6 takeaways from the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Conference

Award-winning chef Elizabeth Falkner was among the group of talented women chefs who came to town last weekend.

Award-winning chef Elizabeth Falkner was among the group of talented women chefs who came to town last weekend. Women Chefs and Restaurateurs

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you picture a chef?

...Is it a man?

Women are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions in the restaurant industry. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 22 percent of chefs and head cooks are women, although women make up over 55 percent of the workforce in food preparation and serving-related occupations.

Women Chefs & Restaurateurs (WCR) is a national organization that wants to change that status quo by advancing women across the culinary industry with opportunities for education, community, and inspiration. Their 2019 annual conference came to the Twin Cities last weekend and included three days of workshops, sessions, receptions, and tours, many of which highlighted the local food scene and featured local chefs.

There was plenty to chew on, both for industry professionals and casual observers. We sat in on Sunday’s general sessions—here are our top takeaways.

1. Addressing bias is an ongoing process.

The day started with a presentation by Elle Simone Scott, the first African-American woman to appear on America’s Test Kitchen and an advocate for equality and diversity in the culinary industry. Scott underscored the need to identify and address biases on a daily basis, ranging from racial stereotypes to a reluctance to hire people without formal culinary training. Suggestions included slowing down your thinking process and reconsidering your reasons for decisions.

2. There are many approaches to changing male-centric restaurant culture.

In a series of interviews on “Changing the Bro Culture One Chick at a Time,” several chefs and restaurant owners spoke about their efforts to create a more supportive and respectful culture.

Chef Kelly Fields, owner of New Orleans restaurant Willa Jean, emphasized the importance of mentorship and viewing mistakes as a learning opportunity. Martha Hoover, founder and CEO of Indianapolis restaurant group Patachou, Inc., created a down-to-earth handbook to establish a company culture of respect. Acclaimed chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy talked about the importance of relating to staff on a personal level so they feel comfortable raising concerns.

3. Impacting the food system requires creativity and strength in numbers.

Not all of the sessions related to gender-specific issues—for example, a panel discussion explored the role chefs and restaurateurs can play in promoting responsibly-sourced meat.

At Phoenix’s Breadfruit, chef Danielle Leoni works backwards by asking local, sustainable ranchers which cuts of meat they have difficulty selling and planning her menu accordingly. This obviously helps producers, but it also helps keep menu prices down—those hard-to-sell cuts often come with a price break. Leoni also scales back the role of meat in her dishes to help mitigate the higher price point that comes with sustainable sourcing.

When it comes to working with distributors like Sysco and U.S. Foods, Katherine Miller, Vice President of Impact for the James Beard Foundation, recommends that chefs in a given city band together to request local, sustainable ingredients.

“If many chefs are asking, it becomes as powerful as an institutional buyer,” she said. “You’re part of a trillion dollar industry—when restaurants get together it means something. You’re sitting at the nexus of the system, and you can move the system if you move together.”

4. “Chef” can be a pretty powerful word.

The most emotionally-charged portion of the day was an open mic style-session where panelists and audience members spoke about the meaning of the title “chef.” Business owners pondered whether or not they could still claim the term after transitioning to a managerial role. Some saw the title as a hard-won badge of respect in the face of misogyny. One attendee likened becoming a chef to “like falling in love—you just know, you feel it in your heart, and no one can take it away from you.”

“The term gets shrouded in badass-ness, which is ruining it,” said Jamie Malone, chef and owner of Grand Cafe and Eastside. “It’s about caring for the people around you and leading a team.”

5. Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry has an outsized impact.

In a session called “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” Caitlin Corcoran, owner and general manager of Kansas City champagne bar Ça Va, outlined the steps she’s taken to make her business a safe space for everyone: Implicit bias training, the use of non binary language, and sexual assault intervention training.

Corcoran noted that the hospitality industry serves as a first work experience for many women. When restaurants and bars tolerate sexual harassment of their employees—by customers or fellow staffers—they set women up for a lifetime of normalizing workplace harassment. By addressing sexual harassment in the hospitality industry, Corcoran hopes to spark a greater change in social norms.

6. There are a lot of things to be hopeful about.

The conference’s keynote address was delivered by Laurie Woolever, a writer and editor who served as Anthony Bourdain’s assistant for nearly a decade. After discussing her struggle with alcoholism and experiences with a male-dominated food industry “culture of excess,” Woolever spent the rest of her speech highlighting the initiatives and trends that give her hope.

Panelist Amanda Cohen got a shout out for moving to no-tip model to improve the wages of her back-of-house employees, as did Kelly Fields for providing an Employee Assistance Program that offers free counseling sessions to struggling staff members. Food & Wine editor Kat Kinsman earned a mention for her Chefs With Issues project and Communal Table podcast, both of which address mental illness in the food community.

Noting the role that AA has played in her recovery, Woolever closed with the Serenity Prayer and explained that AA meetings often end with an invitation to come back next time.

“I can’t bring Tony Bourdain back, and I can’t change the industry,” she continued. “But I hope we all keep coming back, and doing the good work we’ve talked about today.”