roy Pell, while at The Phoenician. I would finish my prep as fast as I could just so I could watch and learn from him. I believe that this is a great way to learn, pay attention to your surroundings.

How can women encourage other women to get involved in the culinary world?
To work in this industry, you have to love it and it needs to be what you want to do. It's long hours, working weekends and holidays, time away from family and friends. It's tough but if you love it, all that doesn't matter. Females who are interested in this field are always up against competition, just hold your own, be true to yourself and work hard.
— Nadia Chaudhury
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